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mixed use development

East End former KBR site sold again

I’d forgotten all about this.

When a sprawling tract of land lining Buffalo Bayou east of downtown hit the market three years ago, some of Houston’s most prominent observers of urban development put forth ideas about what could be done with the 136-acre site boasting both water and skyscraper views.

Visions for the property included repositioning existing buildings as cutting-edge workplaces, adding townhomes and apartments along tree-shaded streets where trolleys could shuttle people to and from downtown, and creating spots where Houstonians could rent bikes and take canoes into the bayou.

Now, with the recent sale of the property, some of those visions may start to take shape – though they could be years away.

An affiliate of Houston-based Midway, the company behind CityCentre, GreenStreet and other local mixed-use developments purchased the site in May, property records show.

The seller, William Harrison, a wealthy Houstonian with business in energy and real estate, bought it in late 2012 from KBR. The engineering and construction company had owned the onetime office and industrial complex since 1919, when the company was Brown & Root. Most of the buildings there have been demolished.

[…]

Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, lauded Midway for its focus on park space, including a project the company is developing in the Upper Kirby neighborhood next to a park that’s been around for more than 60 years.

The partnership owns an easement on the property that will allow it to expand its hike and bike trail system through it.

“It’s been a coveted spot for some time just because of its size,” Olson said. “I don’t know if there’s a site that big in the inner city.”

See here and here for the background. People were excited when the property was sold in 2012, then it continued to sit there undeveloped for almost four more years before being sold again. Maybe this time will be different, though with the current state of the local economy and the housing market, it’s hard to imagine anything happening in the short term. Swamplot and The Urban Edge have more.

Downtown post office has a buyer

Redevelopment, here we come.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Lovett Commercial, a Houston-based developer of neighborhood shopping centers and urban redevelopments, is under contract to buy the downtown post office property and potentially turn it into an urban complex of shops, offices, housing and perhaps a hotel.

“It’s extremely rare to find a 16& acre parcel in any major U.S. downtown,” the company said Monday in a statement emailed to the Chronicle by vice president Burdette Huffman.

Conceptual plans are still being devised, but the company said it expects “to attract multiple uses such as retail, creative office, residential and/or a boutique hotel. Tenants that we have visited with are extremely excited about the project, its location and the possibilities.”

Lovett is also exploring ways to reuse portions of the site’s existing buildings, which sit on the northwestern edge of downtown, just north of Buffalo Bayou and across from the Theater District.

[…]

Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, was pleased to hear of the company’s plans.

“I think Frank Liu is a real visionary,” Olson said of Lovett’s president, who also develops urban housing. “I think he’s willing to think outside the box.”

She said the plans are in line with the type of mixed-use development the partnership recommended more than a decade ago in a comprehensive master plan for the bayou.

Olson recalled several years ago during a bayou-related focus group when multiple prominent developers called the downtown post office property “the key site for development along the bayou.”

See here, here, and here for an abridged history of this site. It has always seemed to be destined for some form of mixed-use development, with a bit of speculation about it as a transit hub thrown in for flair. There’s not a whole lot immediately around it, so it will be interesting to see if this project spawns other development, or if this project is executed as something that is intended to be a stand-alone destination. What would you like to see in this space?

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

That big East End KBR site has been sold

There’s one less huge tract of land on the market these days.

A Buffalo Bayou-front parcel spanning 136 acres just east of downtown has found a buyer.

The mostly vacant tract is under contract and expected to close by the end of the year, said Davis Adams of HFF, the commercial real estate firm listing the property. He would not identify the buyer.

KBR is the longtime owner of the land at 4100 Clinton, east of Jensen Drive. The site is the former headquarters of the global engineering and construction firm. KBR has been moving workers away from the site for years and put the property on the market over the summer.

The sale has been long anticipated by real estate developers, bayou enthusiasts and residents of the East End.

Many hope to see the land redeveloped with a combination of uses, including high-density residential, retail and parks that take advantage of the nearly mile-long stretch of Buffalo Bayou frontage.

See here for the background. Some people would like for this land to be used for a university. I don’t really expect that to happen, but we’ll find out soon enough.

What would you do with 136 acres near downtown?

Something urban, mixed-use, and transit-oriented, one hopes.

A rare opportunity lies in 136 acres just east of downtown Houston.

The Buffalo Bayou-front parcel, a longtime industrial and office complex, went on the market earlier this summer – a move bayou enthusiasts, East End residents and real estate developers had been anticipating for years.

Some of them say the expansive property – even larger than the former AstroWorld site off the South Loop – offers a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create a multiuse development incorporating the cultural influences of downtown, the East End and other surrounding historic neighborhoods.

Architect and urban planner Peter Brown envisions a “town center” where a mix of housing types, offices, shops and cultural attractions encircle a central green space.

Those most familiar with the area cite a lengthy wish list, from groceries to book stores to new recreational facilities. City Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents that part of town, would like to see “shops, rooftops and various other amenities for our East End community.”

And he is hardly alone in taking note of the nearly mile-long stretch of bayou frontage. That combination of proximity to water, combined with skyline views, ups the ante.

“People are drawn to cities that offer urban vitality in a natural setting – New York and its harbor, Chicago and its lakefront, Denver and its mountains, Austin and Lady Bird Lake,” said Guy Hagstette, project manager of Buffalo Bayou Park and ex-director of Discovery Green.

I can’t tell exactly where this is, as no street information is given in the story, but give the description, the photo above, and the suggestion made later in the article by Christof Spieler of a streetcar connection to the EaDo/Stadium light rail station, I can sort of guess; I’d say it’s more or less north of that station, looking at the East Line rail map. It’s clear that a development like this, when it happens, will have a transformative effect on the area. Whether that’s good or bad will depend entirely on what ultimately gets built. The Chron solicited a lot of good feedback from a variety of people – former CM Peter Brown had so much to say they wrote a separate article to capture it all – but in the end I don’t know how much effect anything but what the people who buy the land want to do with it will have. We better hope they get it right.

Couple things to add. One, don’t underestimate the value of abutting the Buffalo Bayou. It’s a great natural resource, and many of Houston’s best neighborhoods are built around bayous. If my estimate of where this is and my reading of this Houston Bikeways map is correct, there’s already a bike trail along the bayou in place for the future residents, employees, and shoppers of this location. That would be a nice, convenient way to get into downtown without having to pay to park. Similarly, a streetcar connection to the Harrisburg and Southeast light rail lines would be an excellent addition and would make the development much more transit-accessible. A short streetcar line could be put in for a fairly small amount of money – the 3-mile-long line that Fort Worth eventually decided not to install had a price tag of $88 million. A line from this development to the EaDo/Stadium station would be not nearly that long and would probably only require one car. It could be paid for by the city, Metro, and the developer – I can’t think of a better use of a 380 agreement than that.

Finally, something I’ve said before but cannot be said too often is that Houston has a lot of empty spaces and underpopulated areas in it that can and really should be pushed for development as residential or mixed-used properties. Many of them can use existing infrastructure, though improvements will need to be made. Many already have access or proximity to transit, which would allow for denser development. There are a lot of places that can be developed that are close in to downtown or other employment hubs like the Medical Center or Greenspoint. The city has advantages that the increasingly far-flung reaches of unincorporated Harris County do not, and it really needs to prioritize making affordable housing available inside its boundaries for people who would prefer to live closer in, and to make it an attractive alternative to those who might not have thought about it otherwise. Population is power, and if the city isn’t growing it’s going to be losing out. There’s plenty going on for the high-end buyer and that’s good, but it’s a small piece of the market. The KBR site is a great opportunity, but it’s far from the only one. The city needs to find ways to get as many of those other opportunities going as it can.

Regent Square gets off the ground

This has been a long time coming.

More than five years after announcing plans for the 24-acre Regent Square project off Allen Parkway, GID Development Group has begun construction on the first building, a 21-story apartment tower called The Sovereign.

[…]

GID said it remains committed to Regent Square, which is to go up in multiple phases on land abutting Allen Parkway near Dunlavy and Dallas, on the site of the old Allen House Apartments. The development could take 10 years to complete.

Plans include about 400,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space; more than 1,500 residential units; and 250,000 square feet of office space in what the developer refers to as an “urban district” where residents can walk to everything. The walkable nature of the project extends beyond its borders, [GID President James] Linsley said, with a pedestrian trail around Buffalo Bayou and high-end shops and a new Whole Foods a short distance away.

Additional construction could begin in about a year as the company is “moments away” from signing up a major retail tenant, Linsley said.

We heard about movement on this front in May. Like many other projects, it was the collapse of the economy that brought it to a halt. I’m glad to see it finally get going, that’s far too valuable a property to sit vacant like that. Prime Property has more.

Ashby’s developer defends his project

Let me start by saying that I agree with Kevin Kirton, the CEO of Buckhead Investment Partners, also known as the developers of the infamous Ashby highrise, when he says that the “trip number” justification that the city used to block that project for as long as they did was bunk, and that the highrise as originally envisioned, is a better use of the space than the compromise version. The city’s regulatory system simply doesn’t allow for a way to deny this project, and the debate that ensued in which we pretended there was a way to do it ultimately served no one’s interests. We do need a better and more consistent set of rules for development, and we haven’t really begun to engage that particular discussion.

None of this changes the fact that the Ashby highrise is a bad idea. It’s incompatible with the surrounding area, and the reason there was such fierce resistance to it is that everyone outside of Buckhead Investment Partners realized that. I want to address two of the points that Kirton raises in his piece, one broad and one nitpicky, to try to illustrate this. First, the small point:

Consider that this project:

• •  Is located minutes from Downtown, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria and within walking distance of Houston’s major museums, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University and Hermann Park’s many amenities;

• •  Is on one of the top five most utilized METRO bus routes in the city and a quick half-mile walk to both the Main Street and Richmond rail lines;

• •  Will connect its residents to the community with its shared restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, and a small suite of executive offices.

Actually, the Ashby is about three-quarters of a mile from what should eventually be a rail stop at Richmond and Dunlavy, and nine-tenths of a mile from the Museum District stations on Fannin and San Jacinto at Binz. Fudging numbers doesn’t make me inclined to believe the rest of what you say. And the problem with claiming that this location is walking distance to the Medical Center and Hermann Park is that Rice is in between it and them, and given that it is private property, it may not appreciate a bunch of people using it as a cut-through. I can’t speak to the point about the bus route, but I am curious how many people that currently live in the area use that bus; more to the point, how many future residents of the highrise do you think would use it, and how many current or potential bus riders would disembark there in order to take advantage of its restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, or executive suites. Being accessible to transit is only a virtue if it gets used.

And that brings me to my larger point. The problem with Ashby is simply that it’s misplaced. You can claim, as Kirton does, that it somehow fits in with other pedestrian-friendly development by virtue of it being sort of walking distance from them, but the fact remains that there will be no network effect from putting a mixed-use highrise at 1717 Bissonnet. By that I mean that there won’t be anything else in its immediate vicinity that will also be of interest to someone who is on foot in the area. Ashby is and almost surely forever will be surrounded by nothing but residences. It’s a destination unto itself. Nobody who goes there will then walk to a neighboring shop or eatery or what have you because there aren’t any, and won’t be any. Contrast that with my hypothetical alternate location on Richmond, where a bunch of commercial development already exists and more will likely follow as the stretch of Richmond from Shepherd to Montrose attracts transit-oriented development as Main Street has. The equivalent stretch of Bissonnet is almost exclusively residential. Someone who gets off the Universities line at Richmond and Dunlavy will have a bunch of places to walk to. Someone who gets off the bus at Bissonnet and Ashby is probably going home.

An Ashby highrise that’s actually located in the vicinity of other dense, pedestrian-friendly properties is a valuable addition to that area, one that likely would generate a lot of excitement. An Ashby highrise located in the middle of a bunch of houses is at best a curiosity, and at worst a blight on the existing neighborhood. That’s been the problem from the beginning. To me, the best outcome once we realized that there was nothing to be done to stop Buckhead under the current rules is to come up with a revised set of rules for future Ashbys that will encourage the former and discourage, if not actually forbid, the latter. Unfortunately, we’re no closer to that now than we were when the project was first announced. And I don’t see how we’re going to get there from here.

Ashby developers lose appeal

Given how long it took for the Ashby highrise developers to get their permit in the first place, I figured their appeal of the requirement that they cut back on some aspects of the project in order to get that permit would drag out for months as well. Not so.

The city of Houston’s General Appeals Board Thursday evening rejected a bid by the Ashby high rise developers to get mixed uses restored to their planned 23-story residential building in the Southampton neighborhood.

Matthew Morgan, one of the two principals with Buckhead Investment Partners, said the next step would likely be to appeal to the Houston City Council.

“We came here to build a better building than what was approved,” Morgan told the Examiner following the appeal. “We will reconvene and consider our next step. We are still going to build a building.”

[…]

Morgan said Tuesday, the developers had been forced to modify the design, because the city had arbitrarily applied a traffic-limiting ordinance to their project that had not been used in issuing permits to similar developments on major collector streets.

“In essence, it (the change in design) eliminated the very elements that would connect our development to the adjacent neighborhoods.”

As I said before, if you can’t stop the developers from going ahead with this misplaced building, you may as well let them do it as they originally envisioned. I do agree that what was taken out made the overall project better, and is more consistent with the desire for more mixed-use development. It just continues to be a shame that they want to do it in that particular spot, where there won’t be any network effect from transit or other similar development nearby. If only you could magically move this thing 3/4ths of a mile or so north, it would be so much more suitable.

Ashby rises again

It lives!

The developers of the Ashby high-rise announced today they will appear before Houston’s General Appeals Board at 5 p.m. Thursday to ask that the original uses designed into 23-story high-rise be allowed.

“Removing these amenities completely contradicts city officials’ statements that they want new development inside the loop to create a ‘walkable Houston,’” said Matthew Morgan, president of Buckhead Investment Partners.

Gotta say, they’ve got a good point. Once you concede that you can’t prevent this thing from being built – and make no mistake, it’s still being built in the wrong location – you may as well allow the mixed-use development, which likely won’t have that big an effect on traffic, and as the developers note is in harmony with the philosophy behind the recent Chapter 42 revisions. Too bad this development isn’t near a rail corridor, or other retail, but these are the ordinances we have.

And as the Chron notes, this is just the beginning.

Morgan said the administrative appeal was necessary before the developers could take any further action, such as a lawsuit.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” he said.

That’ll be a nice thing for the next Mayor to inherit. Game on, y’all. Prime Property has more.

Mixed use development on the west side

I don’t know about you, but when I think about mixed-use development in Houston, I’m usually picturing it inside the Loop, or maybe in the Galleria area. But there’s no reason it can’t be farther out from the core.

The new CityCentre in west Houston may be the most fully realized example of the [mixed-use] concept, according to Scott Shillings, president of Riverway Retail, a Houston-based retail/tenant representative.

He noted that CityCentre has the four main components of mixed-use: residential, retail, office and hotel. And it is a pure mixed-use development, he maintains, in that it isn’t adjacent to a mall. And unlike some other local mixed-use projects, CityCentre has retail anchors: a cinema and a huge fitness center.

“The term ‘mixed-use’ gets thrown around a lot, but, to me, this is the first time that Houston has actually seen it in its full depth and breadth,” Shillings said: “Architecturally and functionally, they’ve done a great job.”

[…]

Located near Interstate 10 and Beltway 8, the 37-acre site houses clean-lined contemporary brick buildings, brick streets and pleasant landscaping.

CityCentre has an elegant luxury hotel, Hotel Sorella; a sleek movie theater, Studio Movie Grill; and Norris Conference Center.

CityCentre contains several residential projects: the recently opened 370-unit Domain apartments and 35-unit Brownstones at CityCentre, which are for sale.

The 250-unit apartment project the Lofts is set to open next month.

[…]

CityCentre is next door to Town & Country Village, which has a Randalls and numerous shops and restaurants.

Town & Country Village is a big benefit to CityCentre, said Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed use development at the Urban Land Institute.

“You can build these places that are walkable but have no connection to anything else,” she said. “It’s very useful to the CityCentre residents” to be next to Town & Country Village.

Certainly having it near a grocery store is a good thing, especially if there’s a pedestrian connection between the two. It kinda defeats the purpose if you have to always drive from one to the other.

I’ve been to CityCentre, though I didn’t give it any thought at the time. Tiffany and I saw “Julie & Julia” at the Studio Movie Grill about two weeks ago. It’s a theater like the Alamo Drafthouse in that it has full restaurant and bar service, which you order from your seat. We went there because we wanted that experience without having to drive halfway to San Antonio to get to one of the Drafthouse locations. We enjoyed it, and will look there first the next time we want to do that.

In case you’re wondering, this site is where the old Town and Country Mall used to be. I’m glad to see it turn into something this cool.

I will say that I think there is, or at least there should be, a fifth component to mixed-use development. That would be nearby transit options, to further minimize the parking requirements. The good news is that it looks like there’s a plan for that.