The Year in Culture
On the store front: H-E-B's final plan for Montrose market has a neighborlyattitude
2010 was a tumultuous year for large inside-the-Loop retail projects. While residents near the proposed site of a new Walmart, planned for a far corner of the Heights, are still grumbling, H-E-B president Scott McClelland has offered a textbook example of how to win over a skeptical neighborhood with the new store planned as the chain's Montrose centerpiece.
"I've spent more time on this store than all of the (new H-E-B) stores in the last two years," McClelland said over a recent breakfast. "But it's an opportunity to give back to the community something they can be proud of."
While such talk could be construed as corporate spin, McClelland says it with such conviction there's no doubt he is sincere. The store has become an obsession for the hard-driving executive who has boosted the chain's Houston market share from 11 to 16-1/2 percent since 2003 and he seems to relish the process as much as the outcome.
"I thought I was good at this, but the Montrose community has taught me to be better," he said, highlighting the new friendships he has made with neighborhood leaders during negotiations for the new store.
It's not all altruism, however. McClelland is convinced that a well run upscale in-town store will raise the chain's visibility across Houston. The new store will have wider aisles than the Buffalo Speedway location and offer such amenities as a fresh-squeezed juice bar, an in-store RediClinic, a Central Market Cafe on the Run and one of the chain's largest wine and beer selections. The most recent addition: A walk-up window, so neighborhood patrons can order food to eat on the outdoor terrace without going into the store.
"People are so opinionated about grocery shopping. If we come close to building the store that they want, it will only pay off for us," he said.
It has been a long process, but H-E-B is putting final touches on plans for the much-discussed store at the corner of Dunlavy and West Alabama. After extensive meetings with neighborhood residents, McClelland believes the grocery chain has come up with a distinctive store plan that captures the flavor of the Montrose surroundings while preserving many of the trees on the seven-acre property that once housed the Wilshire Village Apartments.
"When the design is finished, I hope people will say, 'this store is really cool,' " said McClelland. "I'm not sure everyone will be having fun, but I hope they will be. It won't be for lack of effort."
McClelland overcame some initial skepticism by involving neighbors in everything from the store design to the height of the fence that borders the property. As previously reported, neighbors chose a design called The Pavilion, a low-slung building with blocks of forest green and terra cotta siding and an extended roof plane that shelters outdoor spaces. But they weren't crazy about the exterior colors and wanted more transparency along the back wall, which faces Alabama.
The newest — and likely final — plan features neutral colors for the exterior, with windows added to the back wall and plans for extensive trees and greenery along the busy street.
With neighborhood approval, H-E-B has asked the city for a variance to construct a 12-foot wall along the back sides of the property with a gate at Branard Street that will remain open from dawn to dusk. (At Branard, the wall will be 8-feet high.) Fig ivy vines will eventually cover the wall to provide more of a "green" effect on the property.
McClelland said there was a lot of debate among neighbors about the gate — those closest to the store didn't want it and those a little farther away lobbied for it so pedestrians coming from the west wouldn't have to go out of their way to enter the property. He brought the opposing sides together and told them to reach a compromise — or he would decide. They settled on one gate instead of two. (An entrance at Sul Ross can be added later if prevailing opinions change.)
While not everyone is pleased that the back of the building fronts Alabama at Dunlavy, the 78,000-square-foot store will be situated there to allow 16 live oak trees to be saved on the rest of the property. A detailed drawing of the property by McDugald-Steele Landscape Architects shows five groupings of large trees in various areas of the parking lot, including a 10,000-square-foot green space (about the size of a West University home lot) near the front of the store and a cafe terrace dotted with trees and a fountain that curves around the side of the building.
"There is a park-like feel to the site," said McDugald-Steele principal owner Erik Hanson. "Our charge was to keep that feeling as much as possible."
Hanson says the challenge now is to protect the trees as the land is prepared for construction. A significant amount of tree protection fencing will be put up before construction begins in March, 2011, for a November opening. Concrete poured for the parking lot will end at the edge of the canopy to protect the each tree. "The rule of thumb is to stay outside the drip line of the tree and the width of the canopy," McDugald-Steele project manager Kevin Steed said.
Other landscaping plans include the addition of bald cypress trees along West Alabama and colorful Chinese Pistache trees along Dunlavy for "a mid-size ornamental accent," Hanson said. "We don't want to introduce a whole bunch of varietals. We wanted to keep it simple and not compete with the live oaks."
In order to qualify for LEED certification, native plants that can be watered on a drip system instead of spray will be used. And park benches for the property will be made from trees that are cut down.
Hanson, who has been in the landscaping business for nearly 30 years, believes that more Houston businesses are recognizing that it makes good sense to take into account the unique natural aspects of a piece of property.
"My belief is this will set an example of how it can be done if people on the development side invest a little more and people on the private side are a little more flexible," he said. "When you set the bar high, it raises the level of expectation."
In the brutally competitive supermarket business, grocers have to figure out what makes their store distinctive from others in the neighborhood. So McClelland is convinced that Fiesta across the street and nearby Kroger and Randalls stores will make changes, too, in order to attract business.
"The population density is so great in the area there's plenty of room for everybody to make a living," he said.
Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of articles CultureMap will be running this last week of 2010 on The Year in Culture. The stories in this series will focus on a few key points, things that struck our reporting team about the year rather than rote Top 10 lists or bests of.
Other The Year In Culture stories: