World Cup could cap off plans for a new Houston park on top of the I-45 project.
If Houston lands some games, a parklike space atop I-45 is possible
Houstonians with no interest in soccer might still score if the North American 2026 World Cup brings games to town — potentially kick-starting a project to develop a parklike space atop a buried freeway east of the central business district.
The World Cup promises a spending spree much like the Super Bowls in 2004 and 2017, which focused officials on transit and public space improvements such as light rail and beautification of Broadway. Chosen cities can expect an estimated $400 million in economic impact, so officials are planning a massive fundraising and improvement campaign should Houston get the nod.
“The exposure is exponentially greater than some of those other events,” said Doug Hall, vice president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.
Even just the prospect of land-
ing the games in Houston helps prioritize and buoy major projects, officials said.
“It does give something to point the efforts toward, and it raises the consciousness of the efforts,” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.
Local officials celebrated the announcement that a joint American, Mexican and Canadian bid to host the premier event in international soccer was successful.
“We are grateful that our facilities and excellent infrastructure allowed us to be a part of that bid,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said in a statement. “NRG Park has successfully hosted two Super Bowls and two NCAA Men’s Final Fours, and it will be a great venue for the World Cup matches.”
Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.
Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.
A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, Hall said.
“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voterapproved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”
Hall and others said the expectation of a World Cup visit to Houston would be thousands of international and American visitors over a month, probably in June and early July 2026, with a month of preparations before games begin and a week of winding down once the crowds leave.
Local efforts could tap a special state fund to lure major events, but also rely heavily on local fundraising, all based on more study of the games’ economic impact. Freeway work
The spot would be similar to Dallas’ design of Klyde Warren Park atop Spur 366. Klyde Warren has been hugely successful and a popular gathering spot, generating investment along its edges and drawing residents to eateries and food trucks that line the park.
In Houston, officials have said a cap of the two freeways would act as a companion space to Discovery Green on the convention center’s west side, making the entire section of downtown a hub of activity. Still, officials were being cautious to count on the World Cup.
“As of right now, it is just a proposed project that has huge potential,” said Angie Bertinot, spokeswoman for the Houston Downtown Management District.
Eury agreed, noting that like Discovery Green it could be designed to benefit Houston yearround. “You begin to say whatever is developed there, from a public perspective, how can it serve the day to day and also serve the needs when there is an event like a Super Bowl,” he said.
The possibility looks attractive because officials have years to work on getting the freeway and the park into place, Eury said.
“The timing is extremely good at this point as it is not tomorrow,” he said.
The freeway work in downtown is set to start as early as 2020 and re-route I-45 to run parallel to Interstate 69 along the east of the convention center. The project is part of a larger program to widen I-45 from the central business district north to the Sam Houston Tollway.
The most notable changes in the project for the downtown area are the removal of the I-45 segment through downtown, commonly called the Pierce Elevated, and depressing both I-45 and I-69 along the east side so the freeway acts as less of a barrier.
As part of the redesign, TxDOT has identified three spots along I-45 where it is practical to cover the freeway with a green space — the spot east of the convention center from Dallas to Commerce, north of downtown from Cavalcade to Quitman in the Near Northside and in Midtown between Main and San Jacinto where Metro’s Red Line crosses I-69. Transit plan
Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.
Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,00expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.
Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.
Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more. “I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup. firstname.lastname@example.org twitter.com/DugBegley
The Harris County Emergency Operations Center was prepared for the Super Bowl in 2017. If Houston lands some World Cup activity, the city could host five or six games in 2026.