Come September, when the resident companies of Houston’s Theater District begin their new seasons, they’ll have an additional reason to celebrate: the imminent opening of the Lynn Wyatt Square for the Performing Arts, the $26.5 million makeover of the old Jones Plaza — a project nearly a decade in the making.
First, a disclaimer: Plans could change. They already have, repeatedly. But Michael Heckman, president and CEO of Houston First, sounds reasonably confident things are on track this time. Houston First is the city-backed corporation that operates the Wortham Center, Jones Hall, the George R. Brown Convention Center and a handful of other facilities, all in the name of promoting Houston to its residents and visitors.
“Now that it’s getting close to being finished, I’m getting more and more excited about talking about Lynn Wyatt Square,” he said.
Heckman and other top city officials hope Houstonians will greet Lynn Wyatt Square as the Theater District’s “front lawn,” a long-overdue green space which patrons of the Houston Symphony, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, and Alley Theatre (just to name its immediate neighbors) will quickly come to consider essential to any night out.
Heckman would like to see the 1.5-acre park have a similar effect on downtown’s west side as Discovery Green has on its eastern half.
“I think that you will see more pedestrian traffic that will come through there, and (this) increased pedestrian traffic and vibrancy makes for a healthier downtown and a healthier Theater District,” he said. “I think that helps (by) not only attracting businesses to downtown, but further cultural opportunities there, the creative economy, as well as restaurants and all the other things that are associated with a thriving section of your city.”
Designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm Rios, realized by Manhattan Construction Company and nearly a dozen local subcontractors, Lynn Wyatt Square features numerous amenities even in its protean state: a shaded performance lawn geared toward concerts and other free programs, cascading water feature, many gardens (floral and edible), multimedia features including sound towers and video screens and mini-murals by local artists Anat Ronen and Jessica Guerra.
All in all, artists’ renderings reveal a fitting tribute to the woman Vanity Fair once called “Texas’ Ur-socialite.” Heiress to the Sakowitz department-store fortune, wife of legendary Houston wildcatter Oscar Wyatt, Lynn Wyatt is perhaps the best friend the city’s performing arts ever had.
Presently, she’s an Alley Theatre lifetime trustee; member at large of Houston Ballet’s board of trustees; and vice chair of Houston Grand Opera’s board of directors. For good measure, add confidante to Sir Elton John and fundraiser extraordinaire for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Rothko Chapel; and Princess Grace Foundation (among many others).
Wyatt’s fundraising prowess turned out to be crucial to the project that now bears her name, too. According to Houston First, the $26.5 million price tag — down from an earlier projection of $29 million — breaks down to roughly 45 percent private money and 55 percent public funding, with significant contributions coming from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority ($10 million); Houston First ($5 million); and numerous prominent Houston foundations. But without a $10 million donation from the Wyatt family, announced in October 2019, “this project would not have been able to move forward,” Heckman said.
“I believe that the arts, including the performing arts, are the soul of any city,” Wyatt told Houston Public Media at the time of the donation’s announcement. She’s been ailing lately and was unavailable to comment for this article. Wyatt will turn 88 next month.
“A thriving arts community is the cornerstone of a prosperous city, and Houston is a prosperous city,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a statement to the Houston Landing.
“Our downtown is home to global corporate headquarters, many of Houston’s resident arts companies, beautiful architecture and plazas, and the Lynn Wyatt Square for the Performing Arts will be a dynamic addition to the Houston Theater District,” the mayor continued. “We are happy to celebrate a newly activated greenspace for Houston and its visitors and I look forward, as we complete this project, to thanking Lynn Wyatt once again for this very generous contribution.”
A past eyesore
The old Jones Plaza had its moments of triumph. There just weren’t all that many.
In its heyday in the early 1990s, hundreds packed the perimeter for “Party on the Plaza” concerts by the likes of Marcia Ball and Joe Ely, which sometimes got so raucous that theatergoers across the street at the Alley complained about the noise. But in its later years, a succession of a pan-ethnic celebrations (Indonesian, Turkish, Brazilian, etc.), Tejano concerts and a memorable July 2017 show by New Orleans’ “Queen of Bounce,” Big Freedia, weren’t nearly enough for the square to shake sticky adjectives like “ugly” and “eyesore.”
It seemed like the city was always tinkering with the plaza’s look, but there was always a feeling of squandered potential in its unforgiving angles and relentless concrete. What should have been an inviting space for lingering before or after a performance on one of the many nearby stages instead made visitors cringe and hurry to their cars that much faster.
A 2018 column by the Houston Chronicle’s Molly Glentzer opens with the scent of urine and doesn’t get much more flattering from there: “A giant waffle iron of hot concrete and metal chairs: That’s how my friend Jann remembers the plaza,” she wrote. “She always longed for a place to catch a breath of fresh air during the decades she worked backstage at the theaters.”
Today, one gets the feeling Heckman is being as diplomatic as he can when discussing the site.
“Maybe it was designed for a certain purpose, but over time it just wasn’t something that had multiple uses and was able to have a real flexibility about the use of it,” he said. “It was just something that was past its time, and we were pleased that we were able to make this project happen.”
Crippled by Harvey, pandemic
The idea of renovating Jones Plaza (again) dates back at least to the spring of 2015, when the city of Houston rolled out its decade-long Theater District Master Plan. As prepared by the Arup international consulting firm, the plan cited a number of issues standing between the district and greatness, including “lack of cohesive district identity;” “lack of dynamic digital displays creating excitement at night;” and “many dark and shadowy areas, creating a perception of lack of safety.”
A couple of years later, real-estate website Swamplot noted Houston First’s upcoming deadline for preliminary redesign bids. The item was dated Aug. 24, 2017, late in what turned out to be one of the most consequential weeks in Houston’s history. Hurricane Harvey wreaked several years and untold millions of dollars’ worth of damages on Houston First’s Theater District properties, chiefly the Wortham Center and Theater District Parking Garage (a sizable portion of which lies underneath Lynn Wyatt Square).
Indeed, repair crews were still hard at work when the COVID-19 pandemic crippled Houston’s performing arts scene and thoughts of any new construction on the project happening anytime soon. Even when cases began to clear up, Houston First found itself navigating a whole new set of issues — hyperinflated prices for building materials, sudden and persistent kinks in the supply chain. Construction at last got underway in May 2021.
Now, time is short. Yes, important details remain undetermined: the nature and tenants of the park’s dining footprint (food trucks are also planned), the scope and variety of its cultural programming. Prompted with “the sky’s the limit?”, Heckman smiled back, “we’re only limited by our own creativity.” Soon enough, all that will come. Heckman, appointed by Mayor Turner in August 2020, can already see it — almost.
“I think that if you walk through in a late afternoon or early evening, you’re going to hear families that are playing in the park in different areas,” he said. “You’re going to hear music, you’re going to see a vibrant streetscape. You’re going to hear the water of the water feature, and you’re going to almost forget that you’re in the middle of an urban environment and a downtown space in a big city like Houston.”