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The Houston Rabbit Warren

Growing up in Houston, one of the odder parts of the city, even for a local, is the underground tunnel system downtown.  The system was built, I presume, because you can't even cross the street in the summer time in 100 degree / 100% humidity weather without sweating through your suit coat.  The tunnel system has become quite extensive, such that you can navigate for miles without ever seeing the light of day.  Casual observers often comment on the lack of pedestrian traffic in downtown Houston, but that is perhaps because they never looked under ground.  Over time, underground shopping malls and restaurants and food courts appeared along the tunnels, bringing even more people under ground.

The tunnels are especially difficult to navigate, because there are no visual clues (e.g. we are heading to that building over there) and no signs.  We used to joke people had been lost down there for decades.

Well, the secret is apparently out, as the NY Times has discovered the Houston tunnels.

Seared by triple-digit heat and drenched by tropical storms, midday downtown Houston appears eerily deserted, the nation’s fourth-largest city passing for a ghost town.

On the street, that is.

But below, there are tunnels at the end of the light — nearly seven color-coded miles of them connecting 77 buildings — aswarm with Houstonians lunching, shopping and power-walking in dry, air-chilled comfort....

“Nothing says north, south, east or west. You have to memorize the buildings,” said David Gerst, a lawyer who opened a lucrative sandwich shop — BeWitched — off the East McKinney (green) tunnel network under Commerce Towers, the former Chamber of Commerce building converted to condominiums. For access to the 3,000 people who stream by his shop each lunchtime in what tunnel merchants call the holy hours, Mr. Gerst pays $2,500 a month rent for 800 square feet, more than what surface lunch space may command.

This is the best part:

It was not centrally planned; it just grew, inspired by Rockefeller Center in New York. But it is not connected to a transit network. And, befitting Texans’ distrust of government, most of it is private; each segment is controlled by the individual building owner who deigns to allow the public access during business hours — and then locks the doors on nights and weekends. Some parts, like those belonging to the former Enron buildings now leased by Chevron, are closed to outsiders altogether.

Posted on August 21, 2007 at 11:18 PM | Permalink


In Cooper Pedy, Australia, lots of houses are built underground to escape the heat.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis, P.E. | Aug 22, 2007 5:51:55 PM

In Crystal City, VA (just across the river from Washington, DC), there is a huge underground shopping mall. I think some central planning was involved there, as there is a perceptible grid system to the interconnecting tunnels, as well as signs at the corners. You could only get lost forever there if you were illiterate, or simply failed to note the identification for where you parked your car...

Like Houston's tunnels, it is a wise adaptation to a debilitating summer climate above ground. So the question is, are there many more unheralded tunnel networks across the southern states, or do so many people have a phobia or something about being underground that this obvious solution is usually passed over?

Of course, tunnels can also make it easier to walk between nearby buildings in northern winters, but they seem to be even less utilized. At the community college where my father taught, most of the buildings were connected by an underground utility tunnel. Teachers and staff could get the keys and use this tunnel, but it was not finished for public access (that is, it had exposed pipes and wiring conduits, and plain concrete walls, floors, and ceilings that could only get so clean short of sandblasting.

Posted by: markm | Aug 25, 2007 8:16:39 AM

Fascinating! I lived for several years in Montreal, which has an extensive underground network very similar to this - but of course to escape the cold. Shopping malls and private office buildings, mostly banks, and connected to the metro and trains in several places. If you know what you're doing you can really impress an outsider too!

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