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Houston Downtown Tunnel System

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The Downtown Houston Tunnels create an efficient asset to the city by providing pedestrian walkways for safety and additional commercial space for the working class. In the past, the tunnel system functioned as a connection between large scale commercial buildings, today, the tunnel system continues to serve its function efficiently by spreading a span of 6 miles. Since the areas are mostly used for commercial purposes such as food franchises and newsstands the design inside the tunnels becomes a unnoticed second tier characteristic to the users of the Tunnels.  the Downtown Houston Tunnel System blends multiple architectural design styles ranging from modernism to a grid design reminiscent of the ideals of Le Corbusier and Rudolph’s Manhattan city grid proposals. The downtown tunnel system is a testament of architectural styles as well showcasing different levels of revivalism in some of the more dated system areas. Overall the tunnel system showcases itself as a timeline of monumental architecture styles, specifically, the time of modernism and post-modernism.

The beginning of the tunnel is frequently credited to William Horwitz and his “innovative” method of connecting his two large scale cinemas in the city of Houston. However, the beginnings of the tunnel had already begin but remained undeveloped and uninhabited. The original creator, Ross Sterling created the beginnings in the 1930’s when he interlinked two properties, much like Horwitz did. Sterling’s idea was fruition from a trip to New York City where the Tunnel system there was beginning to gain momentum. During this time period the modernistic principles dominated design of many designs of the era. The beginning parts of the tunnel system show characteristics of this through plain white walls, little decorative elements, structuralism through the use of concrete and steel, and the use of formalism through the hard lines and geometric shapes.  The characteristics give off a modern and cold feel to the project reminiscent of works by Le Corbusier, I M Pei and other famous modernists. As we move farther along the tunnel systems parts of the décor and structure start showing elements resembling Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The lights inside the tunnel with their conical shapes and bright strip lighting remind viewers of the gentle curves of Wright’s museum.

 

 Additionally the creation of the tunnel system brings back ideals from Le Corbusier and his vision for a connected Manhattan. After a visit from New York, Horwitz used the idea to connect his two theaters that soon brought about the start of the current Houston tunnel system. The layout of the tunnel system looks eerily similar to the carefully gridded and square tunnel system in the Big Apple. Although Houston does not have a subway system the interlocking pedestrian walkways create a similar idea.

 

During the expansion and revolutionizing of the Tunnel system ending in the 1970’s the aftereffects of the Arab Oil Embargo Act caused flocks of people all over the country to migrate to Houston and create a renewed thriving economy. This era was a time of thriving expansion for Downtown Houston mainly due to this urban development. Schools, businesses and retail sprang up at every corner creating a city similar to the one that we see today. In the decades that followed, an increase of oil and banking buildings that make up the Houston skyline built interlinking tunnels that further connected the bustling of the city’s center. The renovation and expansion of the tunnel system brought us many new art styles including revivalism of old styles. This post modernistic characteristic is notable in parts of the system made to match the buildings that it connects. The old styles range including Neo-Greek architecture and space age architecture.

 

Today, the city has expanded the tunnel system to create a system of intricate building relations. Some connections include Philip Johnson’s Pennzoil Place to the Civic Center Parking Garage, Two Shell Plaza to Pennzoil, Commerce Building to Southern National Bank. Buildings of different time eras and architectural styles are connected as well, notable buildings being BG Group Place, Wells Fargo Plaza and the Bank of America. The tunnel system also includes connections in the form of sky bridges between buildings.

Most of the underground space is now occupied by food courts, gifts stores, and banking centers. During the height of morning and lunch commutes, pedestrians, mainly workers from the connected buildings occupy the spaces and use it to move from place to place. The use of the tunnels allows traffic on the ground floor of the city to continue and decreases the amount of unnecessary congestion on the streets of Houston.

Although the Tunnel System has been identified to have certain design problems such as the lack of accessibility and the spaces being owned privately by the building owners directly above them, the tunnel system continues to provide a necessary aid to what could be an overpopulation problem. Although in its original creation date the tunnels met modernistic ideals of form following function the ever-growing boom of the city has deployed it of this feature. Much needed renovation to accommodate the cities’ working class are to be implemented soon into the tunnels.

Throughout the passing of times, the Tunnel system, although changing in connection areas, size and shape have continued to represent an important transportation asset to the city of Houston. Although there may be changes to the characteristics of this Houston system the Tunnels are a testament to the expansion of the city of Houston. The Houston tunnel system as a metaphorical timeline showcases the design principles prominent in modernism, and post modernism.
 

 

 

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I thought it was someone just copying some article, but I don't know...doesn't turn up in Google searches.

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Here's the script for a story I did about the tunnels back in 2007. BTW, the audio doesn't work.

 

One of Houston's Best Kept Secrets: Downtown Tunnels

Thursday, April 12, 2007 
By: Jim Bell

 

Thousands of people use the pedestrian tunnels under downtown Houston every day, but this underground maze is still one of the city's best kept secrets. As Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports, there are those who hope they stay that way.

 

"You're getting ready to come upon the one, for a long many many years, the one and only connection in the tunnel between the east and west side of downtown, under Main Street. (This is the only one?) It was, it is no longer. There's a second one now."

 

Houston Downtown Management District Director Bob Eury says people who live and work outside downtown are often surprised to learn that there are more than six miles of tunnels and skywalks that connect more than a hundred blocks of downtown. Skywalks are a fairly recent addition, but Eury says the first tunnels were built in the 1930s.

 

"They were really built to accommodate buildings when they were built. They were seen in a very utilitarian function, mainly if connected to garage space, if connected to some lower level space that developers thought could be used for retail, even back in the earliest days."

 

Today the tunnels connect to dozens of office towers, hotels, banks, corporate and government offices, restaurants, retail stores, and the Theater District. Eury says you have to go inside the buildings to get to the tunnels, because there's almost no access from the streets and there's a reason for that.

 

"The way it works is that the building owners own the tunnel to the center line of the street that they go under, and then the city grants, basically, a license for them to be in that public right of way."

 

Building owners can build a tunnel under their building, but it can only extend out to the middle of the street. Then they have to coordinate with the owner of the building across the street to connect to the next tunnel. The above ground skywalks are built and extended the same way.

Many tunnels started out years ago connected to just one or two buildings, and connected to other tunnels as years went by to create today's sprawling maze. Eury says we can thank Houston's hot and muggy summer weather for that.

 

"I always laugh and tell people that it's really kind of fun, because when you go to work in downtown, I can walk to over 30 million square feet of office space without going outside. On a nice day it's fun to walk at street level. On a bad day it's really nice to be able to walk in the tunnel system"

 

Walk through the tunnels today and you find an array of fast food eateries of all kinds, and shops offering various services. You won't find very many retail stores, because retailers up at street level don't want the competition from down below. There are a few retailers though, and they know they're in a risky location. Renato Ronquillo opened a small jewelry store in the tunnel near One Houston Center just recently, and while it's still too early to know if he's going to succeed or not, he has high hopes.

 

"And I am the only certified Master Bench Jeweler in Houston. I signed a lease for five years in here, and I believe that I'm gonna make it in here. With good location, and with God's will, I believe it will be successful."

 

Bob Eury says it helps to think of the tunnels as scenic basements, extensions of the lobbies above

them. That's why they're only open from 6am till 6pm Monday through Friday. They close when the buildings close and they're not open on weekends. Eury says people who live downtown would like to have them open after hours and on weekends, but that's not likely to happen, for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with security for the buildings above them. The tunnels are designed to serve people who work downtown, which is why they don't try to attract people from outside downtown. They don't want the tunnels to compete with what's up on the streets.

 

"There is this issue of the tunnels removing life from the streets, and all the urban designers and planners over the years have looked at it, and I think that's been a continuing hot debate. I for one believe, let's not kid ourselves, we do pull life off the streets by having a tunnel. I'll also be the first to say that I think it's a tremendous amenity within the downtown area, so it's kind of a double edged sword, in a way."

 

The Harris County tunnel on the far north side of downtown isn't connected to the rest of the tunnel system. That portion connects the Harris County Courts, jails and associated buildings, and there are security reasons for not connecting to the other tunnels. Six blocks of the St. Joseph Medical Center are connected by skywalks at the southeast corner of downtown near the Pierce elevated. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.

 

 

 

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Edited by FilioScotia

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It's all about the heat and humidity...just like all the skywalks in Minneapolis are all about the snow and freezing temperatures.

When I worked downtown in the 70's the tunnels were a great way to move between the buildings and avoid the heat.

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It's all about the heat and humidity...just like all the skywalks in Minneapolis are all about the snow and freezing temperatures.

When I worked downtown in the 70's the tunnels were a great way to move between the buildings and avoid the heat.

I agree with this.

The tunnels are terrific for downtown workers. They do take life off the streets but, frankly, many office workers, including myself, find them a great option.

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When my wife worked at Chase Bank downtown she would take a long walk through the tunnels for exercise during lunch hour. I drove downtown a few times to do that with her, and I can testify it's light years easier than doing it up on the street. You don't care what season it is. 

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When my wife worked at Chase Bank downtown she would take a long walk through the tunnels for exercise during lunch hour. I drove downtown a few times to do that with her, and I can testify it's light years easier than doing it up on the street. You don't care what season it is. 

 

And, there's no lights to make you stop and no cars trying to run you over because the driver is looking the other direction

 

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The tunnels are terrible which completely destroyed downtown street life we should've never had and I hope it goes away

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The tunnels are terrible which completely destroyed downtown street life we should've never had and I hope it goes away

 

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I don't think the tunnels need to be destroyed - they just need to be less opaque.  Maybe with more residents they might be able to be open later?  I know the Capitol tower garage is supposed to have a lobby that connects into the tunnels, maybe that can be a start?

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The tunnels are terrible which completely destroyed downtown street life we should've never had and I hope it goes away

We never should've had downtown street life? OK, I guess. Your words, not mine. In fact, I originally read your post as

The tunnels are terrible which completely destroyed downtown street life we never had and I hope it goes away

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We never should've had downtown street life? OK, I guess. Your words, not mine. In fact, I originally read your post as

I meant.....we never should've had the Downtown tunnels...they've completely destroyed street life and I hope we get rid of them...

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I meant.....we never should've had the Downtown tunnels...they've completely destroyed street life and I hope we get rid of them...

Do you live and work Downtown?

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The tunnels are not city or public property. They're owned by the owners of the buildings above them. Houston Downtown Management District Director Bob Eury says it helps to think of the tunnels as scenic basements, extensions of the upstairs lobbies. That's why they're only open from 6am till 6pm Monday through Friday. They close when the buildings close and they're not open on weekends.


 


Eury says people who live downtown would like to have them open after hours and on weekends, but that's not likely to happen, for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with security for the buildings above them.


 


The tunnels were designed and built for the convenience of people who work downtown, which is why they don't try to attract people from outside downtown. They don't want the tunnels to be an attraction that would compete with what's up on the streets. 


Edited by FilioScotia
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Is there still that non ADA portion in the Esperson building where you have to step up and then step down? It was quite annoying for us tradesmen that worked in different buildings on different days as we were usually pushing a dolly full of tools between one building and another.

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Good question Plumber. I haven't been to the Esperson Bldg or the Tunnels in so long I'm hopelessly behind the times. You would think the Esperson owner would have the good sense to make its tunnel access ADA compliant. Can anybody else here answer this?

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I've heard that many of the areas cannot become ADA compliant easily because of the slope required and the ceiling height difference.

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The Esperson tunnel level has no stairs.  The steps up were under the streets to accommodate its tunnel level, and Chase's, being below the Houston Club tunnel level.  The Capitol Tower tunnel level appears to be at roughly the same elevation as the surrounding buildings, so the only remaining rough spot that I can think of is trying to get into Houston Center.

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As a native Houstonian, I've found the downtown tunnels to be a fun hidden amenity, although I have never worked or lived downtown.  That said, it does seem obvious that their existence has inhibited having a lively street environment.  (And, I'm old enough to remember when we did have some of that, remnants from an earlier era.)

 

I don't know that having a similar system elevated above ground is likely to happen here, although that aspect would avoid the difficulties associated with our occasional floods.  When I first explored downtown Calgary, I was impressed with their skyways and especially with the tropical gardens they connected with.  Pretty cool, being an office worker there, who could enjoy their lunch sitting amid tropical foliage above street level, while the temps outdoors were below freezing.  

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I meant.....we never should've had the Downtown tunnels...they've completely destroyed street life and I hope we get rid of them...

 

I just spent several days in Toronto staying downtown. They have a great tunnel system full of shops, services, and food courts.  Their tunnels are very similar to Houston in terms of structure and accessibility but they have a far more extensive number of businesses.  I wondered the same thing regarding street life but honestly I thought they had equal amounts on the street as they did under.  The big difference was the number of people living in downtown Toronto who used the tunnels as their primary method to get to and from places.  This was proven to me the one morning that I went down for a coffee in the tunnel at rush hour.  It was packed with people using it to commute to work. My opinion is that once more and more move downtown then this will increase the need for the tunnels even more and actually force more planning into how they should be utilized.

 

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The Toronto "PATH" is coordinated by the city since the mid 1980s, and there's common signage and better directions. It still has individual owners, but the coordination helps it presents itself as a single entity rather than a patchwork like Houston's is.

I think that as residential increases downtown, we will see more activity above and below ground.

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