One of Houston's Best Kept Secrets: Downtown Tunnels

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.

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"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. There's more information about the tunnels, and a map, in a link on our website KUHF dot Org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.

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