Students Charged with Creating Redevelopment Plan for USPS Property Slated to Close in Downtown Houston
WASHINGTON (February 27, 2012) – Graduate-level student teams representing the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and a joint team from the University of Colorado and Harvard University have been selected as finalists for the tenth annual Urban Land Institute (ULI) Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. This year’s finalists were charged with proposing a long-term vision for creating a distinct identity for a new downtown Houston district.
A $50,000 prize will be awarded to the winning team, and each of the remaining three finalist teams will receive $10,000. This year, applications were submitted from 139 teams representing 64 universities in the United States and Canada, with a total of 695 students participating in total.
Interdisciplinary teams participating in the widely-recognized competition were challenged with creating a practical and workable scheme for the best use of approximately 16.3 acres owned by the United States Postal Service (USPS). The competition focuses on the USPS property since it is considered by many stakeholders to be a key site to reconnect the Theater District, the Historic District, and the greater downtown to the Buffalo Bayou. The downtown post office was one of several hundred USPS properties put up for sale nation-wide in 2009 to offset the federal agency’s financial losses. Since that time, land planners and real estate experts have suggested numerous possibilities for the property, which have included converting the land into public open space, mixed-use development that includes residential housing, as well entertainment venues.
The competition is based on a hypothetical proposal in which a fictional entity, the Central Houston Foundation (CHF), has acquired the option to purchase the site and establish redevelopment goals and connections to the surrounding areas. According to the scenario, the CHF has committed a large endowment to both community development and the sustainable growth of Houston’s downtown in hopes of generating a revenue stream for its endowment, while giving shape to a new downtown district. In order to meet the owners’ demands, the student teams are acting as a master developer by proposing a master land use plan for the development site as well as supplying financial projections needed to support the master development plan.
While based on a hypothetical situation, the 2012 Hines competition addresses local groups’ desire to connect downtown redevelopment to incorporate connections to Houston’s neighborhoods. Houston’s downtown is the center of the city’s transit network, providing downtown workers with a variety of commuting options that include light rail, buses, vanpools, and carpools.
The development schemes from the finalist teams are:
- University of California – Berkeley: “The Grand” proposes an elaborate network of public space fronting on the Buffalo Bayou, including community gardens, open space, and a kayak/canoe launch area that connects to the already-built open space across the water – creating an important new node along the Bayou. Washington Street is brought into the site as a primary corridor, linking with both downtown and the redevelopment to the west. The proposal aims to introduce high residential and commercial densities to the north of Washington Street with easy access to a potential commuter rail/Amtrak station onsite.
- University of Colorado/Harvard University: “Downtown Bayou” creates a residential neighborhood in downtown Houston with a distinct focus on connecting residents and workers to the Bayou and the rest of downtown. A pedestrian corridor that cuts through the site links the Cultural District with new restaurants, offices, condos/apartments along with an open green space to the north of the rail yard. A walkable scale is created by the introduction of new blocks, along with shifting Franklin Street north while maintaining its overall capacity.
- Columbia University: By maintaining the existing USPS office building and converting it into a center for artists, workshops, and incubator office space, “The Post” creates a cultural center within the site to complement the adjacent cultural district. It also introduces roof-top entertainment such as cinemas and eateries to capitalize on the site’s views of downtown and beyond. Residential development maintains a human scale while providing housing for over 2500 people at all income levels. A portion of the USPS distribution facility is also retained, and will be renovated to house a small-vendor produce market.
- University of Michigan: “The Hill” envisions a new livable downtown district in Houston through connections to the University of Houston’s Downtown and the Buffalo Bayou through the creation of diverse housing stock and unique parks. The “Houston Highline” park connects from the bayou into the heart of the site, linking Houston’s Historic and Cultural Districts with this live-work-play community. Buildings gradually decrease in height towards the bayou, giving the project a distinctive architectural identity while connectivity is enhanced by a new network of walkable blocks and a transit center.
According to competition jury chairman and longtime ULI leader James Chaffin, the four finalists took a holistic approach to how the site was connected to and affected by the area around it. “These students were very aware of who they were designing these places for, whether it was for a younger generation looking for a different type of experience, or an older generation looking not for assisted living, but easy living that is not committed to an automobile,” said Chaffin, chairman of Chaffin/Light Associates, LLC in Okatie, S.C. “This generation of students is very committed to transit-oriented development. The way it [public transit] was incorporated into the site so that it is an easy and celebrated part of the solution is an expression of how this generation does not want to be dependent on the automobile.”
The competition jury consists of renowned experts in urban planning, design and development. In addition to Chaffin, other jury members are: Gerdo Aquino, president/principal, SWA Group, Los Angeles, Calif.; Mimi Burns, principal, Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, Albuquerque, N.M; Anyeley Hallova, partner, Project^ Ecological Development, Portland, Ore.; Richard Heapes, principal, Street Works, White Plains, N.Y.; Sandra Kulli, president, Kulli Marketing, Malibu, Calif.; Michael Lander, president and owner, The Lander Group, Inc., Minneapolis, Minn.; Alan Mountjoy, principal, Chan Krieger/NBBJ, Cambridge, Mass.; Greg Shannon, President, Sedona Pacific Corporation, San Diego, Calif.;and Tim Van Meter, partner, Van Meter, Williams Pollack, LLP, Denver, Colo.
In addition to the urban design and land use jury, a financial jury team led by Jeff Munger, director of research of Holliday Fenoglio Fowler, LLP’s Houston office, graded the financial dimensions of the student entries. The financial jury was tasked with examining the pro formas and other supporting financial material submitted by the teams. The financial jury then evaluated the team proposals based on accuracy of assumptions, market conditions, and the overall value proposition.
Nine teams were also selected for honorable mention. The jury commended the University of Houston with “Houston’s Urban Bayou Neighborhood” for superior financials; Harvard University with “Tread Lightly, Texas!” for superior site planning; the University of Virginia with “Green Tech Corridor” for superior focus on job creation; the University of Texas at Austin with “Global Ideas: Grown in Texas” for superior focus on demographics; the University of Pennsylvania with “Infiltrate” for superior focus on water treatment; and Ball State University with “EcoEdge” for superior presentation graphics. Three honorable mentions for overall merit were awarded to the University of Oklahoma with “The Foundry;” the Georgia Institute of Technology with “Artesano;” and the University of Oklahoma with “The Veranda.”
The Hines competition strives to encourage cooperation and teamwork—necessary talents in the planning, design and development of sustainable communities—among future land use professionals and allied professions, such as architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, historic preservation, engineering, real estate development, finance, psychology and law. It is open to graduate students who are pursuing real estate-related studies at universities in the United States and Canada, including programs in real estate development, urban planning, urban design, architecture and landscape architecture.
In the final phase of the 2012 competition, which concludes on April 6, each of the final four teams will be given the opportunity to expand their original schemes and respond in more detail. On March 9, one representative from each finalist team will visit Houston, all expenses paid, and will have the opportunity to tour the site and refine their presentations. On April 5-6, finalist team members will present their schemes to the competition jury during a public forum in Houston. The event will culminate with the announcement of the winning team. The competition is designed as an exercise; there is no intention that the students’ plans will be implemented as part of any development of the site.
For more information on the ULI Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition, visit: http://udcompetition.org
About the Urban Land Institute
The Urban Land Institute (uli.org) is a nonprofit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, the Institute has nearly 30,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.