Just before the official opening ceremony for the River Oaks District began Thursday morning, OliverMcMillan CEO Dene Oliver implored the audience to move up to empty seats near the front of the outdoor area.
"Don't be shy," Oliver said. "If we were shy, we wouldn't have gotten this built."
Indeed, after nearly a decade of planning and construction, along with an economic scare or two that might have frightened off less hearty developers, Houston's newest luxury mixed-use complex is ready for business. The 15-acre center, located on Westheimer just inside the 610 Loop, still looks a bit like a construction zone, but some premier names in fashion have opened and more are on on their way.
Such stellar fashion labels as Tom Ford, Roberto Cavalli, Brunello Cucinelli, Guiseppe Zanotti, Dior, Chopard, Etro, Canali, Vince and Intermix opened their doors to Houston shoppers Thursday, joining Cartier, which was the first to welcome customers to the center in early September. The shops are lavishly appointed, with mirrored walls, gleaming metal shelves and miles of marble — a stop at the gray-marbled Tom Ford powder room is an event of its own.
The center is 85 percent leased, with such stores as Stella McCartney, Akris, Moncler and Hermès on their way, along with an Equinox gym, iPic theater complex and several restaurants opening in the next few weeks.
"Great places don't happen overnight," said Oliver, adding that it could be up to a year before the complex reaches its potential.
Oliver recalled that when he first glimpsed the property in 2006, he saw "750 apartments and an amazing location. I immediately turned to my (business) partner and said, 'I think we can do this.' "
Yes, the idea is different for Houston — an outdoor space that emphasizes strolling, dining and shopping. A main plaza in the middle of the complex, with flowers and mature oak trees, is meant to be a gathering spot, with a U-shaped street lined by businesses almost like the long-ago downtown districts in small towns. The main entrance is off of Westheimer, but there are five to six other entry points throughout the complex, with valet and parking garages providing easy access.
"What we didn't want to do was the cookie cutter obvious approach, which was to play to Westheimer," said Duncan Paterson, Gensler Worldwide design partner for mixed use projects, who has been involved in ROD since the early planning stages."We want to draw people in with a few surprises on the inside; projects like this need that. It's 15 acres, so it's not just about frontage. While retailers love to be seen, the reality is that retailers were starting to understand the core of the project is the real heart."
Restaurants will be sprinkled out amid the project, not concentrated in one area. "We want people to circulate and move around to restaurants and shopping," Paterson said. "OM has hand picked and cultivated each restaurant type, so you are not going to see restaurants you see everywhere else. That is the beauty of this District. It's not only unique to Houston as a pedestrian district, but it's absolutely unique in its tenant mix and its opportunities."
The hot issue
In his remarks to the crowd, Oliver, who hails from San Diego, acknowledged the elephant in the room — how will Houstonians adapt to an largely outdoor center in our tropical climate?
"Everyone says, 'Oooh, it's too hot.' It's not too hot," he said. "It's just perfect. Look at today."
"Does it ever happen that it gets hot? Yeah, you wear a hat. You get under a fan. You go to a cafe. There are all sorts of things to do when that happens.
"In all of the great cities of the world, there are things that are done outside. The greatest places in the world that you feel from here to here," he said, touching his heart, "are always like this. They are full of people, great streetscapes, great landscapes. There are restaurants and cafes. And the best thing is the people. And the people watching. And congregating. We are herd animals. We like to be around people. And that is what this is about."
And, he noted, despite all the high-end shops, he hopes Houstonians of all income levels will see River Oaks District as a gathering spot. "You don't have to spend a dime to come here. You can stroll the streets and enjoy the landscape, the amazing artscape, flowers, done by my great friend Doug Hoerr, who by the way came to Houston also to do Hermann Park. That is the depth of the talent that's been involved in doing this."
Raise the bar
Oliver envisions the River Oaks District as "a place that will be here for a couple of hundred years — maybe longer....Houston is a world-class city. It deserves something like this. There is so much going on here in the city right now and this is just one more piece. But hopefully this will show Houstonians how you can raise the bar and create something new, different and special.
"We wanted to create a piece of Houston like never before. And hopefully that's what we have done."
Among those joining Oliver in the dedication were his wife, Elizabeth Hamman Oliver, who grew up in Houston, and her sister, Laura Hamman, Lynn Wyatt, Rachel McNeill, Nick Florescu and Dominique Sachse, along with Houston City Council members Michael Kubosh and David Robinson, who was impressed by at least one aspect of the new center
"I love these roadways. I've not seen a single pothole," Robinson said. "Congratulations!"