August 28, 2002
No Olympics for Houston

Unlike Ginger, I'm sorry to see that Houston has been dropped from consideration by the US Olympic Committee as a potential host city for the 2012 Olympics. I didn't see Houston's bid as a "wallflower girl throwing herself at the quarterback", as Ginger colorfully put it, but others did.

The thing is, I saw the possibility of the Olympics as being a catalyst for more rail lines, something which I definitely consider a benefit. It's my opinion that the biggest failure of the Lee Brown administration has been that they've made a piss-poor case for rail. We never should have had to go through the motions and the expense of voting (again!) to keep working on the Main Street rail line. Orlando Sanchez should have been a pariah for abetting the rail opponents instead of a serious threat to a two-term mayor. Unfortunately, Lee Brown never sold a vision for mass transit to Houston. He never made people understand that we can't keep widening highways. Whether he didn't think he needed to or was just incapable of doing so I can't say, but I can say that we'd be much better off if he'd at least tried.

There's one other thing about Houston that I think ultimately dooms efforts like the bid for the 2012 Games, and it goes hand in hand with our overall image problem: Houston has a boring downtown. Oh, there's plenty of nice restaurants and bars and theaters, but if you're the travelling companion of someone who's in Houston on business and you're staying at a downtown hotel without a car, what is there for you to do during the day?

Not a whole lot, and that's my point. The museum district and the zoo aren't downtown, though they will be served by the rail line when it's ready to go. The Landry's restaurant chain is building a restaurant with an aquarium in it, which ought to be cool. There is a shopping mall downtown, but it's not exactly loaded with top name retailers, let alone places that are interesting in their own right such as an ESPN store, a Niketown, or an FAO Schwartz. There are a couple of small parks, which are nice but again, not exactly destinations. The one real stretch of green space is the bayou that runs along Allen Parkway, and it's separated from downtown by I-45. I can't even think of a single tall building downtown that has an observation deck or a family-friendly restaurant up top.

There's a lot to do in downtown Houston at night, but a great downtown has stuff to do all day. We have bits and pieces of that, but until the day that it's a coherent whole Houston will continue to be found lacking Olympic committees and their ilk. One may consider this a feature rather than a bug (and let's be clear here: I love Houston anyway, and my main reaction to this announcement is that it's everybody else's loss), but I think it's important to understand.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 28, 2002 to Elsewhere in Houston

It's funny, when I first heard about losing out on the Olympics, my thought was "Finally! Now I won't have to keep hearing how we should start light rail to win and/or be ready for an Olympic event that's not going to happen."

I'm not absolutely against rail, but I don't want to do it to impress an olympic committee or make Houston a "real city."

In a similar vein, I thought that "city image" was the worst reason ever mentioned for bringing the Texans to down, even though in the end I was for it.


Posted by: R. Alex on August 28, 2002 9:07 AM

The IOC did the dull downtown thing with Atlanta in 1996, and hated it, hated it, hated it. Dick Pound, then an IOC executive from Canada, slagged the town from one end of the city limits to the other. IOC chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch, meanwhile, could only find it within himself to call that Olympiad "most exceptional games" -- not only short of his standard "best games ever," but also not even a compliment.

After that experience, the crowned heads of the IOC have no stomach for staging another stateside Olympics cum urban-renewal project. New York and SF would stand as a direct refutation of the Atlanta model. Houston would have been its carbon copy. The USOC was wise enough to understand that, and consequently cut Houston out.

Sorry it had to happen, but the key to getting the games now is to be a great city first. [Or to kvetch for long enough, like China. =, ] Build light rail, create some street life and a good walkable environment, and who knows -- maybe in a decade or two, Houston will be ready to give the Games another try.

Posted by: Greg Greene on August 28, 2002 9:37 AM

We had never voted on light rail before the 2000 referendum (and even then it wasn't a straight vote). There was a referendum on a heavy rail line in 1983, but that was rejected by a 2:1 margin.

There was another referendum in 1998, but it didn't even come close to mentioning rail.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on August 28, 2002 6:35 PM

Owen: From the Houston Chronicle, 12/1/01 editorial:


"An appropriations bill about to receive final approval from Congress allots $39 million to Houston-area transportation projects, including $10 million for the study of transit options for the region's major corridors. It remains for Rep. Tom DeLay, the Sugar Land resident and House majority whip, to end his ban on federal rail funding for Houston so the studies will have real purpose.

It makes no sense to spend $10 million to study the merits of rail and other transit modes if rail is ruled out from the start.

Houstonians owe a debt of gratitude to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who secured the study funds over DeLay's objections. Unless the studies are begun soon, Washington's transportation appropriations cycle would condemn Houstonians to forgo rail expansion for another generation, no matter what the studies might find.

In a joint statement, DeLay and Hutchison said the ban on rail funds for Houston will go away when "the people of Houston approve a light -rail system in Houston." Last month, the people of Houston did exactly that, rejecting attempts to scuttle a light -rail line along the Main Street corridor. In 1988, Mass Transit Authority voters approved construction of a rail system, of a design to be chosen later.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said that following the Nov. 6 referendum he had no objection to federal funds being spent on the voter-approved Main Street line. DeLay should be guided by his junior, repeal the ban and let voters decide on rail expansion."


So yes, Houston has approved rail before. The competing refernda last year were a waste of money. I blame Lee Brown for lack of leadership on the issue.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on August 28, 2002 9:49 PM

Here is the text of the 1988 referendum, requiring a yea or nea vote:

"Metro 's Phase II construction plan including construction of general mobility projects (consisting of major thoroughfare improvements, underpasses and overpasses and other projects designed to lessen traffic congestion) and the dedication of Metro 's sales tax receipts from February 1988 through September 2000 to pay for such general mobility projects."

Do you see any mention of light rail? Voting "yea" on that referendum cannot possibly be construed as to denote support for any kind of rail transit. As I said, it makes no mention of light rail. The Houston Chronicle was lying in saying otherwise. Moreover, Brown only showed a "lack of leadership," when he rammed rail down the public's throat after saying he wouldn't.

Compare these two statements he made when asked about light rail, one year apart:

"I will not be the mayor to build a rail system in Houston."
-- Lee Brown, 1997, before the election

"I am committed to the idea."
-- Lee Brown, 1998, after the election

You can understand, then, how anti-rail people are more than a bit upset. There was no vote in support of light rail until after construction was well underway, and when Brown was first elected, it was on an anti-rail platform. This is democracy subverted no matter how you slice it.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on August 28, 2002 10:42 PM

I think light rail between the Dome (excuse me, Reliant Stadium) and downtown is a fine idea, and I think a shopping district downtown and daytime activities there are fine ideas. I even agree that they would be useful in attracting tourists and conventions.

But they would be good for the city. That's why we should want and have them, not to attract big events like the Olympics. It's the butt-kissing and the "we'll improve ourselves for you" that annoys me. If we're not what they want in a city, so what? For the most part, we're what people who live here want in a city, and isn't that more important?

Posted by: Ginger on August 29, 2002 10:05 AM

Ginger, I agree that these things should be done because they're good for the city. I simply saw the specter of the Olympics as a pretty powerful fulcrum for overcoming the inevitable naysaying and foot-dragging. A means to an end, in other words. Now that it's no longer a possibility, I fear that some desirable projects may get dropped by the wayside.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on August 29, 2002 10:41 AM

Houston's downtown is NOT boring. It is not yet some cutesy touristy place yet.........but I like it that way. The downtown Houston that I will always savor is the one that is full of people in the tunnels, the bizarre layout with the selection of shops and eats, pedestrians on Travis St., Main Street with its bars and cafes, the Central Public Library's open outdoor plaza, the Warehouse Distric..........and the Park Plaza Shops............lots of excellent people watching.

I also love the Kim Hung Mall in the backside Chinatown, the nearby Little Saigon and the avocado smoothies and Tropioca tea house. Sorry, but I don't think downtown Houston has to have FAO Schwartz or a NIKE shop so that it can try and be a Times Square or Yonge Street wannabe.

And downtown Houston is not reflective of Houston's choices in general. Los Angeles has a less than stellar downtown that is not Times Square either........but do people say LA is boring? Folks can hang out and stroll for eclectic stuff and eats in Rice Village, the Montrose, the Heights, Uptown Galleria, First Colony, Old Town Spring, Kemah Waterfront, Galveston and upcoming Woodlands Waterway. So many distinct settings in Houston, not like NYC where everything is just the same old city blocks format. Greenwich Village is just Little Italy with different storefronts, y'know?

Downtown Houston does have an observation deck. It's on the 60th floor of the CHASE tower. Free and open to the public last I was there.

We can watch movies, go to an (overpriced) aquarium, shop at a mall, eat many kinds of food and people watch in downtown Houston. And that's boring? Only to people who think everything must look like San Francisco's Market St. or NY's Times Square.

Posted by: worldlyman on August 9, 2003 9:43 PM

Woahhh worldlyman. Downtown Houston IS booring.

I agree, you do not need ESPN Zone or FAO to make a downtown interesting. Quite the contrary. You need small businesses like candy stores, trendy boutiques, .99 cent stores, pharmacies, and record stores to make a downtown interesting. You need places where you can casually interact with people without even having to talk to them. This breeds creativity, social-consciousness, and culture.

New York is exactly the opposite of how you described it. There are no "same old city blocks." I've lived there for the last 7 years and found that every block is quite unique from the others. Just look at the real estate prices from block to block and you should get a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about.

Houston is still where my heart is since I grew up here. I hope some creative people have interests in downtown. Otherwise it'll turn into a glorified Richmond strip with hired saxaphone players to give it that special "urban" feel.

There needs to be legislation put in place to stop developers like Perry Homes from building such tear-down atrocities near downtown. Freedman's Town needs to be historically preserved. Tax breaks should be given to small business owners in downtown. The list goes on. Point is, Houston needs a lot of help now before it loses what little it has or do any more damage by not passing Phase II of the proposed light rail.

Houston can be a great city. It just needs a lot of help by the right people.

Posted by: largetexan on August 13, 2003 11:23 PM

Perry Homes really is going to ruin the Inner Loop. What's the point of tearing down decent buildings to put up useless trash instead? If there's any way to get legislation against them please let me know!

As for downtown Houston being booring or not...I think it is extremely booring so far. The revitalization is still in its infancy, however. Give it time. There is no people-watching in downtown. Only slightly on the weekends, but those are like implants from some far off wanna-be land.

Randall Davis is another Perry Homes. Bad quality, bad design, but still pretentious as hell and making our city even worse. The city needs to ban him from projects just as the city of Austin did when he proposed to build where the bat bridge still stands.

Houston needs help badly. I want to get involved just don't know how

Posted by: billy on August 13, 2003 11:40 PM