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Interview with: Bob Eury
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: October 23, 2008
DG: Today is October 3. We are in the offices of Central Houston talking with Bob Eury for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Eury?
BE: Well, I am doing fine. It is a pleasure to be with you on such a beautiful day outside.
DG: It is a great day. For the sake of history, it is one of those days we do not get too often. It’s not too hot, it’s not too cold.
BE: We have had a few. In fact, I have lived here 34 years now and I’ve got to say this is probably the prettiest fall that I think I can remember here.
DG: This is the payback for Ike.
BE: It is so hard to believe. Maybe it takes a hurricane to have this happen, I am not sure. Anyway, I am going to enjoy it while we have it.
DG: Mr. Eury, tell us your story. Take us back to the beginning. Where were you born and when?
BE: I was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1948. I attended school, undergraduate school, at the University of Cincinnati. From the time I was in the 8th grade, I wanted to be an architect; I wanted to be a builder. I am one of these people that did not have a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do so every course, everything I did in school was aimed at that. Cincinnati is actually known for its cooperative education program, co-op program, and that gave me early in the college educational process a chance to work in an architect’s office, a chance to work construction and then that led me into research actually, even by the time I was out of school. I worked as a co-op student at the University of Louisville Urban Study Center, which sort of broadened my horizon in terms of other things than just building buildings even though the building process is something I really love. One of the fun things about it was it set up my first opportunity to know about Houston and be a part of it. I had an opportunity my senior year at Cincinnati to work on, at that point, the application for HUD for the grant funding for The Woodlands new community. Of course, the project was sort of a gleam in George Mitchell’s eye at that point in time but, you know, they were putting a lot of energy into planning. The planning was really going on in Columbia, Maryland. And so, I was just finishing up and I needed time so I went in to the head of the school and told the head of the school that I was really excited about this project, the chance to work in Houston to work on this project, and I had already been involved in some new community planning work so I was really interested in it. I had the audacity to say, “I think I may have to quit school.” And so, he goes, “No, no, don’t do that, whatever you do! You’ve got 6 credit hours. Let’s work this out.” So we worked it out as a special study. So I did actually have the opportunity to work on The Woodlands which was my first real chance to get to know Houston. A couple of years later when I graduated, I was working for University of Louisville, had the opportunity to a graduate fellowship at Rice and also to be a part of the staff of a newly created institution that is affiliated with the School of Architecture at Rice called The Rice Center for Community Design and Research. When I moved here, not only did I have the opportunity to study under the well-known urban designer, David A. Crane, who was dean of the architectural program at Rice but also to have the opportunity to do applied research on a myriad of projects at Rice Center. They ranged literally from sort of understanding Houston’s development patterns and growth patterns and transportation issues to, at the federal level, deal with the interactions between development, especially transit development, and then also how cities are really organized to do urban development and do urban design with the ability to work with colleagues at MIT and Berkeley. And then, simultaneously, sort of miraculously ended up doing a bunch of community planning work with Aramco in the Middle East. So it gave a chance also to sort of see the energy community, the, in a sense, mining communities if you really think about it, that were horrendously exciting and still are actually to this day in terms of the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
That really set up the opportunity for Central Houston. Rice Center had worked very closely in the establishment of several organizations in this city. I guess the word for that would really be an area association. West Houston Association was one. They did some preliminary kind of organizational – what would it do, what would its goal and missions be, and that. I did another one under a National Endowment for the Arts grant looking at the area around the Medical Center which became South Main Center Association, South Main Association. South Main Alliance now. And then, the business community asked Rice Center to take a look at downtown. I think that there had been a sense that even though there was a tremendous amount of office construction going on in downtown, I think there was already kind of a sense that things were not in real great shape. Downtown was sort of moving in the direction of becoming an office park and a lot of the other elements that one associates with a strong downtown were lacking or stumbling along and not doing real well. And so, I also think that the Greater Houston Chamber of Commerce at that time had always had sort of downtown under its wing but it was faced with sort of a conflict with the fact that it was a regional chamber of commerce and we were growing into being a city with more than one downtown. And so, if it was going to take everything it had to kind of take care of the real downtown with all these other growing downtowns, it sort of set up sort of a political conflict for it, so I think that there was really a need for a separate organization to really sort of move the downtown agenda even if it was sort of cut out of the side of the Greater Houston Chamber. So in 1982, there was a decision made we need to create the organization. ____ Finner did the work but actually I was only very tangentially involved. But it did allow me to really be at what I call the “thumbs-up luncheon.” It involved very well-known names in this community: Walter Mischer, Ben Love, Gerry Hines, Kenneth Smitzer. Kenneth probably of all people was the most engaged in believing that this needed to happen. He was really the facilitator to making it happen. And, you know, the Rice Center made its presentation. I was just a little guy kind of sitting over the table over there along with these very well-known names and leaders in the community and, at one point, I remember Kenneth kind of saying, “Are we there or not? Do we really want to do this or not because, you know, this is a commitment if we are going to get in here and do it.” And around the table, everybody kind of rather than say whatever, it was sort of thumbs-up whatever. And, of course, it was thumbs-up all the way around the table. I always called it the “thumbs-pup luncheon.” It was held at the Heritage Club which was on the top of Three Allen Center. And that led really for moving further into the organization, the creation of the organization. Kenneth and others were able to get Hugh Roth, Jr., to be the initial chair, founding chair. Hugh was the CEO of United Energy Resources and, of course, they had just moved in to Chase -- at that point, Texas Commerce Tower in United Energy Plaza. Gerry Hines had just built the building, so Hugh was very excited about downtown at that time and he was sort of the perfect person to take this on and lead it. Hugh ended up actually hiring me to move from Rice Center over to take the role of leading Central Houston. We had all those folks named at the table there with us as we sort of kicked this thing off.
There was another organization that existed at the time and we have been sort of kissing cousins over time. The Downtown Houston Association was actually formed in 1980, and it really was the work of Dean Pittman McGehee who was the dean of Christ Church Cathedral. Pittman had moved here and said, “Where is the organization that is sort of leading the development of downtown?” and really, the Greater Houston Chamber, as I said, was sort of busy doing all this other stuff. And so, I think he felt that it needed to be done. So it actually existed and we sort of made sure that our agendas worked and that Dean McGehee was at the founding meeting of Central Houston. So that really sort of set us up.
It was hard to kind of get extracted from Rice Center, so in all honesty, one of the difficulties here was kind of moving these institutions because there was a lot of overlap of board and leadership and whatever. And all I can remember is we created the organization on April 4, 1983, and we sort of brought it online, staffed and everything on July 5 but, of course, in the meantime, on June 18, 1983, is when Metro’s bond referendum failed for the heavy rail which included a subway through downtown. And so, of course, obviously a huge agenda item would be moving forward with public transit and at that point, Metro hit a major stumbling block in the road right at the time we were getting started. Just a wonderful thing to happen, right, when you are trying to get started? But it did, in fact, set up the fact we spent a lot of the early days at Central Houston really working with Metro, working with leadership, really dealing with what would ultimately become our transit plan going forward. It was about 10 million square feet of office space that was under development, actually in construction when Central Houston was formed and, of course, all that anticipated $40, maybe $60 oil. And, of course, what really happened is oil went bust. In 1986, we were down to $10 a barrel. And the real estate market really went into a very, very difficult period in downtown. We never thought much about it because when you do what we were doing with the organization, you are very positive about all this but when you really think about it, it was really a major kind of obstacle in the way of what was really happening. But in true Houston form, which I think was amazing, Mayor Whitmire . . . there had been, prior to her election, plans to redo Buffalo Bayou’s waterfront. There was actually the creation of a tax increment district at that time. But she, as Comptroller, did not really agree with it. And so, in a way, she said, ‘I am not going to do that,’ but she came back and said, ‘We need to do something with Buffalo Bayou.” She realized that it was an important piece of the puzzle. And so, she created the Buffalo Bayou Task Force which we at Central Houston really staffed. We did it jointly with her office and the City. That led to the master plan for Buffalo Bayou, it led to the creation of Buffalo Bayou Partnership, and it really led to the first big signature project on Buffalo Bayou which was Sesquicentennial Park. And so, with Rice Design Alliance actually, we conducted a national design competition. It was run by 3 local young professionals but they won really with amazing competition. It was about 120 different teams from around the world and some very large names were included in that. But that really began to kind of get the early going with trying to figure out an agenda for transit, dealing with kind of moving the Bayou Water Fund as a civic amenity forward, and then very quickly, another piece of the puzzle really became the formation of the Theater District. Right at the time of the creation of Central Houston, Texas Eastern Corporation had worked very hard and it was a tremendous kind of divide in the community over where we should build a new convention center. I was sort of protected from it. The business leadership had actually split on this issue but I think they went to great lengths. If you look at sort of how that lined up, you had the eastside folks which was Texas Eastern Corporation, First City Bank and Vinson & Elkins on one side. And then, over on the other side, you had Texas Commerce (Ben Love and Gerry Hines), and the Houston Chronicle over on the west side. So you had the east side/west side. They all were a part of Central Houston. And so, I think everybody went to great lengths to sort of protect me from the split between them. In fact, they worked very hard to make sure that we were kind of pulling everybody back together again. There was an election in the fall of 1983 and in that election, the voters approved the development of the George R. Brown on its site on the east side which, at that time, was very undeveloped.
It was very just sort of post-industrial land – little 1- and 2-story buildings and parking lots and whatever. So construction started in 1985 and the building opened in October of 1987. It kind of opened a new day for downtown. But we also presented a problem because then what does the City do with the Albert Thomas Convention Center? First of all, we worked to convince Mayor Whitmire that, in fact, the highest and best use of that building was not City offices and then, the second thing we did was we helped her conduct basically a national call for developers to try to turn the building into, at that time, what was sort of the rage in the country – a festival marketplace. That actually ended up with the possibility of the filmmaker George Lucas . . . was actually doing a project which was really a remarkable project. It was called Luminary Houston. He did it locally with Richard Everett and Infantry Development, Kenneth Schnitzer’s company. It was one of those things where timing just did not work. The City did not move fast enough on sort of putting the deal together and Lucas’ interest in real estate sort of waned pretty quickly. It might have been a good thing for him. And so, the City found itself basically without a deal which would really work. The number two developer in that competition was David Kordish of Baltimore and David ended up being the developer of Bayou Place, as we know it today, and it took David a long time to get to what ultimately became the right mix of uses including movie theater and a large entertainment venue – Verizon Wireless Theater – and the restaurants and everything that is in there today. We were just determined that there needed to be this sort of hub of activity at the heart of all the performance halls that were in the area and keep in mind, at that time, Wortham Theater was actually being built and it opened in 1987 as well. So we ended up with sort of the Theater District as we know it today really sort of coming about as a result of this set of transactions basically. A new convention center on the east side and then, in a sense, a vacant building we needed to be able to do something with over on the west side of downtown.
DG: That was a good answer. You talked about development in The Woodlands and there is a perception that we would have of a developer: you go out and you buy a piece of land and because you bought the land and you have a vision, then you implement that vision and you do it because that is the way you see it and one guy takes a risk, so to speak, with he and his investors. Downtown, you’ve got hundreds of players, a lot of egos, business interests, community interests, the city government, and this association of organizations like it – try to coordinate so that a vision can be agreed upon and then implement and then adhered to. Can you describe the process? I may have oversimplified it but it seems completely different in terms of the mechanics.
BE: There are radical differences and it is fun to compare The Woodlands and downtown, in a way. The Woodlands was very much a vision of one man – George Mitchell – who put together 26,000 acres, and a lot of credit goes to George, too, because he had engaged in McGehee involving some ecological planning principles that, at the time, were really cutting edge and I had very high regard for the work that was done there. And, in many ways, they have stayed on plan all these years. George would be quick to tell you probably that it was a really good thing he had an oil company, too, to sort of keep this thing alive all these years. Some of those years were not great years for it as it was kind of coming out along the way.
Downtown is much more complex. There are so many different moving parts and there are so many different parties that are really engaged in it. First of all, I think that the key thing here is, was there a consensus on the direction that downtown needed to go? And it is easy when, in fact, there is very strong consensus about how downtown needs to go, needs to move forward and needs to become 24/7. What I have found is and it goes all the way back is, if you ask somebody to close their eyes and think about another vibrant city they would like to be in, in the world and you ask them, “Well, tell me what is your theme when you think about that,” they always will tell you about some street scene in some city, maybe a waterfront in some city, but the characteristics are pretty simple: very diverse in terms of the activities going on, very strong pedestrian life, and a place that you really desire to be in.
And so, when you sort of have that – everybody thinks the same way about it, it is not too hard to gain consensus on proposed initiatives in terms of sort of moving downtown forward. A lot of what we have done over the last 25 years has been a lot less about building offices and has been more about building everything else. I think that there was a sense that access to the center of a region was very important, thus the reason for strong interest in transit. That was sort of just a fundamental thing that supports it all. If you cannot get to downtown as the region expands and gets bigger and bigger and bigger, it ultimately really threatens the vitality of downtown. So, sort of with that assumption in place, then really working on everything else. As we look back, I mention Bayou Place. Obviously, that added entertainment attraction to downtown. In many ways, the sort of depression in the office market that was brought about by the oil bust, it carried easily into the early part of the 1990s. There was a lag effect there so that even oil might be improving but the fact of the matter is still the lag effect in the real estate market. It really sort of opened an economic door for the redevelopment of buildings into residential, and that sort of caught wind at the same time with demographic change. You had Generation X’ers who really did not want to live suburban – they wanted an urban product. You had empty nesters that, in fact, baby boomers who no longer wanted really a suburban house. They really wanted an urban type living experience. And so, it really kind of set up kind of an ideal opportunity for the development of a lot of residential in the downtown area. The breakthrough really and the pioneer there in many ways was Randall Davis. There were other people like Dick Weekly and others who were investors with Randall in projects. Randall’s first initiative was the James Bute Pate Company actually north of Buffalo Bayou and what we called Noho, - north downtown really – and that opened as Dakota Lofts. And then, his second project was very close the Theater District, in the Theater District and, of course, it was Hogg Palace, the Hogg Building, and a successful rental project. About that time, Randall began to kind of set his eyes on the prize which was, in fact, the Rice. There had been a lot of proposals. In one way or another, the Rice had been closed for a good many years at that point, and so Randall basically . . . it was an uphill climb, I mean, there was just no way around it. Randall said, “We will use federal historic tax credits.” He needed a sizeable influx of money from the City. That combined . . . the right pieces came together as such that we formed the tax increment district for downtown. I say, “we” – the City of Houston did under Bob Lanier’s leadership. We formed the Tax Increment District to really give some financing to that project combined with the federal start tax credits to sort of get the project over the hill in terms of being able to make it work because the economics were hard and it was a very risky market that he was trying to do the project in. I think we kind of know the rest of the story. He was smart in the development of retail at ground level but more importantly, smart in maintaining the Crystal Ballroom because so many people had very fond memories of being at a high school prom or some even in that Crystal Ballroom and being able to have a residential project but then having something that can engage the public like what happened sort of in the first 2 floors of that building really made that project, and continues today, to make that project just a remarkably tremendous attraction for downtown. Lanier’s attitude was sort of interesting about that. Bob really, I think, basically was saying let business do it; I am not real comfortable about putting public money in these private risky deals, but I think the longer he was in office, I think the more Bob began to kind of realize, you know, there may be a role for government here on catalyst projects to sort of get the ball going. And so, that was very much the way he viewed the Rice deal. He looked at it and just said, there is a role for the City. We need to do this.
That building is going to fall down. We are going to have to tear it down and it is a very historic treasure. We really need to do something anyway, so there is a practical reason why you kind of want to do something. And so, I think that really kind of opened the door to really make that happen.
The other thing that happened, about that time, which would have been right in the middle 1990s – it would have been about 1993, 1994, into maybe 1995 – I will never forget, at one point, Central Houston’s executive committee had a dinner meeting just to sort of think and talk more about kind of what needs to come next, where are we and what is happening and all that. There was a lady involved who was an executive at Exxon USA actually – her name was Carol Tatcong – she has passed away now but Carol was a real urbanist. She lived down in the Museum District. I think she grew up in Seattle. But she was very urban in her orientation. She was a person that, I will never forget, she asked the question, she said, “What about sports?” And we are all sort of sitting there kind of going, well, what about it? That led to us beginning to look at the possibility of we knew that the Rockets wanted a new home so we began to look really at the possibility of a new arena downtown for the Rockets. And so, we engaged, in essence, a market study with the Rockets participating in what they were interested in and then really about the time that was being done, both county judge, I guess at that point it would have been County Judge Eckels and at the same time, Bob Lanier, mayor, had sort of a blue ribbon committee looking at sports in general and McKinsey sort of helped with it, Jim Crownover helped with it, and Pete Coneway was involved with it as well. They sort of came out saying, you know, sports are really important for the community – it is very easy to kind of say, again, we do not want to put public money in making team owners more wealthy but, on the other hand, these teams really do contribute to the economic vitality of our city and the economic attractiveness of our city. And that was in May 1996. I remember I got a call from former Judge John Lindsey at that point . . . Lindsey was actually working with the Astros, he said, “You know, if you really thought about the possibility of baseball downtown, this blue ribbon panel had been looking at it, had made the recommendation of where these various sports should go and they said basketball could either be at Greenway or downtown and baseball needs to be down in the Astrodomain, as it was called at that point – football needs to be down there.” We already had looked at the possibility of football because Bud Adams, the owner of the Oilers, was interested in what we called the “Bud Dome.” But that project just never really had much life to it mainly because it did not have the support of Mayor Lanier, so at Lindsey’s urging, we talked to the Astros and said, “Are you comfortable if we look for a site for a baseball stadium downtown?” and so we engaged in the search for a site to where to put the Astros. Needless to say, we know where we ended up. We ended up over at Union Station with the rail yard. We also looked at the post office site. I remember I went up to Washington and met with the head of development for the postal service, worked directly for the postmaster general. The gentleman actually had a development background. I remember him saying, he said, “You are the 17th city to come see me about the possibility of reusing the downtown post office for something.” And he said, “I want to warn you, we have never made a deal. In 17 cities, we have never made a deal,” so he said, “I do not want to encourage you too much here. We are very hard to work with.” So, on balance, the railroads were really very interesting at that point in time – Burlington, Northern, Santa Fe, and then the Union Pacific were the co-owners of Union Station. They actually were interested in selling the property and so we had sort of a willing seller. That really was a key to sort of making the deal come together. We had some drawings done of what it could be and we got a call from Ken Lay and Ken Lay said, “I talked to Drake McClain and I am really fearful we are going to lose the team and they are going to move to Washington.” And he said, “Have you done anything?” They said, “Well, we have, as a matter of fact. Give us about 1 week because once we finish us, we must come show you.”
And so, he took, at that point, the urban design drawings for the baseball stadium at Union Station over to him and he said, “Maybe we need to put together some way to make this work.” And so, Ken really put sort of, I think, a rather creative private sector approach towards working with city and county and the owners that ultimately ended up in private sort of investment piece which really helped sort of get over the hurdle of its more expensive to build downtown than down at the Astrodome. And so, that really led to what we know today, of course, being, at that point, first Enron Field and now Minute Maid Park at Union Station. And, for me, it is still called the Ball Park at Union Station. That is kind of what we started with in terms of the vision for what that project was all about. And it took some hard slugging to get from concept which actually was agreed upon on September 14, 1996, and then we had that very narrow election victory in the November 1996 election. It only won by a half percentage point. And then, at that point, there still was not legislation for funding so while we had won the popular vote in the legislature and it was really tough, House Bill 92 finally passed but it was a difficult bill to get through and that ultimately led to the creation of the Houston Harris County Sports Authority which actually became effective around Labor Day in 1997. The Astros were on a real timeframe. They wanted to be in the ballpark by opening day in the year 2000 and so, we, Central Houston, moved with the help of Ken Lay through the private consortium, we moved on no only site acquisition but all the work that would be necessary basically to develop the ball park in a timely way -- archaeological work, the environmental work, surveying and all that. As it turns out, Union Station ended up being the largest urban archeological dig in the history o the state. There were 26,000 artifacts that were actually taken out, but we were doing it on a schedule such that the site and the digging of the hole for the stadium and everything, I remember the last piece of archaeological materials taken away from the site for purposes of conservation were removed on Valentine’s Day in 1998. So, all this happened remarkably fast to keep this project on track. So it is something we were very proud of but it is a fleeting memory. We had actually artifacts that went back to 1836, actually the very founding of the city.
DG: To the extent that you are able, can you put Houston’s downtown story in comparison to other cities? Is Houston unique and if so, how so?
BE: Well, if you look at other cities, first of all, when we were thinking about creating Central Houston, the business leaders were thinking about creating Central Houston in the early 1980s, in many ways, downtown Houston was really viewed as a city that was with it and moving and modern and it was not doing what other cities had really experienced which was just horrible decay of their downtowns. When you really think about it in America, the history of downtowns is one of in the post-war years, in the infatuation with the automobile and rapid suburbanization – people moved away from the core of the city ever increasingly fast, and single-family housing and retail followed which meant that the thing that people really related to no matter where you lived was you always shopped downtown. And so, that moved away during that 1950s into the 1960s and suburban malls virtually everywhere. Well, the same happened in Houston. And, of course, the biggie was the opening of the Galleria which, as I recall, was 1971, but that really kind of spelled, in many ways, the _____[34:05] for downtown Houston being the retail center of the region. I think business leadership and just general civic leadership here did not see or feel the pressure of just tremendous downtown decay here because there was a lot of office development. There were a lot of new things happening all through the 1970s because that was a booming time for our city. Even if it wasn’t booming nationally, it was booming here in Houston. So there was a lot of office construction, there was new hotel construction, there were things happening in downtown that I think gave everybody a sense of confidence about the future of the place that you did not experience in the other cities.
So the idea, the words “redevelopment” just were not in the vocabulary in this city. It did not exist at that point in time when they were being used all over everyplace else. So when we finally realized that we, too, needed to do urban redevelopment, we were well behind them, what other cities were really doing, and I think what is unique about Houston is we had an amazing amount of redevelopment activity in this city from a period mid 1990s to today. And so, I know from my peers around the country, everybody looks at Houston and goes, ‘Where did this come from? I mean, how did this happen so quickly?’ It totals now over $7 billion worth of development and redevelopment, both really kind of going back to 1995 and then frankly looking forward. I mean, that includes sort of what we know is on the drawing boards right now in terms of going forward. That is a big number. Over 150 different projects. So a lot of activity, both public and private. The retail part of that story, and I mention retail – it is the one area that has not moved very fast and needless to say, this is a very exciting time for us right now because the Houston Pavilions Project has just opened on Main Street within the last week, and I went down and shopped at the Books A Million store at the corner of Polk and Main at lunch hour on purpose just to experience it. And when you think about, that was the first new retail that has been opened on Main Street in 50 years. Actually, more than that. I mean, literally, probably in 60 years. And so, maybe we are beginning to make a little turnaround in terms of retail. We do not aspire for downtown to replace the Galleria. It is not. But we also believe that there is significant potential for more retail on Main at the heart of downtown. We were very thankful compared to other cities that Foley’s, now Macy’s, has been able to maintain a major store in downtown all through all this period of time. So many other cities – Dallas and others – have lost stores. So we are really excited by the fact that now Macy’s has company, and I am sure Macy’s is also excited as well.
DG: In other interviews, some of the people we have talked to have also mentioned that the lack of zoning helps Houston respond to changes; that, in a sense, some of those other major cities have zoned their urban decay by mandating a certain kind of development in certain areas. Do you agree with that assessment?
BE: My sense here is the development climate has been a major reason why we have had so much redevelopment activity in such a short period of time. Clearly, and others have probably said this, there is an amazing sense here of if you have a good idea, we will help you facilitate getting it done. There is not much red tape. Some might disagree with that but generally, there is not much red tape really involved in sort of putting it together and making it happen. And I would say the lack of zoning does matter. It probably has left the absolute zoning other than the fact that zoning generally brings a more bureaucratic process usually to variances and hearings and sort of various things that sort of mean that it gets more difficult to do development. So, in that regard, our development climate here probably really has contributed to kind of the rapidity of the redevelopment. I would say, on balance, the other piece though that I think we have to be sensitive to is that some investors from out of state have a little bit of a hard time grasping the certainty of what will happen around them because there isn’t zoning, and there is this sense of we don’t know what could happen across the street from us and how could you stop something bad from happening or whatever. It is hard because a lot of what happens here, we have been able to get the quality to be what it is and we have been able to change things largely by peer influence and cajoling and whatever but not necessarily through legal means. And it is a little hard to do the hand-holding in terms of getting somebody comfortable with the fact that it will be okay in terms of sort of what does happen.
We do plan it. I will be the first to say it. It is very important. We view the plans for the redevelopment of downtown are important, not so much in that they are highly prescriptive but we feel that if nothing else, that they are important because we find that people tend to want to follow the plan even if it is not regulated that they follow the plan, that there is sort of some general influence that sort of the power of the plan, so to speak – just if you believe in the concept and what may happen. That does not mean that everything that is in anything we have ever done as plans over the years happens. Some things do not happen. And market control is a lot and obviously our plans need to be sensitive to what the market is about. The one thing that we are very interested in right now is making sure that we continually improve the quality of the pedestrian environment in downtown. One unusual thing about Houston is that we have rebuilt in downtown about 70% of the streets, through a number of different projects. A lot of people during that period would claim that they know, well, we did that; that was a lot of disruption because of the construction. Yes, there was. There is no doubt about it. The product, however, is really wonderful because we really built new bones for the heart of the city which is not only what goes on above the street but it is the utilities below and burying of power lines and various things that people forget about. When you do it, people do not even pay any attention to it. The beauty of that is, is that it really has helped us transform the pedestrian environment at street level and I think make it more pleasant for people. There have literally been thousands of new trees planted. There are literally scores of pieces of public art in one place or another. There is a system of way finding to help people find their way around. There are more improvements coming to that, so that the big Main Street Square and the fountains, we are trying to sort of create a central place for the City. There are new parks. And so, in a sense, there has really been a major sort of facelift of downtown over all this period of time. Now that that has all been done, we realize that if you really wanted it to get better from here, a lot of it is has to do with the way in which new development relates to the pedestrian environment and street level. And so, we have a great concern about blank foot walls on parking garages and what happens . . . what kind of ground floor activities occur because those are all very significant in sort of forming the experience that you have when you walk through downtown. And actually, this issue extends well beyond downtown. Now, light rail transit has come online. It extends to anyplace that you want a high level of pedestrian activity.
DG: You mentioned disruption and you mentioned rail. Having lived through the building of the rail system through town, I experienced the inconvenience but also the benefits of it. What has the rail line meant to downtown?
BE: Our sense is, yes, it was painful during the construction period – there is no doubt about it . . . on the backside of the construction period having the rail in place had been a tremendous asset to downtown. It has brought more people to shop, it has made it work better for the tourist and the visit to the City. Because of the 7-1/2 miles that exist toady, it is not exactly a commuter line; it does not really touch bedroom communities but it does carry a lot of commuters, as it turns out. It has made downtown at Texas Medical Center now much more closely joined at the hip. And interestingly enough, there always was sort of a rivalry between the Astrodome, sort of the county complex and downtown which was sort of viewed as the City when it came to conventions and everything – sports and all that. The Astros baseball moving downtown was really kind of delicate. That is one of the reasons why we were very kind of at first . . . we are not really out there trying to do this -- if we need to do it in order to save the team, yes, we will do it but it is not like we are just going in there and trying to snatch it away. What has happened with the rail is it has joined us all. What is absolutely the most thrilling thing ever . . . you have a lot of very athletic looking young women walking around downtown and as it turns out, there was a girls, I think about high school level, volleyball tournament -- I think it was national level down at Reliant Center but they were all staying downtown and they were all riding the train back and forth. And so, you know, you kind of get the picture and downtown really becomes almost the bedroom for the Reliant Park activities, and indeed the case. Football game – people park down here, ride the rail down there. And so, it really, in many ways, the benefits to downtown are tremendous but really the benefits of really linking the whole community together. You know, I think what is different about Houston is that we can talk about downtown all day long but the goodness of the region and the core of the region is so much more than downtown. We have not used it recently but at one point, we were using the Main Street corridor as sort of downtown to Reliant Park. We were kind of calling it the Super Core because if you really think about what lies in that, you have this huge employment center in downtown and center of government and theater and all that. You have this incredible museum district. You have the institutions. In that quarter is like 13 different university campuses if you add them all up including the medical schools. And then, you have Texas Medical Center. And then, you have basically Reliant Stadium, Reliant Park sort of at the south end. It is just an amazing offering of urban goodies. I think we kind of see it bigger. The reason why we do not even use that word anymore is I actually see it more as a triangle and I think this thinking actually, believe it or not, was propelled by the Superbowl. We and the Superbowl sort of worked together planning, sort of linking uptown, downtown with the game itself down at Reliant Stadium so that you ended up with sort of a triangle. And in many ways, I think we more and more sort of see that as the core of the city. It is not well defined by roads or transit or whatever but if you think about it, from an activity standpoint, it is an amazing core for a very, very large urban region. It sort of becomes our Manhattan. You know, if you think about it, in our Houston region which is about 2,000 square miles and, in many ways, physically, it is not too dissimilar in size. The thing is we are just much younger and much less developed.
DG: One of the literally hidden benefits of downtown is the underground, the city that is under the pavement. Where did that come from? Who was the driving force in that and how did that come to be?
BE: Well, the tunnel system, as we call it. We call it tunnel skywalk system. Probably best defined by a map that the downtown district publishes which, the map is one of those things that we do about 200,000 copies a year and they are all gone and then you do another 200,000 copies. So there are millions of them out there. That is all I know at this point. It is good. That is why we did it because we wanted people to know how to find their way around. We call it the above and below downtown map. The tunnel system actually started back in about the time that the Esperson Building was built so that would put it back in the 1920s. It really was just a way of . . . I think it was sort of done strictly for practical reasons of just sort of connecting one building to another building, and then one building to parking. I do not think initially the thought was it was significant in terms of having retail and other types of activity down on it but what I think most people realize even from the very earliest years of the tunnel system was that in a climate with heat like we have and sometimes rain like we have, that the idea of some sort of weather protected connection between buildings was kind of a smart idea. And so, you know, it did not take long for this idea to begin to grow a little bit. So it started with the Esperson and it connected to the Houston Club building, you know, and then that is connected to the Gulf Building at that point. That was sort of the initial core of it. When Bank of Southwest building was built, then it made sense to make a connection to that. And then, when Hines pioneered with his initial stake into downtown which, of course, was One Shell Plaza, One and Two Shell Plaza, of course, those had to connect. And then, that began to connect back to Esperson. So, guess what? Here we go. It kind of grew from there. The amazing thing about the tunnel system – and we have people constantly from out of town making inquiries about it. ‘Well, who runs it? Who owns it? How is its organizer and all that?’ And people are sort of shocked when you tell them, ‘well, it is owned by a whole bunch of owners. Basically, the owner of the building above who owns their part of the tunnel system, and then the person across the street, they are part of it.
And so, it is this whole series of basically owners kind of joining out in the middle of the street – your piece to their piece to their piece to their piece and at the end of the day, it all opens up and it all works together. What is common to it is, is that there is a set of operating agreements that were signed between the adjacent owners and always those agreements have certain common things related to temperature and hours of operation and just very basic things so that you can kind of get from one place to the other. The City is actually a part of it as well. Well, the City grants the license for a tunnel to be under the public right-of-way. The City also owns pieces of the tunnel system. And then, of course, Harris County basically has its own and its governmental complex. My census is that the tunnel system, over time, it is important to office buildings – we have learned that it is not very important to residential. There was provision made when the Rice was done to connect it on the tunnel system. Randall Davis opted not to do it for economic and other reasons. It was really logistically really hard to do. So I think in a way, that was the chance where residential could have connected, and I think what he learned is he can lease it without it and that sort of set the market in a way – you do not really have to make a connection to make it work. And so, in a way, my sense is, over time, the expansion ____ because everybody then says, ‘Why don’t you connect everything?” And you go, “Well, you just do not need to.” The other thing underneath it all, from a planning and design standpoint is we would be quick to admit that it does sap life from the street and while it is a wonderful convenience if you are I downtown, We also know that the vision for the City is, in fact, having a well populated street environment and we also know that there are many days when the streets feel a little bit light in terms of pedestrian traffic, largely because we are all down inside the tunnel.
DG: You are the spokesman for downtown but I want to return to a personal perspective. You talked about when you were young, you knew exactly what you wanted to do, that you wanted to be a builder, and you wanted to be an architect. Your first project was residential. Have you found your personal satisfaction? Are you doing what you wanted to do? Have you adapted the dream? This is an incredibly large canvas and has undergone tremendous change. You must have had a guiding hand, this and that – what kind of personal satisfaction do you get?’ Well, you know, it is funny what life takes you through . . . when I first started out, I knew exactly what I wanted to do but I think what may be apparent already in this – I am actually not an architect. I have 2 degrees in architecture but I have never sat for the exam and I am not really NAIA because life took me into doing other things. It became much more urban, it became much more oriented to really planning and research and a whole bunch of other issues. Urban policy and a whole bunch of other issues which I found them all to be really fascinating, very exciting, very interesting and all very interconnected with the original idea of really being able to build things which is incredibly satisfying about what I have been able to do for the last 25 years with Central Houston and the downtown district. As you know, I actually have 2 roles. I am actually the Executive Director of the downtown district, so I am sort of half and half - two different boards - so it has been dizzy among other things because you have multiple organizations. Some days you kind of walk around thinking, I’ve got 2 heads, too, when you do it. What is so satisfying about it is, is that that original desire to build things is still to this day being satisfied by all the various projects we are involved in, and what I learned early in is that I could probably get as much excitement about being a part of the development of whether it was the ballpark or Discover Green or whatever, where we may have had a part in it -- I did not necessarily have to design it and I did not have to build it myself, I could still be a part of it and still get sort of the thrill of really being involved. When I took the job at Central Houston, I always thought I would do it for about 5 years. First of all, of course, what I did not realize is those 5 years would also include some meltdown of oil – the bust, O.K.? So, needless to say, my ambition of being able to make quick change was quickly smashed by the fact that we were in a really bad situation in Houston with the oil bust. I could not imagine I would be doing it 25 years but when I think about it, it is an amazingly rewarding job from a standpoint of satisfaction.
I have really had the opportunity to work with just wonderful people of all sorts, from legends in Houston’s history and to be able to work and learn and know role models, mentors, in a way, down to just frankly the guy on the street. And it is thrilling in terms of being able to work with them. The other thing is I think I have gotten into things . . . I did research for about 13 years . . . the research took me in a lot of different directions and I guess I got accustomed to sort of dealing with stuff I really did not know a lot about but you would learn real quickly, and this job is really pretty much the same; that you very quickly venture into things you do not know a lot about but if you want to survive, you have to learn pretty quickly what it is all about. But it is also fascinating to have the ability to learn from so many different teachers along the way and as I do more of it, I think I am getting more and more interested . . . there are some things I am probably a little more passionate about. I found that I am particularly passionate about homelessness. I feel like we have a long way to go. There is a lot that we have not done in this area but I really must say that I am . . . I think there is plenty of work to be done and I could probably do nothing but homelessness for the next 10 years and I would still probably find that I was feeling that we were not moving it fast enough, so that it is not like we have run out of challenges or run out of things to do.
DG: I do not want to end on what we have not accomplished. Do you have a proudest moment? There have been so many positive changes to downtown.
BE: You know, that is a hard one in terms of which I am most proud of in terms of what we have been able to do because, you know, in a way, what is so personally gratifying and I think it is helpful to the city is that we have been able to hit homeruns and if it was not a homerun, at least it was a good triple or a good double on an awful lot of things. I will say that I talked about the creation of the ball park. That was particularly exciting only from the standpoint there was a lot of drama in starting from something that seemed a little improbable and it happened very quickly that this thing sort of fell into place. So that one sort of stands out as one that is a big one but, you know, I find that we planted thousands of trees and redid the streetscapes of downtown and a lot of times, we moved so fast that I never took the time to really pay much attention to what we have done. And so, every once in a while, on a Sunday afternoon or whatever, I will be walking or driving or whatever, running sometimes when I run through downtown, too, and I will all of a sudden see an image or a view and I will kind of go, that is amazing! I had not paid any attention . . . a lot of it has to do with the trees that have gotten much larger. They have really transformed the environment. And so, all of a sudden, you kind of go this is this project we were struggling to get going and we lived through the construction and all that, and then years later, now you are beginning to kind of say, look at it now. And so, I feel very proud when you get into a situation like that. Those moments probably I could have more often if I would just take more time to go out there and really experience it but, again, we are busy and we are kind of always moving on to the next thing. So, you know, they seem to be kind of few and far between.
DG: Mr. Eury, I thank you for your time. Do you have any closing comments?
BE: Well, this is a wonderful city. This city has . . . there is a great quote that is in a book, I think it was published around 1952, but it was actually the translation of a journal from a young German man that was traveling through the frontier of the United States but he was traveling through Texas, and he talked about coming through Houston and he wrote about his experience here, but he talked about living temporarily . . . I mean, it was only for a few months . . . and it was about 1838, as I recall. And he was living down in what would have been, by my reckoning, in about the 300 block of Main Street, somewhere down in there. He was living above a commercial function but he said he and 12 other people were staying up on the 2nd floor of this building and there were pigs down on the first floor but he talked about the street life at night, in the evenings after everybody had been working all day and he said that the president – of course, that was Sam Houston – and the Indians and the Mexicans because these were the folks from the war still that were just around plus all the folks that had moved into Houston in those 2 years since 1836 were all gathered on the street and talking to each other and he said, “all like chums on equal footing.” And what fascinates me about this is that sort of DNA of the city is exactly what is here today in this city where people are accepted, ideas are accepted. It is not kind of where you came from or whatever, it is really more what you can do and your ambition and your willings to make change and all that, and people are remarkably supportive of being able to have that happen. And from that quote alone, when I saw that, I went, a-ha, there it is! It is exactly the quality that we have in this community today. It would appear that it goes all the way back to the beginning of the city.
DG: Thank you very much, Sir.
BE: Thank you.