Houston’s new wave of huge retail/restaurant mixed-use centers was knocked off course by Hurricane Ike and a hell of a recession.
A couple of years ago, the mixed-use centers, with dining, shopping, offices, apartments and hotels, were the hot emerging trend. In most cases, economic issues caused delays or cancellations, so we just watched the weeds grow.
But some of the projects appear to be regaining their bearings as we move closer to 2011.
That means it won’t be much longer till stores and restaurants are opening in West Ave, the mixed-use center at the southwest corner of Westheimer and Kirby Drive. Developers say the BLVD Place on Post Oak is still moving forward, too. And CityCentre in west Houston is doing so well that a new office building is planned.
Breaking news: The first retail space has just opened in West Ave, says Nick Hernandez of Page Partners, the Houston real estate firm that is leasing West Ave. The brand new tenant is Rome, a salon and day spa, opening Aug. 10. Eddie V’s, a seafood and steak place with a Gulf Coast flair, will come online in October.
The developer, Gables Residential, and its mixed-use division, Gables Urban, broke ground on the seven-story West Ave project in the summer of 2007. West Ave’s 390 apartment units leased briskly and are 93 percent occupied today. But the 198,000 square-foot retail portion of West Ave – an estimated 50 store fronts on the first two floors of the project – leased at a slower pace. Retailers were slow to move ahead with expansions during the recession.
Hernandez, a grizzled veteran in Houston’s shopping center business, took over West Ave leasing nine months ago. Since then, West Ave has had some significant announcements. Tootsies, the upscale women’s apparel store, leased 34,000 square feet. Schiller-Del Grande Restaurant Group will launch two new concepts, Ava Brasserie and Pizzeria Alto in West Ave.
Expect to see a number of new tenants opening in West Ave before the end of the year.
Located in the Memorial area, CityCentre is a dense mixed-use development on 37 acres near the intersection of the Katy Freeway and the Sam Houston Tollway. It is situated on the site of the old Town & Country Mall, which was demolished. The mall’s parking garage was retained; everything else is new construction. It has a broad mix of development with retail space, office space, restaurants, apartments and the 240-room Hotel Sorella. Inside Hotel Sorella is the Bistro Alex, a popular new eatery operated by Alex Brennan-Martin.
CityCentre is a strong project that has done well in its first year, says Alex Makris, retail center specialist for the CB Richard Ellis real estate firm. “It’s working and it’s working very well. And I think that’s because it’s in the right place,” Makris says.
The Anthropologie store in CityCentre has been racking up impressive sales numbers that have been generating a lot of buzz in the retailer community, said Jonathan Brinsden, chief operating officer of Midway Companies, the developer of CityCentre.
The two office buildings in CityCentre are full and Midway is planning on starting another office building soon, Brinsden says. That building, expected to be eight stories and 250,000 square feet, will be located west of the Hotel Sorella.
Located at San Felipe and Post Oak, the 21-acre BLVD Place is designed to be the exclamation point on the long career of Houston shopping center czar Ed Wulfe. Once considered a possible mayoral candidate, Wulfe redeveloped Meyerland Plaza and Gulfgate, to name a few of his notable projects.
Wulfe & Co. took a sizable chunk of prominent real estate in the Uptown area and demolished what was there – the shopping center where Café Annie and Eatzi’s were located. The plan called for a high-rise residential tower to be developed by Hanover Co., plus office space, retail space and a gigantic Whole Foods with a rooftop plaza similar to the grocer’s headquarters store in Austin on Sixth Street.
But times have changed and Whole Foods has scaled back. It will begin building a smaller 48,500-square-foot store early next year, says Elise Weatherall of Wulfe & Co.
The 70,000 square-foot phase one of BLVD Place is 100 percent leased with office and retail tenants. RDG + Bar Annie is a popular restaurant in the building and Philippe Restaurant and Lounge, a French spot operated by chef Philippe Schmit, will open this fall. Some additional retail/office buildings are planned for the site and Wulfe will probably get under construction with one of them next year.
Building projects with a mixture of office space, retail, and residential units will continue to be a popular development strategy. It’s a very efficient sustainable concept well suited for urban areas, says inner loop real estate broker Greg Lewis of Lewis Property Co.
Consider the shared parking garage at a mixed-use project. Parking garages for apartment projects are largely vacant during the day, but full at night. Office building parking garages are full in the day and empty at night. So it makes perfect sense for office buildings and apartments to share a parking garage.
Lewis notes that young apartment dwellers love to live next to restaurants and clubs. People in office buildings love to have convenient shopping and lunch spots. If all of this can be done without driving a car, it means mixed-use developments contribute in some small way to making Houston a greener place.
However, the true test for mixed-use centers will be their profitability over time and success in the marketplace. We won’t know that until the recession is completely behind us.
Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is editor-in-chief of RealtyNewsReport.com.