Downtown Houston contains the headquarters of many prominent companies. There is an extensive network of pedestrian tunnels and skywalks connecting the buildings of the district. The tunnel system is home to many fast food restaurants, shops and services.
Most of the residential units in downtown are conversions of older buildings into modern loft spaces. The lofts are located around the performance halls of the theatre district and near Main Street in the Historic District. Downtown will be adding another 346 apartment units in the 2000s and 2010s with the development of Marvey Finger's One Park Place.
Developers have invested more than 4 billion USD in the last decade to transform downtown into an active city center with residential housing, a nightlife scene and new transportation. The Cotswold Project, a $62 million project started in 1998, has helped to rebuild the streets and transform 90 downtown blocks into a pedestrian-friendly environment by adding greenery, trees and public art. The resurgence of downtown is the result of careful urban planning and local foresight. The baseball, basketball, and hockey teams have moved into downtown facilities. January 1, 2004 marked the opening of the "new" Main Street, a plaza with many eateries, bars and nightclubs, which brings many visitors to a newly renovated locale.
Downtown Houston was the original founding point of the city of Houston. After the Texas Revolution, two New York real estate promoters, John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen purchased 6,642 acres (27 km²) of land T. F. L. Parrot (John Austin's widow) for $9,428. The Allen brothers first landed in the area where the White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou meet, a spot now known as Allen's Landing. Gail Borden, Jr., a city planner, laid out wide streets for the town — this prevented gridlock that plague many other urban downtown areas.
The city was granted incorporation by the state legislature on June 5, 1837. Houston was made as the temporary capital of Texas. In 1840, the town was divided into four wards, each with different functions in the community. The wards are no longer political divisions, but their names are still used to refer to certain areas. By 1906 what is now Downtown was divided among six wards.
Downtown's growth can be attributed to two major factors: The first arose after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, when investors began seeking a location close to the ports of Southwest Texas, but apparently free of the dangerous hurricanes that frequently struck Galveston and other port cities. Houston became a wise choice, as only the most powerful storms were able to reach the city. The second came a year later with the 1901 discovery of oil at spindletop, just south of Beaumont. Shipping and oil industries began flocking to east Texas, many settling in Houston. From that point forward the area grew substantially, as many skyscrapers were constructed, including the city's tallest buildings. In the 1980s, however, economic recession canceled some projects and caused others to be scaled back, such as the Bank of the Southwest Tower.
On April 5th 1986, the entire Downtown area was transformed as part of a concert by French musician Jean Michel Jarre. Called Rendez-Vous Houston, the open-air show used the skyscrapers as giant projection screens, and as lauchpads for fireworks. The show celebrated 25 years of NASA, 150 years of Texas, and was a tribute to the astronauts killed in the recent Challenger Disaster. The show attracted a then-record live audience of 1.3 million people.
Areas which are, as of 2009, considered to be a part of Downtown Houston were once considered to be within the Third Ward and the Fourth Ward communities; the construction of Interstate 45 in the 1950s separated the areas from their former communities and placed them in Downtown. Additional freeway construction in the 1960s and 1970s formed the current boundaries of Downtown. Originally, Downtown was the most important retail area of Houston. Suburban retail construction in the 1970s and 1980s reduced Downtown's importance in terms of retail activity. By 1987 many of the office buildings in Downtown Houston were owned by non-U.S. real estate figures. The Texas Legislature established the Downtown Houston Management District in 1995. In 1996 Peter S. Carlsen and Dale E. Smith of the Houston Business Journal said that "the obvious and emerging trend of 1996 was the resurgence" of Downtown, citing several developments that contributed to the revitalization of the central business district.
The arrival of major industry also saw the advent of skyscrapers in Houston. The building boom of the 1970s and 1980s saw the erection of major buildings, many of them ranking as the tallest in the state and the nation.
In the 1960s, downtown comprised a modest collection of mid-rise office structures, but has since grown into one of the largest skylines in the United States. In 1960, the central business district had 10 million square feet (930,000 m²) of office space, increasing to about 16 million square feet (1,500,000 m²) in 1970. Downtown Houston was on the threshold of a boom in 1970 with 8.7 million square feet (800,000 m²) of office space planned or under construction and huge projects being launched by real estate developers. The largest proposed development was the 32-block Houston Center. Only a small part of the original proposal was ultimately constructed, however. Other large projects included the Cullen Center, Allen Center, and towers for Shell Oil Company. The surge of skyscrapers mirrored the skyscraper booms in other cities, such as Los Angeles and Dallas. Houston experienced another downtown construction spurt in the 1970s with the energy industry boom.
The first major skyscraper to be constructed in Houston was the 50-floor, 218 m (714 ft) One Shell Plaza in 1971. A succession of skyscrapers were built throughout the 1970s, culminating with Houston's tallest skyscraper, the 75-floor, 305 m (1,002 ft) JPMorgan Chase Tower (formerly the Texas Commerce Tower), which was completed in 1982. In 2002, it was the tallest structure in Texas, ninth-tallest building in the United States, and the 23rd tallest skyscraper in the world. In 1983, the 71-floor, 296 m (970 ft) Wells Fargo Plaza was completed, which became the second-tallest building in Houston and Texas, and 11th-tallest in the country. Skyscraper construction in downtown Houston came to an end in the mid-1980s with the collapse of Houston's energy industry and the resulting economic recession. When the 53-floor, 232 m Texaco Heritage Plaza was completed in 1987, it appeared that no more skyscrapers would be constructed for a while.
Twelve years later, the Houston-based Enron Corporation began constructing a 40-floor skyscraper in 1999 (which was completed in 2002) with the company collapsing in one of the most dramatic corporate failures in the history of the United States only two years later. Chevron bought this building to set up a regional upstream energy headquarters, and in late 2006 announced further consolidation of employees downtown from satellite suburban buildings, and even California and Louisiana offices by leasing the original Enron building across the street. Both buildings are connected by a second-floor unique walk-across, air-conditioned circular skybridge with three points of connection to both office buildings and a large parking deck. Other smaller office structures were built in the 2000–2003 period. As of September 2007, downtown Houston had more than 40 million square feet (3,787,147 m²) of office space, including more than 29 million square feet (1,861,704 m²) of class A office space.
Notable buildings that form Houston's downtown skyline:
Downtown has more than 150,000 workers employed by 3,500 businesses. The Downtown District's fact sheet says that projections estimated that the employee population would grow by about 1.4% per year. Major employers include Chevron, Continental Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, and Shell Oil Company. Downtown Houston has between 35% and 40% of the Class A office locations of the business districts in Houston.
In 1986 the Downtown Houston occupancy rate of Class A office space was 81.4%. The Downtown Houston business occupancy rate of all office space increased from 75.8% at the end of 1987 to 75.8% at the end of 1988. In the early 1990s Downtown Houston still had more than 20% vacant office space. Preliminary data for the year 1996 stated that around a dozen companies relocated to Downtown during that year, bringing 2,800 jobs and filling 670,000 square feet of space.
By 2000, demand for Downtown office space increased, and construction of office buildings resumed. Debbie Wilson, an office broker for Crescent Real Estate Equities, said in 2001 that many energy trading firms have offices in Downtown Houston because Downtown has many backup sources of electrical power and telecommunications resources. Nancy Sarnoff of the Houston Business Journal said in 2001 that the decline of Enron was "shifting the direction of the downtown office market from one of the strongest in the country to an area of uncertainty." The cutbacks by firms such as Dynegy, in addition to the fall of Enron, caused the occupancy rate of Downtown Houston buildings to decrease to 84.1% in 2003 from 97.3% less than two years previously. In 2003, the types of firms with operations in Downtown Houston typically were accounting firms, energy firms, and law firms. Typically newer buildings had higher occupancy rates than older buildings. In 2004, the real estate firm Cresa Partners stated that the vacancy rate in Downtown Houston's Class A office space was almost 20%. In 2009, 10% of Downtown Houston's office space was vacant.
Continental Airlines is based in Continental Center I. At one point, ExpressJet Airlines had its headquarters in Continental's complex. In September 1997 Continental Airlines announced it would consolidate its Houston headquarters in the Continental Center complex; The airline scheduled to move its employees in stages beginning in July 1998 and ending in January 1999. Bob Lanier, Mayor of Houston, said that he was "tickled to death" by the airline's move to relocate to Downtown Houston. Hotel operators in Downtown reacted favorably, predicting that the move would cause an increase in occupancy rates in their hotels. In 2008 Continental renewed its lease in the building. Before the lease renewal, rumors spread stating that the airline would relocate its headquarters to office space outside of Downtown. Steven Biegel, the senior vice president of Studley Inc. and a representative of office building tenants, said that if Continental's space went vacant, the vacancy would not have had a significant impact in the Downtown Houston submarket as there is not an abundance of available space, and the empty property would be likely that another potential tenant would occupy it. Jennifer Dawson of the Houston Business Journal said that if Continental Airlines left Continental Center I, the development of Brookfield Properties's new office tower would have been delayed.
Calpine has its headquarters in the Calpine Center. Dynegy is headquartered in the Wells Fargo Plaza building. KBR's corporate headquarters are in the KBR Tower; the KBR Heritage Federal Credit Union is headquartered from this office. Shell Oil Company, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, is headquartered in One Shell Plaza. CenterPoint Energy is headquartered in the CenterPoint Energy Tower. Reliant Energy is headquartered at 1000 Main Street. Waste Management, Inc is headquartered in First City Tower. El Paso Corporation has headquarters in 1001 Louisiana Street. The Houston Chronicle is headquartered in Downtown. Plains All American Pipeline has its headquarters in Three Allen Center. Enterprise GP Holdings has its headquarters in the Enterprise Plaza. EOG Resources has its headquarters in Heritage Plaza.
JPMorgan Chase Bank has its Houston operations headquartered in the JPMorgan Chase Building (Gulf Building). LyondellBasell has its Houston offices in 1 Houston Center. When Lyondell was an independent company, its headquarters were in 1 Houston Center. Hess Corporation has exploration and production operations in One Allen Center., but will move its offices to the under construction Hess Tower (Named after the company itself) upon its completion.
Total S.A. has United States offices in the Total Plaza. ExxonMobil has Exploration and Producing Operations business headquarters at the ExxonMobil Building. Qatar Airways operates an office within Two Allen Center; it also has a storefront in the Houston Pavilions. Enbridge has its Houston office in the Enterprise Plaza. KPMG and Mayer Brown have their Houston offices in the Bank of America Center.
When Texas Commerce Bank existed, its headquarters were in what is now the JPMorgan Chase Building (Gulf Building). Prior to its collapse in 2001, Enron was headquartered in Downtown. In 2005 Federated Department Stores announced that it will close Foley's 1,200 employee headquarters in Downtown Houston.
Halliburton's corporate headquarters office was in 5 Houston Center. In 2001, Halliburton canceled a move to redevelop land in Westchase to house employees; real estate figures associated with Downtown Houston approved of the news. Nancy Sarnoff of the Houston Business Journal said it made more sense for the company to lease existing space instead of constructing new office space in times of economic downturns. By 2009 Halliburton closed its Downtown Office, move its headquarters to northern Houston, and consolidate operations at its northern Houston and Westchase facilities.
The Consulate-General of the United Kingdom is located in Wells Fargo Plaza, while the Consulate-General of Japan is located in Two Houston Center. The Consulate-General of Switzerland, which resided in Downtown Houston, closed in 2006.
Downtown Houston has two major league sports venues. Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field), which opened in 2000, is home to the MLB Astros and the Toyota Center home to the NBA Rockets, WNBA Comets (who have since moved to Reliant Arena in nearby Reliant Park), and AHL Aeros opened in 2003.
The Downtown Houston Theatre District is one of the largest in the country as measured by the number of theater seats. Houston is one of only five cities in the United States with permanent professional resident companies in all of the major performing art disciplines of opera, ballet, music, and theater. Venues in the theater district include the Wortham Center (opera and ballet), the Alley Theatre (theater), the Hobby Center (resident and traveling musical theater, concerts, events), the Verizon Wireless Theater (concerts and events) and Jones Hall (symphony).
The George R. Brown Convention Center, with its 1,200,000 square feet (111,000 m2) of flexible exhibit, meeting, and registration space and adjacent hotel, is frequently used for conventions, trade shows, and community meetings.
In comparison to other major cities, Houston has relatively few hotel rooms downtown, partly because downtown Houston is not a large leisure travel market. There are approximately 5,000 hotel rooms in downtown Houston. Major hotels in downtown Houston are:
The following are boutique hotels that are located mostly in the northeast section of downtown:
Downtown Houston is home to the flagship Macy's (former Foley's) Department Store (founded in 1900), which moved to its current location in 1947. It has 10 levels and it occupies an entire Houston square city block. In 2006 this store, along with all other Foley's stores, was renamed Macy's. This is the only freestanding middle-market department store in a central business district in the Southern United States.
The Houston Pavilions is a major project currently under construction Downtown. This project comes from the same developers of the Denver Pavilions in Denver; spanning three square blocks, however, Houston Pavilions is said to be larger.
The Houston Downtown Tunnel System is also home to many shops and restaurants.
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas (METRO) operates Houston's public transportation. Downtown Houston is served by five light rail stations on METRORail's Red Line: Downtown Transit Center, Bell, Main Street Square, Preston, and UH–Downtown. METRO operates several bus lines through Downtown.
Two city council districts, District H and District I, cover portions of Downtown. As of 2008 Mayor Pro-Tem Adrian Garcia and James G. Rodriguez, respectively, represent the two districts.
Houston Fire Department Station 8 Downtown at 1919 Louisiana Street serves the central business district. The station is in Fire District 8. Fire Station 1, which was located at 410 Bagby Street, closed in 2001. The community is within the Houston Police Department's Central Patrol Division, headquartered at 61 Riesner.
Downtown is divided between Harris County Precinct 1 and Harris County Precinct 2. As of 2008 Jerry Eversole heads the precinct. As of 2008 El Franco Lee heads Precinct 1. As of 2008 Sylvia R. Garcia heads Precinct 2.
The Harris County jail facilities are in northern Downtown on the north side of the Buffalo Bayou. The 1200 Jail, the 1307 Jail, (originally a TDCJ facility, leased by the county), and the 701 Jail (formed from existing warehouse storage space) are on the same site.
Much of Downtown is located in District 147 of the Texas House of Representatives. As of 2008, Garnet F. Coleman represents the district. Some of Downtown is located in District 148 of the Texas House of Representatives. As of 2008, Jessica Farrar represents the district. Downtown is within District 13 of the Texas Senate; as of 2008 Rodney Ellis represents that district.
Kegans Unit, located in Downtown, is a Texas Department of Criminal Justice state jail for men. It is adjacent to the county facilities on the north side of the Buffalo Bayou. The South Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility Unit, a parole confinement facility for males operated by Global Expertise in Outsourcing, is in Downtown Houston, west of Minute Maid Park.
Downtown Houston is in Texas's 18th congressional district . As of 2008 its representative is Sheila Jackson Lee. The United States Postal Service operates the 16-acre Houston Post Office at 401 Franklin Street. In February 2009 the U.S. Postal Service announced that it was going to sell the Houston Post Office. The party buying the facility is required to build a replacement facility. As of October 2009 the sale was still pending. Regional offices of U.S. government agencies are located at the Mickey Leland Federal Building at 1919 Smith Street. The 22 story building, with a 6-story parking garage, was designated an Energy Star efficient building in 2000.
Sam Houston Park, on the western edge of downtown between McKinney and Dallas/Allen Parkway, is home to the Houston Heritage Society and a collection of historic buildings and homes from around Houston.
Tranquility Park, bound by Rusk, Smith, Walker, and Bagby, uses open green spaces and a series of interconnected fountains to commemorate NASA's landing on the moon's Sea of Tranquility.
Market Square, between Travis, Milam, Preston, and Congress, preserves the block formerly covered by Houston's open air market which fronted the old City Hall.
Allen's Landing, on Buffalo Bayou at Smith and Preston, commemorates the landing site of the Allen Brothers, founders of the City of Houston.
Sesquicentennial Park, across Buffalo Bayou from Allen's Landing, contains a statue of George H.W. Bush, Houstonian and 41st President of United States.
Main Street Square, a pedestrian mall with a reflection pool and fountains on the MetroRail line between Lamar and Dallas.
Root Memorial Square, a one-block park across La Branch St from the Toyota Center.
Sisters of Charity Park, a quiet area in St. Joseph's Medical Center in the southeast corner of downtown.
Discovery Green, west of the George R. Brown Convention Center, officially opened on April 13, 2008 with a Family Day event. The park has underground parking, an amphitheater, two restaurants, a dog run, a jogging trail around the park, a great Lawn, an interactive fountain and more.
Harris County Precinct One operates the two acre Quebedeaux Park at 1115 Congress Street. The park includes a stage area, picnic tables, and benches. The park surrounds the Harris County Family Law Center.
The Downtown YMCA is located at 1600 Louisiana Street. The 120,000 square foot Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA at 808 Pease Street will open in 2010, and the previous YMCA facility will close. The Tellepsen facility will include a center for teenagers, a wellness center for females, a child watch area, a community meeting space, a chapel, group exercise rooms, and a racquetball court. The groundbreaking ceremony occurred on January 7, 2009. The new facility will not have dormitories for homeless that exist in the current YMCA facility. The Downtown YMCA had provided dormitory space for around 100 years.
The Majority of the County court systems are located in Downtown within a five block area bounded by Franklin, San Jacinto, Caroline, and Congress Streets including the following:
All are located around a central surface parking lot, that will eventually be turned into a Plaza and has been nicknamed "Justice Square".
Along with Harris County's facilities, there are several Constable courts and support facilities nearby.
Downtown Houston contains several institutions of higher learning. The University of Houston–Downtown (UHD) is located at northern end of Downtown. UHD is distinct and separate from the University of Houston (UH) itself, but is part of the larger University of Houston System. The school currently has an enrollment of 12,000 traditional and non-traditional students from around the Houston area.
The grade-school children of Downtown are served by the Houston Independent School District.
One public elementary school, a Houston ISD charter school called Young Scholars Academy for Excellence (Y.S.A.F.E.), is in Downtown.
Four elementary schools have zoning boundaries that extend to areas of Downtown with residential areas; they are:
E.O. Smith Education Center  (in the Fifth Ward) takes most of Downtown's students at the middle school level. Marshall Middle School  (in Northside) takes students at the middle school level from a small section of northern Downtown. Davis High School  (north of Downtown) takes students from almost all of Downtown at the high school level. Reagan High School  (in the Houston Heights) take students in the high school level from a small section of northwest Downtown. The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, located in Montrose, is in close proximity to Downtown.
Booker T. Washington High School's first location, 303 West Dallas, served as the school's location from 1893 to 1959, when it moved to the north. Lockett Junior High School was established in the former Washington campus and closed in 1968. Foley's Academy was formerly located inside the Foley's (now Macy's) at 1110 Main Street in Downtown Houston.
Anson Jones Elementary School served a portion of Downtown until its closing in Summer 2006. Brock Elementary School served a portion of Downtown until its closing in Summer 2006 and repurposing as an early childhood center; its boundary was transferred to Crockett Elementary. Before the start of the 2009–2010 school year J. Will Jones was be consolidated into Blackshear Elementary School, a campus in the Third Ward. During its final year of enrollment J. Will Jones had more students than Blackshear. Many J. Will Jones parents referred to Blackshear as "that prison school" and said that they will not send their children to Blackshear. By Spring 2011 Atherton Elementary School and E.O. Smith will be consolidated with a new K-8 campus in the Atherton site.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston oversees the Incarnate Word Academy, a Catholic all-girls' school founded in 1873 and the only high school located in Downtown. Trinity Lutheran School, a PreK-8 Lutheran School, is located at 800 Houston Avenue, northwest of and in close proximity to Downtown. Its early childhood center is located at 1316 Washington Avenue, near the K-8 center and in proximity to Downtown.
On September 27, 1897 a school in the two-story annex to the Sacred Heart Parish, staffed by Dominican sisters, opened with 28 enrolled students. St. Thomas College (now known as St. Thomas High School) opened in Downtown in 1900. In 1902 the parish bought a building used by St. Thomas and moved it from Franklin Street at Crawford Street to Pierce Street and Fannin Street. In 1905 he parish sought and received approval from the state to start a high school; in January 1907 St. Agnes Academy, outside of Downtown, opened and high school students were transferred to St. Agnes. In 1911 the former school building, known as the Green House, was demolished and replaced by a church building. In 1922 the existing Sacred Heart School building opened; the parish spent $52,800 to build the building. St. Thomas moved to its current location, outside of Downtown, in 1940. The Sacred Heart School provided Catholic elementary education for 70 years until its closing in May 1967 after declining enrollment and increased operation costs. As of 2009 the former Sacred Heart building houses the diocese's parish religious education program.
Houston Public Library has the Central Library in Houston. It consists of two buildings, including the Jesse H. Jones Building, which contains the bulk of the library facilities, and the Julia Ideson Building, which contains archives, manuscripts, and the Texas and Local History Department.
Houston's first public library facility opened on March 2, 1904. The Ideson building opened in 1926, replacing the previous building. The Jesse H. Jones Building opened in 1976 and received its current name in 1989. The Jones Building closed for renovations on Monday April 3, 2006. It reopened May 31, 2008.
In addition, HPL operates the HPL Express Discovery Green at 1300 McKinney R2, adjacent to Discovery Green Park. HPL Express facilities are library facilities located in existing buildings. The library opened in 2008.