George R. Brown Convention Center

30 Years in the Making: Houston’s EaDo Crown Jewel


Location:   Houston, TX
Owner/Operator:   City of Houston / Houston First Corporation
Completed:   December 2016 (structural), July 2011 (master plan)
Size:   1.8 million sf (total) / 770,000 sf (exhibit space)
Expertise:   Master Planning, Structural Engineering, Traffic Engineering, Civil Engineering, Parking
Architect:   EYP (formerly WHR Architects)
Landscape Architect (plaza):  SWA Group
Certification:  LEED® Silver (LEED O+M: Existing Buildings)
Project Cost:  $175 million
Fun Facts:

  • GRB ranks 11th on the Trade Show Executive 2016 World’s Top Convention Centers.
  • New "Wings over Water" sculpture is said to be the largest kinetic outdoor sculpture in the world.
  • GRB is the first convention center in the world to have a permanent Bitcoin ATM.

Completed just months before the 2017 Super Bowl LI, the newly transformed George R. Brown (GRB) Convention Center and Avenida de las Americas (ADLA) are the crowning achievements of a decades-long redevelopment of Houston’s East Downtown (EaDo) district. The GRB’s second major renovation since its opening, this recent transformation comes full circle, seamlessly connecting the various amenity and recreation spaces to form a cohesive, destination campus for the flourishing EaDo district and for downtown Houston as a whole.

The first of several major improvement projects in the area, the GRB opened in 1987, followed by Minute Maid Park in 2000, Toyota Center and the Hilton Americas hotel in 2003, Discovery Green Park in 2008, and PNC Stadium (formerly BBVA Compass Stadium) in 2012.

The area’s first major renovation (2001-2003) was in preparation for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 and expanded the GRB by 650,000 square feet of exhibit halls and additional meeting space. This was also when the adjacent 1,200-room Hilton Americas convention headquarters hotel was built, in hopes of attracting more convention activity to Houston. While these developments certainly enhanced the city’s convention capacity, they proved to be just the first few steps in a much longer process.

Houston continued to lose convention business for two primary reasons — the lack of hotels within walking distance to the GRB and the lack of the area’s appeal as a “destination” place. And although new amenity spaces such as Discovery Green Park and PNC Stadium were built over the next several years, the area still lacked that critical, unifying element needed to connect all of the various venues and attractions.

Best-Laid Plans
A series of studies, including ones commissioned by the Urban Land Institute and Houston First Corp, which operates the city's arts and convention spaces, identified several factors that would significantly influence the overall master plan.

  • Conventioneers don’t want to have to get into a vehicle (personal or public) in order to enjoy lodging, retail, or entertainment.
  • Maintaining ADLA in its current function as a major vehicular thoroughfare inhibited safe pedestrian travel.
  • Viability depended not only on attracting transient business such as conventioneers and vacationers, but more importantly on drawing year-round patronage as an entertainment destination for the community.
  • To attract mixed audiences, greater variety of amenities were needed (hotel, office, retail, transit, entertainment).

Walter P Moore provided transportation planning as part of the overall master plan, which focused on people/pedestrians, community/local heritage, ease of access, providing a “front door,” or central anchor to the GRB/ADLA campus, and bringing the concourse activity down to street level to connect with retail and parking.

Our study and recommendations reconfigured lanes on ADLA to allow certain sections to be closed off during large events (Super Bowl) so that pedestrian events can easily flow from the convention center to Discovery Green and surrounding venues safely and at ground level. ADLA thus becomes a “plaza” and natural bridge between the convention center and Discovery Green. The plaza has portable stage for events, which can be broadcast live on the convention center building.

The Making of Avenida
In November 2014, ground broke yet again, this time in preparation for 2017’s Super Bowl LI. The redevelopment began by converting six lanes and the length of five city blocks into Avenida, the 97,000-sf, park-facing pedestrian plaza that has become the face of the GRB. Formerly Avenida de las Americas (ADLA) — the street that separates the convention center from Discovery Green — had been eight lanes wide, friendlier to cars than to people. Now, with a new traffic plan and new spots for buses to drop off conventioneers, the street has been narrowed to two lanes. An eight-block stretch that was once street now houses “restaurant row.” To date, 13 restaurants and bars have opened, and more are in the works.

Heralding the long-needed “front door” to the convention center, the new Grand Lobby soars 10 stories and showcases Ed Wilson’s 60-foot sculpture, "Soaring in the Clouds," suspended from the ceiling in the center of the GRB. From here, patrons have improved connectivity to 550,000 square feet of exhibition space via a 95,000-sf Grand Concourse.

Front and center outside the GRB is the new sculpture by artist Joe O'Connell. "Wings over Water" is said to be the largest kinetic outdoor sculpture in the world, at 30 by 60 feet. Positioned over a reflecting pool and fountain, the machine evokes nature — when its assembly of steel blades line up or move, it resembles a bird in flight.

"The renovation of the (George R. Brown Convention Center) and its surroundings, along with the creation of new hotels including the Marriott Marquis, was part of a master plan for how Houston would win more convention business," David Mincberg, chairman of Houston First, said in a news release. "With that plan now executed, we are already seeing the benefits of what's been created."

Branded Avenida or Avenida Houston, the newly established development is “the city's newest dining, entertainment, and arts district,” that encompasses the George R. Brown Convention Center, Discovery Green Park, Hilton Americas-Houston, and the Marriott Marquis.