The Heights’ emergence as one of Houston’s premier neighborhoods for shopping and dining has been well documented, but the area remains mostly residential. It lacks certain amenities, such as a hotel, that could be a boon both to families who are entertaining guests and visitors who might be enticed by the prospect of being close to all of those shops and restaurants.
Ben Ackerley would like to change that. The Memorial High School grad became enticed by the world of hospitality while studying abroad. He spent 10 years learning the hotel and restaurant business — including earning a MBA in Hospitality Management from Switzerland’s Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne — in pursuit of achieving his dream of opening a boutique hotel. With support from his family, he’s planning to open Maison Robert (read in the French-style “row-bear”) at 347 W. 20th St.
News about Ackerley’s plans has been trickling out thanks to variance requests and neighborhood message boards, but he hasn’t spoken about them publicly until now.
The 37-room property aims to offer something a little different than the larger hotels found in downtown, the Medical Center, and near the Galleria; it’s will have a more personal feel, with a greater emphasis on aesthetics and design than might be typically found at a corporate hotel.
“I think it’s a difference in the service approach,” Ackerley tells CultureMap. “Whereas a Marriott may have 800 rooms and turn over 250 of them every night, does anyone really remember your name? If you’re staying at a place with 10 rooms, the guy at the front desk knows everyone in house. The staff knows what people’s needs are and already have a feel on how the stay went before they check out.”
Maison Robert will feature a pool and a bar, but it won’t have a restaurant. The area is surrounded by good choices from casual options like Torchy’s Tacos and the Rice Box to more upscale options like Alice Blue and La Lucha. Ackerley sees the neighborhood’s walkability as a huge part of what will make the hotel appealing to future guests.
“I hope to envision a property where you wouldn’t need to get into a car,” he says. “Wake up, go for a run down 20th, get some work done by the pool in the afternoon, walk to a restaurant for dinner, and see a show at Heights Theater. It’s a different way to see Houston.”
Of course, the path to opening the hotel hasn’t been smooth. Before construction can begin, the property needs to receive two variances from the City of Houston Planning Commission: a hotel-motel location variance and a setback variance.
As Ackerley explains, the city restricts the construction of small hotels in residential neighborhoods to prevent the creation of cheap motels that could become hives for drug activity and prostitution. Maison Robert will be a considerably more upscale proposition (rooms are expected to cost about $250-300 per night) that should hopefully be immune from those problems.
Similarly, the setback variance is necessary to allow for certain features to be constructed closer to the street than 25 feet. If approved, the hotel will hide most of it parking away from 20th Street, which permits the bar to look out onto the street and for a first floor retail shop.
As for that retail space, the search for parking led the hotel to purchase the nearby property that’s currently home to the Heights Floral Shop. Shortly before the hotel opens, the floral shop will relocate to the hotel and then be torn down to make way for more enough parking to address city requirements. It’s a win-win for both businesses.
“A flower shop and a hotel and complementary businesses,” Ackerley says. “We need flowers for the lobby and the bar. People will buy flowers when they’re taking a spouse or a date to the hotel. Their customers will still be able to find the shop.”
Finally, some area residents have expressed dismay that Ackerley removed a historic home from the property. He notes the house’s condition required its removal, but that the building materials won’t go to waste. he insists it had to be done.
“There was trash and belongings on the floor in every room,” he says. “What we elected to do is donate the house to the Houston Salvage Warehouse. They hired a trash company to clean it out, then they salvaged everything they could to be used for future projects.”
Still, in order to ensure the January17 appearance before the planning commission goes as smoothly as possible, Ackerley is meeting with his future neighbors on January 15 at Harold’s starting at 6:30 pm. He hopes to answer questions and assuage any lingering fears.
“The planning company wrote me an email that this is suicide, but I’m a pretty open book about it,” Ackerley says. “I have the city’s best interests at heart. At the end of the day, I think it will be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. I intend to own and run it for a very long time.”