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

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Dug Be­g­ley

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. dug.be­g­ley@chron.com twit­ter.com/DugBe­g­ley

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

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.

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