How Metro Let an International Design Competition for Houston’s New Central Station Go Down the Drain

Snohetta Design for Central Station Canopy, Main St. at Capitol, Downtown Houston

Wondering whatever happened to the competition entries from architects competing for the new Main St. light rail station planned for the block between Capitol and Rusk streets downtown, where the new East End and Southeast Lines cross the existing rail line? After a long silence about the project, Metro board members voted yesterday to scrap the plan for a signature station at that location, and to spend $1.05 million to build a standard canopy there instead.

The winner of the invitation-only competition — which included SHoP Architects, LTL Architects, and Neil Denari from New York as well as Houston’s Interloop—Architecture — was New York and Oslo firm Snøhetta. But who’d have known it?


Snohetta Design for Central Station Canopy, Main St. at Capitol, Downtown Houston

According to Dug Begley’s report in today’s Chronicle, though the jury selected the firm’s design in February, Metro never got around to ratifying it until 19 months later. But even then, Metro made no announcement of the firm’s selection. “The whole thing went dark afterwards and no one learned who won or what was happening,” a design professional familiar with the early part of the process reported last month. That’s when the first word came to most other interested parties that Metro was considering other plans. Snøhetta, alarmed that the project could end up going down the drain, encouraged supporters of the project to press Metro committee members not to can it.

The problem, of course, was money. Begley reports estimates for Snøhetta’s selected design came in at $2.164 million, $600K of which would have been footed by the Downtown Management District. But Metro had only budgeted “between $600,000 and $1.2 million for the canopy, not including some electrical components and signs,” reports Begley. “The budget failed to account for those elements.”

Why couldn’t Metro have found other alternatives — a scaled-back design, or additional funding sources — in the year-and-a-half this project was quietly sitting? Metro’s interim CEO tells Begley officials aren’t exactly sure: “By the time officials started assessing the cost overruns and timing, [Tom] Lambert said, they found themselves in a predicament.” Some canopy design for the station had to be approved.

Snohetta Design for Central Station Canopy, Main St. at Capitol, Downtown Houston

The canopy in Snøhetta’s winning design is concrete; rainwater would be funneled down to small portions of the platform, where an underground pipe drain would carry it away. This feature would result in $88,900 in annual maintenance costs, quadruple the amount typically budgeted for Metro’s standard design. But according to the transit agency, Snøhetta was already hard at work last month on a reduced-cost version of its project. By giving up on its plans for grand Central Station, Metro will lose the $600,000 promised for that purpose by the Downtown Management District, putting it over budget even for a no-frills replacement. It’ll also lose whatever international attention it might have received for a signature structure marking the meeting of the 3 rail lines.

Images: Snøhetta

No Snøhetta for Main St.

30 Comment

  • This organization is run by fucking monkeys!!! What a bunch of incompetent fools!

  • This is why we can’t have nice things. If I were an architecture firm, I’d be very hesitant to work on any supposed marquis design project in this town. Evidently our new modus operandi is:
    1) Hold a competition
    2) Refuse to share any entries with the public
    3) Eventually reject them all and choose the cheap options, which inevitably still ends up costing a lot of money

  • about par for the course, I’d say

  • Densify – The entries were shared — reported on here at Swamplot. I believe that you’ve hit the crux of the matter is in your opening statement. If you look at some of the market research that has been done into ridership by modes, trains end up with a much, much higher level of interest in ridership by “professionals”. The obvious hypothesis about cause is that trains are cleaner, have a smoother ride, and, fundamentally, don’t have a class stigma the way buses do. If we want to bake mass transit into the mindset of the bulk of commuters and the “creative classes”, we need to be aiming for “nice” at a minimum. Signature design elements are not optional, they are essential.

  • Wait, so the budget (including annual maintenance) wasn’t actually part of the design competition’s parameters? They just picked what they liked and then looked at the budget after? So for all we know, a losing entry that’s still better than the standard station could fulfill the city’s budget needs, but it will never get built. For all we know, Snohetta could have designed something with a viable budget, if they’d known what that was.

  • It is always a bit embarrassing that the city that is at the forefront of some of the greatest energy industry construction and engineering marvels in world history (fracking, diagonal drilling, deep water drilling, etc.) stumbles, fumbles and bumbles with every big public infrastructure/amenity project that comes up. Rail from downtown to an airport? Crazy talk. Innovative repurposing of an iconic sports arena? Why not a cheezy convention center thingy instead or just blow it up. Why can’t all the amazing ingenuity, innovation and leadership that is prevalent in the energy industry have some spillover into our public spaces?

  • (facepalm)…
    So because of their dithering they are going to be over budget with even a standard platform? Sounds like very bad planning and budgeting to me.
    Another annoying little factlet – the reason this platform is being built is as a tie in to the intersecting lines running on Rusk and Capitol. However, judging by how construction is going the closest stations are apparently going to be on the other side of Fannin – a block away (METRO’s online maps have the stations in the middle of Fannin, which I kinda doubt). To me, it would have made more sense to locate them in the block BETWEEN Main and Fannin, and have some sort of shelter over the whole shootin’ match.

  • LOL it’s obvious the architects of the above design don’t live in Houston. Big inverted cones can collect a lot of rain (weight) in a short amount of time during our heavy downpours and occasional hurricanes. If the drains aren’t working perfectly I can see these things collapsing from the drains being blocked by either overfilled storm drains or trash. It might even become a fad to make a “basket”. It might take a while but since concrete is porous it am sure corrosion of the concrete’s metal reinforcements would create multiple structural issues as well. I applaud Metro’s eventual rejection for this station, even though it might have been for the wrong reasons.

  • The budget WAS part of the design competition perimeters, but the reality of the designs came in over budget. All of the candidates were compensated for their designs , which is great for such an important project. And Metro clearly dropped the ball.

  • So sad……. I just dont understand why Houston always fails at doing anything.

  • People in Houston like to say we are a “can do” city, but so often the city opts for pedestrian over a flash of art.
    A signature canopy invites riders to experience that mode of transport. People are emotional. A positive visual would have helped bond riders to rail. It also would make it more inviting for out of town visitors.

  • Sounds pretty much like what the county did with the Astrodome ideas. Ask for them, then forget about them and put forward their own plan that will fail.

  • Houston was built by leaders who grew the city while lining their own pockets but they were competent people who got things done. Now we have incompetent corrupt leaders. Give me competent and corrupt any day.

  • You just cant make this stuff up folks. Nothing has changed. Metro is an absolute joke.

  • they know it!

    “This has been mismanaged from the get-go, and there cannot be situations where things are not budgeted fully,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board chairman Gilbert Garcia said during a board meeting. “This is precisely why we get criticism.”

  • So I guess the reason there was no movement on the project for 18+ months was that then METRO CEO Greanias was too busy watching porn on his office computer? And we replaced him as CEO with the former head of Metro’s rent-a-cops?
    As Old School says, this city has some of the greatest engineers in the country working in deep sea drilling, along with engineers who work on our space program. Yet, we can’t design a build an interesting canopy for a waiting platform? Something’s wrong here.

  • No surprise, METRO has never lived up to its potential. Every new administration talks about how corruption and incompetence will be a thing of the past and then….Bam! It could be time for a Sunset Commission on Metro. I agree totally that design is key in drawing riders to mass transit. I lived in San Diego for years and they have a similar light rail system where stations are exposed to the elements, the obvious difference being climate. In a city with sweltering heat, sporadic thunderstorms, tropical storms and suffocating humidity we build stations with canopies open on all sides! It doesn’t take much sense to know that splitting the new rail lines downtown on Rusk and Capitol was dumb it only makes the previous dumb decision of splitting the Main St SQ station worse. This new central transfer will be a hazard and will add to congestion. I mean if ordinary citizens in their travels can testify to better transit options elsewhere, why can’t people with taxpayer financed travel figure it out? Metro already wasted 100+ million on the inter-model center that will never be built now we get another waste. The kicker to me is they nixed the design because it was too expensive only to build something less appealing but more expensive. WHAT! That is the definition of MORON!
    1)Incomplete VOTER approved light rail
    2)Outdated bus system
    3) No movement on any form of commuter rail
    4)Higher fares
    5)Horrible streets
    6) and we had to pass additional bonds so the Parks Dept. could build Bike trails
    Exactly why do we have this anyway.
    Maybe if the board was elected by the voters we would see better results? When there are no consequences to stupidity you get Metro. peace

  • The design didn’t really go with the historic nature of that block, esp. with the Gulf building. And porous concrete sounds like it would be darkening from mold in a few years.

  • And this is why METRO is a DISASTER at anything. Just subpar typical INCOMPETENT government agency run (into the ground) by INEPT,SHORTSIGHTED, SMALL MINDED, CORRUPT, HALF-ASS bureaucrats.Who couldn’t do anything “world class” if it bit them in the ass. METRO needs it’s books AUDITED. Along with ALL of the CITY departments. This is a less than stellar reason why Houston is considered by many to be run by amateur, third class, imbeciles who have NO vision,guts,backbone or integrity!!!!

  • I can understand that they need to cut costs, and a standard shelter is less expensive than a signature shelter. But that’s where community involvement comes in. METRO could have paid for the cost of a standard shelter. Management Districts, TIRZ’s, City government, County government, Corporations, and Individuals could have all helped cover the added costs to do a signature shelter.
    Instead they worked in a vacuum. Very disappointing, but alas, not uncommon for governmental entities.

  • Why all the knocks against concrete? If (it’s a big if since Metro is involved here) concrete is done right, it can last a loooong time–Coliseum, anyone?

  • Thats the problem with Houston, never build anything unique or timeless design. Tear down old buildings to build the cell block condos or like this something that would show a metropolitan designed structure for the “standard” design. City is hopeless. Detroit has more character!!!!

  • The reports for the estimate of $2.164 million is a lie. I spoke with a Houston employee involved with the selection and to Craig Dykers of Snohetta himself, they both separately quoted it was just over $900 K. METRO hired their own in-house “designers” and pocketed that money for themselves.

  • Patrick for Mayor!

  • What a bunch of idiots. I heard Mr. Garcia may run for Mayor after Parkers term ends lets remember this. METRO spend millions of dollars to study the University Line to submit to the government and the same thing happened! No University Line. Stupid asses, DART is in trouble right now with debt. But METRO are just dumb ass idiots.

  • @ Sid, you nailed it!

    @ The Insider, I can TOTALLY believe that Dykers and his firm worked within the budget. As did every other “INVITED” competitor! What Internantional architecture firm does not work within the defined brief!!! Unless they want to lose.

    METRO is a JOKE and always has been, they do nothing for the infrastructure of this City and blow money like it is going out of style… METRO needs an elected board for accountability! But then again when only 13% of registered voters vote in a Mayoral election, this is what you get. Sorry to say folks, but we are steadily pissing away everything that made Houston GREAT!

  • Appalled this project, a lavish central station, didn’t scrapped sooner. $2.1 million for canopy, along with about $88,000/ year in maintenance costs is……ridiculous. Granted, it was to be the signature station for the Metro Rail. But, that’s still a stiff price tag to what amounts to public art, funded by Metro. $1.2 million for the standard station seems high as well. All this for a outdoor shelter? I am not insisting on cheap minimalistic stations, but something reasonable.

  • Craig Dykers graduated from the University at Texas at Austin, and his firm designed the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, The National Ballet & Opera House in Oslo, Norway and the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York. They are currently working on the Times Square renovation in NYC and the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Art. What a shame that Metro decided not to build the central station project in Houston so that we would have something by this world class architect.

  • I was at the design competiton/ unveiling. They spent an hour pontificating and then each firm showed up to push their design. IIRC, the people that made these stupid funnels only did so because they thought Houston was a rainy town. RAINY?! The one time the architects came here it was raining, and so they decided this was plenty of environmental input and plugged away with their stupid design. I MUCH preferred the steel-beam construction idea that looked really slick next to the buildings that would flank it. It was perhaps the one designed best suited to our needs but I’m sure pocket money got involved here like it always seems to do when Metro is mentioned. Why did they waste money wining and dining us and showing us these designs only to ignore it all?!