Robert M. Eury
Robert M. Eury, president of Central Houston, sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to share his thoughts on the city’s public transportation, and how passionate leaders and collaboration helped give shape to downtown Houston.
Q | Can you start by telling us about your background?
A | My mother was an elementary school teacher, grew up in the Bluegrass region and attended the University of Kentucky. She graduated in three years and then went to Columbia. She arrived in New York City at the time of the 1939 World’s Fair and lived at the International House. This opened her mind
to big cities.
She was engaged to my father, who grew up in Louisville. Dad was a businessman investing in small properties. We had modest means and were staunch Methodists. My parents ultimately worked for the church where my wife, Gayle, and I grew up. My dad had instinctive leadership skills, which I learned. I think my mother’s experience in New York had some impact on me. Although, the love of building really came from my mother’s father, who had little formal training but was an excellent builder.
It now seems phenomenal to me that very early on in life I knew what I wanted to do. I remember in junior high school we had a unit on vocations. You had to think about what you wanted to be. I said I wanted to be an architect, so I had to interview an architect. The gentleman I interviewed gave me terrific advice. He said, ‘Work on the most challenging subjects you can take—math and science. Don’t worry about whether you can draw or not. You can go to night school and learn how to draw.’ So I did. He gave me a little coaching on the best schools. The School of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning at the University of Cincinnati was strongest in the region. I applied and was accepted. Cincinnati has an excellent co-op program that dates back over a century. I received a six-year professional degree, a B.S. in Architecture.
I graduated from University of Cincinnati and continued working a couple of years at the University of Louisville. Then Don Williams, my colleague who hired me at U of L, was recruited to lead the creation of a new urban research center affiliated with the Rice School of Architecture. Two years later, this opened the opportunity for me to attend graduate school at Rice and have a role in the new center. At that time, Rice had a master’s degree in urban design, and I could see my interests were headed in that direction. We moved to Houston in 1974. I will never forget…we had a Texas flag on the front of the Ryder truck. Our families thought we were coming back home after I finished at Rice. That was 41 years ago! I don’t think you could ever enter Houston through better doors than Rice University. It was an amazing place, and Rice Center for Community Design + Research was equally remarkable. In the early ‘80s, Rice Center was asked by community leaders to envision the creation of an entity to begin to think about the future of downtown and the central city. These leaders were beginning to realize that while downtown had 10 million square feet of new offices under construction, its future was not as secure as one would think. Of course, they were not thinking of the oil bust yet to come, they were thinking about downtown’s competitive position in a region that was rapidly building multiple centers of employment. Rice Center helped them envision this new organization, and they committed to its formation. When they recruited someone to organize it, my name got on the list. With a number of outstanding business and civic leaders committed, I was hired to be the CEO and help to put it together.
We launched Central Houston in the spring of 1983. At the time, it was both exciting and challenging. I realized at the time I had the opportunity to work with wonderful people who were instant mentors. Talk about a learning experience—yes, I’ve been to graduate school at Rice, but it was like going back to graduate school because I had the incredible opportunity to learn from these wonderful corporate, civic and governmental leaders.
Central Houston, a nonprofit member organization, ramped up quickly with the large firms and civic entities as its members, a CEO board and the will to have impact. The issues were there to tackle starting with access. We were coming out of a period when Houston was strangling from congestion. I know you may laugh and say, ‘What decade was that in?’ Well, this was at a time which I think far exceeded what we experience today with congestion and getting around. METRO was a new entity at that point—only about four years old. So it was struggling to improve an outdated bus system and planning to build a rail transit system. METRO designed a heavy rail line that started about where the Hardy Toll Road at 610 is today and came through downtown/midtown and out the Southwest Freeway. A subway was proposed in downtown and midtown—priced at a billion dollars. Bonds for this plan were put before the voters in June of ’83. They were voted down.
When the rail vote failed, METRO quickly began to build an excellent commuter bus system complete with park and ride lots and dedicated lanes. This has had a remarkable impact on the region’s ability to get to downtown and the Texas Medical Center—the inner core of the city.
Q | If you look back at the past 20-30 years of your career, what are the parts of the city, the icons, you were involved in building that you think had the largest impact on its brand or the way the city operates today?
A | I find the use of the word icons somewhat amusing since back in the early days of Central Houston, these were just ideas. However, I think it’s a fair word. Let’s start with the evolution of the METRO system. We have always been a collaborator with METRO, especially in the early years. At the same time, we led the redevelopment of Buffalo Bayou to become Houston’s waterfront amenity. There had been plans and some improvements made since the early 1900s, but there was no consensus to move forward with bold vision. We got a fresh start during the administration of Mayor Whitmire as a task force recommended the formation of Buffalo Bayou Partnership in 1986, and we moved on the first major piece of a master plan, Sesquicentennial Park, initially opened in 1989. I remember task force member Gerry Hines saying, ‘We’re going to develop this incrementally.’ We didn’t have the money, especially during the oil bust, to be able to build the envisioned plans all at one time. But his approach was on target as we now experience the physical transformation of Buffalo under the leadership of Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Even larger than this is the commitment of the Houston community to transform the region’s entire bayou greenway system into a recreational and circulation asset. I think this has the potential to be incredibly impactful as a community that’s attached to our cars suddenly recognizes there is another system for travel on our bicycles or feet.
Another piece of the redevelopment puzzle has been the construction of a set of civic gathering places, the stadiums led by our civic and governmental leaders over the past two decades. Our role was the early planning work—determining where we could locate a ballpark or arena and then securing the site. This was only possible with the leadership from the business community. We were able to put funds together to secure the land at Union Station from the cooperating railroads that worked quickly with us. The vision was advanced by a referendum passed by a very narrow margin…a half of a percent. To now see what Minute Maid Park has done for that part of the central city, followed by Toyota Center a few years later, and more recently BBVA Compass Stadium, is truly gratifying.
When I started at Central Houston, Houstonians did not call the city’s performing arts halls the Theater District. In the late ‘80s we helped to organize a coalition of the performing arts organizations and the city to envision the district as a civic place. Of course now the Theater District and the Museum District continue to grow and change as cultural hubs for the region.
We spent a lot of time over the years on a series of redevelopment projects. We worked with newly elected State Representative Garnet Coleman on legislation which allowed for state and local incentives to make financing our major convention center hotels possible, including the Hilton Americas and now the Marriott Marquis to open next summer. These huge properties are essential to support Houston’s growing competitiveness as a convention and trade show destination. Also included among these projects was the conversion of the vacated Albert Thomas Convention Center to Bayou Place in the Theater District, and further down Texas Avenue the conversion of the historic Rice Hotel into residential lofts. Now when I count them up, there are dozens of projects in which we have been involved. Of course, these now will be complemented greatly by our downtown living initiative with nearly 20 residential projects in development.
When the Brown Foundation, the Kinder Foundation and Mayor Bill White saw an opportunity to change underutilized green space and parking lots near the George R. Brown Convention Center into a major urban park, we assisted with its development. The park’s design was driven by a strong vision of a highly programmed space that would attract users from all over the region while serving an increasing number of downtown residents. Indeed, Discovery Green is a success beyond our expectations drawing over a million visitors per year. When we put all of these development initiatives together, we are beginning to experience the excitement of a highly transformed urban place.
Q | Do you find that urban sprawl is a challenge as an architect and urban planner for this city?
A | Citizens generally call all of our urbanized area ‘Houston’ even if you live in The Woodlands or Bellaire. That is a hugely important part of our mindset. However, the physical distance between many citizens is challenging. They live in their own circles of activity. So there is a circle in Katy, there is a circle out in the energy corridor, there is a circle in Fort Bend County and one up in The Woodlands. In this context, I believe that the circle representing the central city is really a large triangle which includes uptown, downtown and the Texas Medical Center. This is the emerging core of the region. Many may not perceive this because the transportation grid does not readily connect these nodes. Over the next 50 years I see it growing like Manhattan did in the early 20th century. While it may never catch up to New York’s density, we will see a density and size of buildings that may be surprising.
Q | Do you feel there is great support now? Are we becoming more thoughtful about city planning?
A | I definitely do. I think there has always been a large group of people in the community, including those in real estate development, that believe we do need to guide and coordinate where we develop. For the past 15 years, you can feel the momentum pushing towards more coordinated and predictable planning.
I do not see that resulting in zoning, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think it is time to focus on creating vibrant districts and livable neighborhoods. That’s what redevelopment authorities and management districts are working towards. They are working on places that are far more pedestrian friendly. If I had my one wish for Houston, it would be to have excellent sidewalks. If I considered running for mayor (and I am not planning to), I would campaign on a single platform: build sidewalks. It drives me nuts to see how disconnected we are and then to think about the enormity of the job to fix this situation. For a citizen to be able to walk even in places where it should be a no-brainer should be a given in raising our city’s livability.
There is a groundswell for better planning within the City of Houston. With an incorporated area comprising 627 square miles, the city needs to manage its destiny within this huge region. We are always faced with the assumption that if you are for planning, you must be for zoning. These are totally different things— planning, as I see it, is about managing our city. I am thrilled to see the initial stage of the city’s effort to prepare a general plan—Plan Houston is making progress. It is focused on the policy level for now. Over time it will drive the strategic initiatives in the city. This will happen in the next mayor’s term and beyond. Give credit to Mayor Parker; she got it off and running so that the city can be run in a more businesslike way.
Q | What are some projects—looking forward to the next five to 10 years—that excite you?
A | First of all, I am really excited about TMC3. I think it is such a dramatic step forward for the Texas Medical Center to move towards this place of collaboration. Like most people, I have found the medical center to be difficult to comprehend and then navigate. I am enthralled by the concept of beginning to build a city with all of the institutions included as opposed to each institution building its own city without particularly good connections between. One asset of the medical center is that it is dense. This provides an environment that supports walking and transit use because it is not an easy place to drive around. One thing that I foresee in TMC3 is the creation of a livable center.
A livable center is a place where one is spending far more of his or her time than just working or learning, where you are really doing most everything.
I would describe a livable center as a place with multiple dimensions of activity: a place of work, a place to visit, a place to live, a place you can recreate, a place you can shop, a place you can be entertained, a place you get together with friends and can, frankly, live your entire life if you really wanted to. I am seeing a strong trend towards more livable centers in Houston. I wish that we had the corner on the market for such places downtown, but we don’t. In fact, if anything, I think we are trailing a bit. We have a vision, but plenty of work to get there. It is challenging because we are dealing with transforming a physical environment that is almost 180 years old. But with TMC3, you have green field conditions that allow you to build a livable center from the ground up.
As I look ahead to the future of the city, it is very clear that we have a growing younger population that does not have the same attachment to their cars. I seem to hear daily about someone who is living without a car. They are making thoughtful choices about where they live, where they work, where they shop so they don’t absolutely have to have a car, or they may have a car and rarely use it. In downtown it is clear you could go a week and probably never touch your vehicle, and you would have pedestrian or transit access to everything you wish to do.
Another part of this is recreation. Folks who do not put much value on what is happening along Houston’s bayous are missing something because of the growing importance of having a place where you can recreate. This does require extensive space. As we work on the North Houston Highway project, we are looking for new public spaces that might be possible as I-45, I-10 and I-69 are reconfigured. In a dense urban core we are always looking for opportunities for new parks and green spaces.
Q | Do you have any closing thoughts?
A | This is a great city to be in. It is a place where we can get things accomplished with relative simplicity. In comparison to other major cities, I realize how unique this is. In other cities, layers of institutions, interests and positions result in a more challenging environment for getting things done. This city still operates like a much smaller city than we are today. It is very open. People know and respect each other. Sometimes I become frustrated when I compare Houston to other major cities with far more history.
I tend to forget that in development years, our city is really young. We have a long way to go. You have to use your imagination to look back at a New York or Boston to appreciate what they were like at our stage of city development. Yet, I find it very exciting to be a part of the transforming process in a dynamic young city where one can make a difference.
Houston is a great place. For newcomers I find it may take them a little bit of time to really appreciate the place. I always call it the one-year test—at the end of one year, you either love it and you won’t leave, or you don’t like it and you’re gone. The wonderful thing is that the ones who love it far outnumber the ones who don’t and leave.