"For all the greatness of Houston, what I thought it lacked was a place to stroll and dine and shop," he said, sitting under one of the massive oak trees that peppers the 15-acre site. "I thought that Houstonians would embrace the concept of being able to live and work here and have a real pedestrian-oriented experience."
Oliver's wife, Elizabeth Hamman Oliver, is a native Houstonian. She grew up in River Oaks and introduced the San Diego-based developer to the city, where he believes residents have an affinity for patio dining and connecting with the outdoors.
A change of plans
Initial plans for the project, which began in 2007, were for a 2 million square foot mixed use development. But the crash of 2008 put those plans on hold and ultimately River Oaks District was scaled back to 1 million square feet.
"We faced big financial headwinds in March of 2008 and we shut down the process of heading toward construction . . . We battened down the hatches basically for the storm and by early 2009 real estate values plummeted. We decided to ride out the storm and not sell the asset."
"You experience ups and downs and you know that neither remains forever. They will happen."
Oliver added, "By 2011, it became clear that it was time to fire this back up again."
OliverMcMillan kept the original grid for River Oaks District but simplified the project. The plan originally had four high rises, two hotels, an office tower and a residential tower. As the plans were scaled back, Oliver said, his wife advised that the project's River Oaks neighbors would be happier with the lower profile.
Full speed ahead
By some estimations, the timing isn't the greatest for such a ritzy development with oil prices down and energy companies experiencing sizable layoffs. But Oliver isn't worried. None of his major tenants have balked, he said. The haute names soon to fill the marquee include Cartier, Hermès, Tom Ford, Chopard, Akris and Brunello Cucinelli.
"There was a time when everything in Houston was about oil. That's not the case any more," Oliver said with a Chamber of Commerce-like enthusiasm. "This is a much more diverse economy, a much larger economy, a stronger economy."
Offering assurance that he sees the glass as half full, Oliver noted, "This project is set up financially for the long term. We have long term financing in place. We understand that we will go through economic cycles with this project."
"There are going to be ups and downs. But we're going to be right here and we're going to have a great place. People are still going to come because it's going to be a great place to sit under a beautiful oak tree and have a cup of coffee."
In fact, many of those who have visited River Oaks District with its lush landscaping are already applauding its European ambience. On this sunny day sitting beneath one of those oaks, Oliver, the ever-sophisticated dresser, sported white slacks, polo shirt and shoes and a blue linen jacket with silk pocket square all from Brunello Cucinelli.