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Revitalized Market Square May Lure Houstonians Downtown

The park has a lot of new neighbors.

Market Square Park, in the north end of downtown, is on the verge of becoming the city’s newest hotspot. It’s brimming with new bars, restaurants, residences and the park that itself has had a makeover.

It didn’t happen overnight. It took a decade of investment and planning from the Downtown District and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, two organizations tasked with imagining and implementing improvements. 

Angie Bertinot with the Downtown District laughs when she hears from people who think the area revitalized all on its own. 

“They’re like ‘You don’t need incentives, look at Market Square, that just happened,’” she said. “And I was just like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

In 2010, the Downtown District renovated the park, which signaled that they were serious about waking up Market Square.

“We really thought it could be an economic development tool because the area was really starting to kind of go through a stressful situation,” Bertinot said.

Next they got advice from the Urban Land Institute. The report urged them to build housing, specifically housing that would be “affordable to a broad spectrum of those working in downtown.”

The report said if you want a vibrant, 24/7 neighborhood, you need retail. If you want retail, you need residents. And the land downtown is really expensive, so if you want residents, you’ll need incentives to make it more affordable.

So they kicked off the Downtown Living Initiative, a program offering tax rebates to developers.

The 32-story Aris Market Square, developed by Hines, is almost complete. It’s one of two new luxury apartment buildings directly facing the square, both built with funding from the Downtown Living Initiative.

“The tax incentive program really helped to bridge the gap of what the required asking land price was and what we were able to afford,” said David Haltom, a director at Hines.

Haltom said the tower wouldn’t exist without the rebates. Some of their neighbors said that was money well spent. 

Dan Tidwell first opened his restaurant Treebeards in Market Square in 1978, and he said developers got a good deal.

“When you have the Wortham Center and the ballpark and all of these things that are not going away, and you have someone offering you some money, it was really a winning combination.”

He lives a short walk from the restaurant. So does David Haltom, working on the Aris Market Square building.

“I get to walk to work every day,” he said.

That’s pretty much what the Urban Land Institute recommended in 2012, that an incentive program build housing for people who work downtown.

But did they have in mind two luxury buildings with one bedroom apartments starting around $2,700 a month?

Bill Fulton is the director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. He said the Downtown Living Initiative was simply about getting people to live downtown. Anybody.   

“In Houston, what you’re trying to do is use a financial incentive to encourage people to build residential development at all, rather than something else,” Fulton said.

That’s why he said you could consider the initiative a success.

“On the other hand, in most cities, if the city provided you with a substantial financial incentive to build housing, they probably would require affordable housing in return,” he said.

Critics say that the funding shouldn’t go to building luxury housing. The program has handed out money to 16 projects and the total amount may reach $69 million in tax incentives.   

Ryan Leach is the executive director of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. He said the Market Square Park area isn’t done. Workforce housing could come next.

“Now that we’re kind of on a roll with that and we have some momentum with that, I think that there’s an opportunity there for us to focus on really creating workforce housing and affordable housing in a way that it really increases the downtown living population,” he said.

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