Downtown Houston Tunnel System
Although the Downtown Houston Tunnel System is one of Houston’s best-kept secrets, most of downtown’s 150,000-person workforce – and hundreds of visitors – use it every week day, particularly when it’s raining or close to 100 degrees above ground. This system of air-conditioned sky walks and subterranean walkways has been given many different names – mall, concourse, connection, underground, promenade – but Houstonians continue to call it simply “the Tunnel.”
What IS the Tunnel? Depending on who is defining the Tunnel, it is as old as the 1930s or as young as the 1960s. In 1935, inspired by shops he had seen below Rockefeller Center in New York City, Will Horwitz connected his three theaters – the Iris on Travis and the Uptown and Texan on Capitol – with a tunnel constructed under Capitol between Travis and Milam. Located beneath today’s JPMorgan Chase Tower, Horwitz’s tunnel included shops, restaurants, a penny arcade, and German wine tavern.
In 1947, Foley’s Department Store (1100 Main Street, demolished in 2014) built a tunnel connecting its new building and parking garage. This tunnel was separate from other parts of the Tunnel System until April 2003 when it was connected under Dallas Street to a new tunnel under RRI Energy Plaza at 1000 Main Street. Although Foley’s Department Store no longer exists, the 2003 tunnel now connects the 1000 Main Street Building with the new Hilcorp Building, whose address is 1111 Travis Street.
In the 1950s, other downtown buildings were connected by tunnels and, during a construction boom in the 1960s and 1970s, private developers expanded the Tunnel to most of its present form. Tunnel connections continue today, with at least five new buildings in the planning stages or under construction.
Where Is the Tunnel? Set about twenty feet below Houston’s downtown street system, today’s seven-mile Tunnel is a series of underground passageways which, with above-ground sky walks, link 80 buildings to hotels, banks, corporations, government offices, restaurants, retail stores, and the Theater District. Only one building, Wells Fargo Plaza, offers direct visual access from the street to the Tunnel; otherwise, you must enter the Tunnel from street-level stairs, escalators, or elevators located inside a building connected to the Tunnel.
While the City of Houston’s portion of the Tunnel links the Theater District’s parking garages to Bayou Place, performance halls, City Hall, and the Lanier Public Works Building, the majority of buildings connected to the Tunnel are privately owned. These private owners execute legal agreements to connect to each other, forming a “system.” Each private building owner then leases space in its lower level (basement) to retailers and services. Costing from $1,000 to $10,000 per linear foot, links to the Tunnel are an enormous advantage when leasing office space. Many property owners decorate their sections of the Tunnel with unique flooring, recessed lighting, display windows, and art, so you usually can tell when you are leaving one building for another just by noticing the change in Tunnel decor.
What’s In the Tunnel? Just about every service – with the exception of a major supermarket – is available via the Tunnel. In addition to several major food courts, you will find shoe repair shops, sandwich shops, quality restaurants, snack bars, specialty shops, copy and printing services, post offices, express mail services, banks, flower shops, dentists, doctors, clinics, drug stores, optometrists, eyeglass centers, beauty salons, and barber shops.
The Tunnel is also connected to the Theater District’s performance halls and Bayou Place’s eight-screen Sundance Cinemas, Revention Center, and the Hard Rock Café, as well as to downtown’s only shopping mall, the Shops at Houston Center.
How Safe Is the Tunnel? Building property owners maintain security by placing guards at strategic locations throughout the Tunnel and by installing cameras to monitor pedestrian traffic. Building owners ask that you not take photographs in their lobbies. Wells Fargo Plaza requests that no photos be taken inside or from the building.
Tunnel Flood of 2001. Early Saturday morning, June 9, 2001, water from Buffalo Bayou broke through a retaining wall and entered the basement of Bayou Place. It then flowed into the Theater District Garage under Bayou Place, overwhelming the ability of the sump pump to pump water back out. The water came in fast enough to fill up all four levels of the garage, then broke into tunnels under the Wortham Theater Center, Alley Theatre, Jones Hall, and Bank of America Center.
In Bank of America Center, water broke through a tunnel-level wall, filling up the Tunnel to several feet inside its upper tunnel level. From there the water flowed into the tunnel leading to Pennzoil Place, breaking down walls and flowing into the Pennzoil Place food court. Four inches of water ran into the Houston Club Building’s tunnel and into Two Shell Plaza’s and One Shell Plaza’s tunnels.
At the same time, storm waters streamed into a parking ramp off Texas Avenue leading underneath the Wortham Theater Center and entered 17 Theater District staircases going from the street into the underground Theater District Garage. Some of the water from the Theater District Garage flowed into the tunnel of the Lanier Public Works Building, and from there into One Shell Plaza, which got water from two sides. Because the water level was so low at this point, it did not go any further, and 919 Milam (formerly Bank One Center) and Wells Fargo Plaza had no water at all in their tunnels.
Although you would never know it from local media reports, the majority of the seven-mile Downtown Houston Tunnel System was up and running, with its restaurants, shops, and services open to the public, by June 15, 2001. Over Labor Day weekend, the Houston Symphony held its first concert in Jones Hall, and on September 4, the Theater District garages started opening to the public.
The Tunnel System was fully operational by March 2002. Six years later, during Hurricane Ike, there was little flood damage to the Tunnel System, thanks to the series of flood doors that were added after Tropical Storm Allison.
When Is the Tunnel Open? The Tunnel is open during regular business hours, Monday through Friday. It is closed at night, on weekends, and national holidays.
Finding Your Way through the Tunnel. The Houston Downtown Management District publishes several maps online, including an excellent interactive map. You can also order a copy of their printed Above & Below Downtown Houston Map by calling (713) 650-3022 during regular business hours.
Discover Houston Tours offers guided walking tours of the Tunnel on weekdays. Advance reservations are required. For more information and reservations, please go to www.DiscoverHoustonTours.com.