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Robinson warehouse

Will the Ashby highrise ever get built?

Who knows?

Sue me!

Penelope Loughhead’s house in the leafy neighborhood near Rice University abuts the land where, nearly a decade ago, a proposed high-rise sparked a land-use battle that resonated citywide and throughout the local development community.

This week marks two years since a judge ruled the proposed Ashby tower could go forward after a monthlong trial and jury verdict that agreed with residents that the 21-story tower would be a nuisance to surrounding property owners. The judge agreed to some of the roughly $1 million in damages jurors assessed against Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners but denied residents the permanent injunction they were seeking to halt the project.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot sits empty as both sides await a decision on their appeals.

“It feels like we’re in limbo,” Loughhead said. “We’re in the dark. We know they are allowed to build, but no ground has been broken.”

The developers declined to comment, citing the ongoing appeals process. They did not answer questions about the status of the project, although they previously told the Chronicle that the construction was moving along despite the appeal.


Attorneys for both sides made their cases during an appellate hearing in September. A decision could come down any day, attorneys say.

In documents filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, the attorney for the developers, Raymond Viada, argued against the damages that jurors awarded 20 residents who live near the Ashby project’s 1717 Bissonnet address. He wrote, in part, that the developers altered plans for the project after the jury’s decision and before the injunction hearing. Therefore, the project discussed in trial, which was ruled by the jury to be a nuisance, was no longer what his clients were proposing.

Viada wrote that the developers, who have already invested $14 million in the project, changed plans to reduce lighting from the garage, place planters on the amenity deck to add privacy and reconstruct its foundation to limit the impact of damage to surrounding homes. He wrote that the developers expect to net $72 million in profit if the project is not stopped.

See here for all the Ashby blogging you can stand. As I said the last time, it really boggles the mind to realize how long some lots in extremely desirable parts of town have been empty. The old Robinson Warehouse, Allen House, The Stables, and Ashby sites have been fallow for going on ten years. They remained unbuilt through a multi-year real estate boom that was especially hungry for inside-the-Loop properties. Now, in the midst of a low-oil-price downturn, it’s hard to imagine any of them changing status any time soon, and that’s without taking the Ashby lawsuit appeals process into account. I keep thinking that one of these days something will change, but all I’ve gotten for my trouble is that much older.

The Ashby legacy

What hath it wrought?

Sue me!

The plot of land where developers promised the so-called Ashby high-rise would be built in an affluent neighborhood still sits empty.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot at 1717 Bissonnet, which in 2007 sparked a battle that came to symbolize the impact of a lack of formal zoning in Houston, is still high on the minds of land-use experts, city leaders and developers grappling with development policy around the region, an expert panel said Monday.

“We are watching for the repercussions going forward,” said South Texas College of Law professor Matthew Festa, who specializes in land use. “We start in a city without a formal zoning code. But we have a lot of those types of rules.”


Festa said that with the various land use restrictions in Houston, in the form of minimum-lot sizes, historic districts and residential buffer ordinances, the region has “de-facto zoning.” This has led to many questions and sets up battles over where to build and about density versus preserving what is already there.

He said there are equity issues on both sides.

“Wealthy neighbors pass the hat and hire top-notch attorneys. What happens to the ones that don’t have those resources?” Festa said. “Nowhere is this stuff more intense than land-use battles.”


There is also an ongoing battle over a proposed affordable housing complex in a neighborhood between Tanglewood and the Galleria. That Houston Housing Authority project is a test case for new federal pressures and a Supreme Court decision that requires that affordable housing is built in high-opportunity neighborhoods, said Kyle Shelton, a researcher with the Kinder Institute at Rice University.

“It intimately ties into the same debate as Ashby,” Shelton said. “It raises the question for Houston: Does this ‘de-facto zoning’ get us a Houston that works for everybody? Ashby provided an interesting contradiction for Houston.”

Festa, who testified for the developers’ side during the Ashby trial, said he has watched the case since the beginning. He said the property rights issue is a sensitive one because people will sense a threat to their homes, their biggest purchase and largest asset.

“Land use really does motivate people,” he said. “It’s the communities that we live in.”

As noted in the story, one of the legacies of the Ashby highrise is the reverse Ashby lawsuit that was recently filed. You have to wonder if we’d be having these issues now if we’d passed that zoning referendum in the 90s. Be that as it may, I still believe the following: One, the Ashby location was a terrible place for a 21-story high-rise. This Swamplot comment puts it in a way that I hadn’t previously considered but which makes perfect sense. Two, we really need to revisit this issue as a city. What are the legitimate ways that a homeowner or neighborhood can oppose a proposed development near them? Combat by lawsuit isn’t doing anyone but the lawyers any good. And three, will the inner city’s best known long-vacant sites like the Ashby location and the Robinson warehouse ever get redeveloped? Now that we’re on the downslope of the last economic boom, it’s hard to see why anything would change if it hadn’t during the good times. The Robinson site will “celebrate” ten years of nothingness in January (the Ashby site will hit that mark later next year). When you consider how much construction has occurred around it in that time, it’s almost mind-boggling. Maybe they’re just cursed, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens next when there’s a ruling in the Ashby appeal.

Robinson Warehouse, eight years after

From the Free Press Houston Worst of 2014:

What once was there


In 2006, The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the massive swath of land at the Southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose. This sprawling piece of property is centrally located, is adjacent to some of Houston’s most beautiful natural landscapes, and could serve so many important purposes.

For nearly 10 years, there have been rumors that this property would be developed into one of the largest mosques in Texas, and I am excited for the controversy that will most definitely ensue once that begins to happen. But that said, having such a huge property with huge potential stay dormant and fenced off in the interim is a missed opportunity.

If I had my way, folks would be allowed to play soccer there, a massive urban garden could be temporarily installed, and the space could serve as a rad destination along the Art Car parade route.

It was just before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I first noticed the demolition equipment out in front of this old, abandoned warehouse at the aforementioned corner. It had been a sad bit of urban decay for as long as I’d been aware of it, and as I obsessively documented over the ensuing two months, it vanished, leaving behind a large green field and the promise of something that would eventually be built. For awhile, the space – which goes all the way from Allen Parkway to West Dallas – was open, and was used a few times as parking for the Art Car Parade. Now it has that ugly hurricane fence around it – presumably, for liability insurance purposes – and Lord only knows what its future might hold. I’ve never heard a peep about its status in all this time.

Personally, I like author Omar Afra’s vision for the space, but there are plenty of other possibilities as well. Just about anything would be better than the unusable nothing that is there now. I wish there were something the city could do to entice the current owners to either do something with it or sell it to someone else that will.

Your one-minute real estate update

I just have one mostly tangential thing to say about this.

Houston will see a modest and steady growth in retail activity in 2013, according to Ed Wulfe’s annual retail forecast.

And the following year should be much better, said Wulfe, who is chairman and CEO of Wulfe & Co., a retail development, brokerage and property management firm.

The amount of new shopping center space to be built and opened in 2013 will be slightly greater than this year’s, while 2014 should be “very strong based on what’s underway,” Wulfe said.

I note that story mostly because it seems like as good an excuse as any to wonder once again about the status of all those long-dormant projects whose empty lots serve as a daily reminder of their lack of activity. I speak of course of the Stables and the Robinson Warehouse, now celebrating its sixth anniversary of vacantness. At last report the Sonoma site was being redeveloped; I can’t personally confirm this, as I generally avoid the area. Regent Square was supposed to have commenced construction in October, but I haven’t seen anything on the Allen Parkway part of the property. And one property that I generally forget about but was in the news recently, the old Astroworld site, also continues to lay fallow. I know this story is about retail development, and most of the sites I’m talking about were intended to be residential or mixed-use, but I feel like the Houston real estate market won’t truly be healthy again until something is happening with all of them.

What if they built it someplace else?

For better or worse, the argument against the Washington Heights Wal-Mart mostly boils down to the fact that it’s an inappropriate location for a suburban-style big-box store. There are also concerns about traffic, and about the nature of Wal-Mart, both in terms of its business practices and its 24/7 operations, all of which have helped generate the pushback from residents in the area. The argument for Wal-Mart, beyond the basic belief that developers should be mostly free to develop what they want where they want, is that the city and the immediate area would benefit economically from its presence, as a provider of jobs and of affordable merchandise. The vacant lot sitting there now isn’t doing anyone any good, and there are people nearby who would like to shop and work there. There are nuances and variations and whatnot to each argument, but that’s more or less what they come down to.

If you agree that these are the main points, then you might observe that the Yale/Koehler property isn’t the only vacant lot in this part of town. What if Ainbinder or some other developer had picked a different location for a Wal-Mart? I got to wondering about that. Here’s the result of that little thought experiment:

Empty lot #1: Sonoma/Bolsover

Of the places I have in mind, this is the hardest to imagine being proposed as a Wal-Mart site, never mind one actually being built there. None of the streets that surround it are capable of handling the kind of traffic a Wal-Mart generates. There are many large retailers nearby – high-end grocers Rice Epicurean at Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway, Kroger Signature and HEB on Buffalo Speedway between Bissonnet and Westpark; CVS stores on Kirby in the Rice Village and at 59, and on Greenbriar at Holcombe. The immediate area is relatively wealthy, so both the customer base and the pool of potential employees is smaller. They would likely be at least as hostile to the idea of a Wal-Mart as they were to the Sonoma project and to the Ashby highrise. Other than it being a vacant lot, I can’t think of a good reason why a Wal-Mart would ever be proposed there.

Empty lot #2: The Stables

Conversely, this seems like the best fit. With access from Main and Greenbriar, traffic would be much less of an issue. Lots of apartments nearby, in the mid- and lower-income ranges, so there should be a solid customer and employee base. Extra points for being close to the light rail line, making it easier for employees to get there via transit. It’s mostly surrounded by Medical Center structures (more potential customers), with the only adjoining neighborhood being north of Main Street, so there would likely be little political pushback. There are similar retailers nearby – the Fiesta at Old Spanish Trail and Kirby, the CVS at Main and Kirby, and the Target at Main just west of Kirby are all within walking distance – but Wal-Mart didn’t get where it is by shrinking from a little competition. Whatever traffic issues there are would annoy me – I’m mostly thinking of people turning left on Greenbriar as they pass Main heading south – but beyond that I can’t think of a strong reason against it. This location just makes sense.

Empty lot #3: Allen House/Regent Square

Possibly the largest lot on my list, though it’s split by West Dallas, so that would present some challenges. Mostly good access from Dallas and Dunlavy, plus eastbound on Allen Parkway; entering from or exiting to the west on Allen Parkway would almost certainly require adding a traffic light, which is of course an abomination. There’s some nearby retail – a Kroger Signature at Gray and Woodhead, the future Whole Foods at Dallas and Waugh, just across the street from a CVS – but not that much. There’s a fair amount of low-income housing in the immediate area, and I’d bet The Center would be interested in possible employment opportunities for the people they serve. On the other hand, this location is also right next door to River Oaks, and they might not be too hot to have a Wal-Mart right there.

Empty lot #4: Robinson Warehouse

The only lot among the four that wasn’t originally intended to be some kind of high rise/mixed use development. About a half mile away from Empty Lot #3, so all of the same things apply to it, though it’s farther from River Oaks and closer to many apartments and lower income housing east of Montrose/Studemont. Easier access, from Dallas, Montrose, and the existing intersection/traffic light at Montrose and Allen Parkway, but possibly the largest impact on traffic, as both Montrose and Dallas get mighty busy at rush hour.

So there you have it. Obviously, none of these sites were bought (and none of the then-existing structures demolished) with the idea of putting up a big-box store. But with all of them being fallow for three years or more, possibly much more as things stand, who knows what might happen. The question is, whatever your opinion may be of the Washington Heights Wal-Mart proposal or the now-approved 380 agreement, what would your reaction be if that same project were to be suddenly relocated to one of these places? Discuss in the comments.

Astroworld empty lot update

Last week, we got word that the old Astroworld site, which has been empty since the last of the old rides were auctioned off in January of 2006, has a new owner – it had previously changed hands back in 2007 – and the Chron’s Nancy Sarnoff spoke to the new owners about their plans for the site.

It’s Mallick’s first major investment in Houston. The boutique real estate firm developed the Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott in the Hill Country and has been involved in public/private inner-city redevelopments in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

“We feel like Houston is probably one of the stronger economies in Texas right now,” Mallick said.

The calls he’s received since buying the property are proof that others agree.

It leaves open the chance that something could happen to the property sooner rather than later.

“Given the tidal wave of phone calls I’ve received since we purchased it, I really don’t know at this point,” Mallick said. “There’s a huge amount of interest in the entire tract and portions of the tract.”

Before anyone gets too excited about that, here are a couple of points of comparison. The Robinson Warehouse site has been fallow since January of 2007. Unlike the Astroworld land, its owner (at the time, at least – I have no idea if it’s the same folks or not) had a specific plan for the land, and seemed to be raring to go on it. It hasn’t happened, that’s all I know. Also at that time, the old Stables Restaurant was torn down, with the land underneath it being acquired by a group that now owned a “crucial one-acre parcel in the Med Center area”. They didn’t have any specific project in mind, as far as I knew, however, and as with the Robinson Warehouse site, it’s still dormant today. Point being, don’t be surprised if a couple of years from now you read another story about another sale of the Astroworld site to another real estate group, with nothing else to indicate that something will finally be built there.

Are they finally building something on the Robinson Warehouse site?

Remember the Robinson Warehouse? It’s been more than three years now since the old building at Montrose and Allen Parkway was demolished, and the site has been fallow ever since. But in the last week or so, some signs of life, or at least impending construction, have appeared.

What are they building here?

What are they building here?

I guess they're the ones to ask about it

I guess they're the ones to ask about it

You may recall that the land had been bought by the Aga Khan Foundation with the intent of building a Muslim Ismaeli center there. After all this time, I have no idea if that’s still the plan and it just took them longer than they might have thought to get it going, or if the property has changed hands and something else is about to be built. Anybody know what’s up? Swamplot to the white courtesy phone, please.

At long last, the Ashby Highrise Lawsuit

The Ashby Highrise developers have filed suit against the city.

The developers of the Ashby high-rise sued the city of Houston today seeking more than $40 million in compensation after repeated denials of their permit application.

“The city must learn that it cannot misapply the law to please a select few or to achieve de factor zoning regulations that our community has consistently rejected,” said Kevin Kirton, the chief executive of Buckhead Investment Partners Inc., the company that sought to build the 23-story tower at 1717 Bissonnet near Rice University.

I presume “de factor” is a typo in the statement they sent out about this, but as I am not on their press release distribution list, I cannot confirm that. I will simply note that both the neighborhood and the developers have threatened to sue at one time or another, and it actually feels a bit like relief that one of them finally went ahead and did it. As you know, I do think the original project, with the mixed-use component, is a better overall idea than what was eventually approved, but it remains the case that this is the wrong location for that project. We’ll see what a judge and/or jury makes of it.

On a side note, think about all the grand projects that were going to happen in recent years, for which things were torn down, and whose sites now lie fallow for who knows how much longer thanks to the crappy economic and financial environment. I’m talking about sites like the Robinson Warehouse, Allen House, The Stables, and of course Sonoma. Is is just me, or is anyone else amazed that Morgan and Kirton are so secure in their financing position that they keep bulling ahead like this? You have to wonder what their secret is.

Get ready to say good-bye to Wilshire Village

Swamplot brings the sad but totally expected news.

As noted in today’s Daily Demolition Report below, 20 structures of the Wilshire Village garden apartments at the corner of Alabama and Dunlavy received demolition permits yesterday.

Aren’t there only 17 buildings in the complex? Maybe everyone’s just trying to be extra sure to get them all.

Somehow, that’s just fitting. My only request is that someone take pictures of the demolition. Then we’ll see how long it takes before something is built in its place – as we know from various other examples, it could be awhile.