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Here comes the Convention District

We’ll see what this turns into.

The newest vision for the eastern edge of downtown includes hotels and residential buildings in place of what are now parking lots.

Officials also picture a bustling pedestrian scene where shops and restaurants line the streets leading to the city’s 1.2-million-square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center, which, too, would grow as part of their plan.

The group that operates the nearly 25-year-old convention center and other city-owned buildings will publicly unveil its vision this month.

“The economic impact over the past 25 years has been significant,” said Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corp. “We’re going to build on that.”

The 2025 Master Plan takes a long-range approach to the area, which officials hope to brand as the “Convention District.” The boundaries would be U.S. 59, Bell, Austin and Congress.

The plan focuses on three main components: new hotel rooms, more amenities and an expansion of the convention center, which would happen once the other elements were complete.

Some of the improvements will be financed by Houston First, which could also purchase land to help carry out the plan.

Houston First is the spinoff of the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, which runs the Hilton Americas. The idea behind it was to allow the convention center to have more freedom to make decisions, which would allow it to be more innovative and grow the business. Given that plans like this don’t generally come out of nowhere in six months’ time, you have to figure it was part of the reason for the spinoff. Houston First is seeking private investors for this project, which is fine as long as there’s no assumption there will be public funds as backstops. If private investors think they can make this work, more power to them.

Meeting planners have also cited the area’s lack of amenities, saying the convention center is blocks away from most of downtown’s dining and shopping.

“For the out-of-towner, it’s not a significant draw,” said Alan Colyer, a principal with the Gensler architecture firm, which led the overall planning effort for Houston First that began more than a year ago.

The closest collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues is at Houston Pavilions, about five blocks away.

Looking at the map of the area, I’d guess that EaDo and its amenities aren’t far away, but getting to them isn’t pedestrian-friendly, at least not yet. The forthcoming Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines will help with that, and there are other options to consider, like the revived downtown trolley, REV Eco Shuttle, and perhaps a new frontier for the Houston (formerly Washington) Wave. A little creative thinking could go a long way, though some more options nearby wouldn’t hurt, either. Again, we’ll see how big and how comprehensive the Houston First people’s thinking is when they release their plan.

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