Piercing the Sky

Piercing the Sky

The public debut of the Texas Department of Transportation’s $6 billion plan to re-route I-45 around downtown Houston has citizens, planners, and city leaders atwitter about whether to demolish or repurpose a section of freeway known as the Pierce Elevated.

Houston needs an urban icon, said Marcus Martinez, a designer at the Houston office of national architecture firm Page. Martinez believes the Pierce can be saved and reprogrammed into an elevated park development connecting Buffalo Bayou, downtown, and adjacent neighborhoods. He has been working pro bono on a proposal called the Pierce Skypark with Tami Merrick and John Cryer, also of Page.

“We are due for something big that puts us on the map and attracts people from all industries,” said Martinez. “Our chief goal is to keep it and turn it into something public and transformational for the city. It could be a variety of programming and flavors as well.” And it would be a nod to the city’s heritage instead of razing the structure completely.


The Pierce Skypark is an optimistic vision to turn a two-mile stretch of elevated freeway (roughly 3 times the size of New York’s High Line) into an amenity for citizens and visitors. Programming above and below the existing structure could range from parks and trails to public space, retail, housing, and office space.

“All kinds of big ideas are being batted around,” said Cryer, Board of Directors, Emeritus of Page. Cryer has been a key player in major revitalization projects in downtown Houston, including Discovery Green and Buffalo Bayou parks, the Rice Hotel, Commerce Towers, Club Quarters Hotel, and Keystone Lofts. He is also president-elect of Preservation Houston. “The main issue is people think of it as another park. The power of it is that it becomes a development with occupied space below, like a shaded promenade, and above with air rights. It can be an incredible design element and identity marker. Think big. When you look at the history of Houston, there can be a return to the legacy of Houston doing bold and big moves again.”

A master development strategy needs to be created, Cryer said.


“Not every elevated stretch of infrastructure is a High Line,” said Charles Renfro, a Houston native and a partner at Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), which designed the High Line. “There is no success guarantee. The Pierce makes a surreal landscape that lets people get higher than normal and it is a launching pad to think differently about making landscape in Houston. There could be an opportunity to keep, or selectively keep it, and that is where design comes in. Whosoever designs something on top and under the Pierce Elevated, there has to be a spectacular ambition to not mimic anything in the world.”

A myriad of public and private conversations have ensued about the potential of transforming the 37.7 acres of the Pierce that currently afford a view of a giant neon cross. Comments have come from journalist Lisa Gray of the Houston Chronicle, urban and environmental historian Dr. Kyle Shelton of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, Bob Eury of the Houston Downtown Management District, and John S. Jacob of the Eastwood Civic Association.

At three public meetings attended by more than 500 people across the city, TxDOT has released intricate maps, animated renderings, and data tables showing various routes, as well as the environmental and statistical impacts of its rerouting plan. It involves the widening, depression, and elevation of three segments of I-45 from Beltway 8 continuing to downtown connectors and around the George R. Brown Convention Center. Parts of the proposal in segment 3 cut through the Mexican Consulate and the South Central Police Station in Third Ward, and will raze a public housing project called Clayton Homes along with the Pierce Elevated.

The state agency is in the process of gathering public feedback, but consensus has not been reached in the community. The environmental studies are due in 2017, and then a public hearing will ensue. Along with processing community input, the lengthy procedure of eminent domain would need to run its course and funding would have to be secured. Danny Perez, TxDOT spokesman, estimated “it could be five to 10 years before we see any movement on these projects.”

TxDOT is accepting public comments until May 31 via regular mail and email. The group from Page had pitched the idea of the Skypark to Councilman David Robinson privately prior to the recent public meetings and media attention. “We need to recognize this is going to be a very long process and there are several authorities that have jurisdiction over this,” said Robinson. “It’s not a fully integrated solution but it’s very provocative and stimulates the discussion in an appropriate way and hopefully we can make a Houston-specific solution.”