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What’s to become of the downtown post office?

Lisa Gray writes about the future of the downtown post office on Franklin.

Franklin Street Post Office

In the past couple of years, there have been rumblings that the U.S. Postal Service plans to leave 401 Franklin and sell the 16-acre complex – a prospect that sets developers, architects and planners atremble. It’s not just that the parcel of land is large enough to form its own downtown district. It’s also that the land is a place where many things could converge: Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s light-rail line, bike paths, even Amtrak and proposed commuter-rail lines. Done right, that post-office complex could become a major hub of activity – a symbol of sweet progress, at a time when we no longer count on it.

The Urban Land Institute, a national group that promotes good development, last month picked the complex as the project for its 2012 Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. Graduate-student teams from across the country will dream up new uses for the old post-office site in hopes of winning the $50,000 prize.

The competition is hypothetical; there’s no plan to build the winner’s idea. But even so, the competition alarmed Houston preservationists, who worry that in describing the site, the contest organizers seem to encourage razing it and starting with a clean slate. In Houston, such hypothetical ideas have a way of becoming realities.

Stephen Fox, Houston’s best-known architectural historian, emailed other preservationists to alert them to the whispered threat. The post office, he noted, won a Design Award from the Texas Society of Architects in 1963. It is, he wrote, “an outstanding work of mid-century civic architecture,” and as of this year, would be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Fox thinks interesting things could be done not just with the “alabaster beauty” office building (now sadly in need of TLC), but also with the enormous low-slung industrial building where mail was once sorted.

“Can you imagine a green roof there?” he asks. “There’s lots of room for plantings.”

Ramona Davis, head of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, suggests that the five-story office building should be repurposed in part as an Amtrak station. Houston’s current one – an unassuming little building a block away – is “an embarrassment,” she wrote.

Here’s more about the design competition. That location has been up for sale, at least potentially, for awhile now. I’ve heard rumblings about it being turned into some kind of mixed-use, transit-oriented development for nearly as long. If and when there’s ever an Inner Katy line, that would be a nice location to tie it into an extension of the Harrisburg and Southeast lines. The possibilities are endless, and I’m sure we’ll see a few ideas emerge from this competition. We’ll see what happens from there.

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  1. Bill Shirley says:

    Having circled the country on Amtrak, I can agree that our “current [Amtrak station] – an unassuming little building a block away – is ‘an embarrassment'”.

    But the Postal site is too much building for a new one IF it didn’t have other purposes. What can make a city so inviting from the train station, is when you arrive at a place that is full of life, not one that only waits for a train.

    The more variety, the better.

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    Historic? Am I the only one who thinks this building is ugly?