Real Estate 2015

Is Downtown Finally On Its Way Up?

Thanks to a raft of new residential towers, a new urban core is set to emerge from the old in dramatic fashion.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen March 30, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

One Park Place overlooks Discovery Green.

In a city that only thinks big, the only way to truly make an architectural statement is with a skyscraper. Or, better yet, nine of them.

That’s how many new residential high-rises are scheduled to be built in Houston’s downtown district by 2018 (including the recently completed SkyHouse). Combine that figure with the 10 additional mid-rises that are either under construction or on the boards, and downtown’s population—currently sitting at 4,000—is expected to triple in the next three to four years, according to Houston Downtown Management District director of marketing Angie Bertinot.

“Finally, it’s our turn,” she said. Between all the new residential structures and the 23—at press time—hotels and office towers in various stages of development, downtown will be a vastly different and better place, Bertinot believes. “As we start filling in parking lots and connecting these areas, the entire experience is going to be tremendously improved.”

Credit the Downtown Living Initiative for the all the activity, at least in part. Adopted by the City Council in 2012, the DLI was a response to an Urban Land Institute study showing that the biggest factors inhibiting Houston’s downtown residential growth were higher land prices and construction costs in the urban core. Hence the initiative, which offered developers rebates of $15,000 per unit to build downtown. Initially, Bertinot said, the Downtown District thought they would be lucky to hit their original allotment of 2,500 new units. After surprisingly intense interest from developers, however, the city extended the tax break to cover 5,000 units, the last of which were claimed by projects approved in February.

The new high-rises are the kind of option that Gail Rubin was looking for when she moved back to Houston from New York in 2003, though she didn’t like her options at the time. The PR executive ended up in Montrose for over a decade before finally moving into a historic downtown building this year.

I love the traffic. I love being able to walk and go get a drink, and there’s people and the sound of construction. There’s just something about the sound and the hum of an urban environment that’s comforting to me.

“I wanted to experience living in a loft environment in Houston,” she said. “I love the traffic. I love being able to walk and go get a drink, and there’s people and the sound of construction. There’s just something about the sound and the hum of an urban environment that’s comforting to me.”

For James Jackson, who works as the technical director at Lakewood Church, it was the history of the buildings that drew him downtown. “My grandfather was an executive at Humble Oil, so when I was looking, that place had an opening, and I thought it would be cool to live in the building he worked in,” he said. Several years in Humble Tower lofts was followed by a stint in the Heights before Jackson and his girlfriend Evelyn Lozano returned downtown to live in the former Nabisco factory near Minute Maid Park—complete with cement slabs on the floor where giant ovens used to be.

While all the new skyscrapers and mid-rises will by definition lack a certain historical charm, Jackson hopes that they will still prove attractive, particularly with young renters, who until recently had few options downtown. That’s what Bertinot expects too—younger residents, if not necessarily less affluent ones.

Marketing professional Nora Villareal has lived in the Hogg Palace on Louisiana Street near Market Square for over five years, and said that not all the changes downtown—including the noise and constant street closures caused by the under-construction Market Square Tower across the street from her apartment—are positive.

Parking is increasingly an issue, for example, and the crowds drawn to the new downtown bars have also drawn more crime to the neighborhood. (“When I moved in, there was no one really around to mess with,” she said. “Who were they going to rob? Gary, the homeless guy who sits outside my building?”)

And then there’s the food issue. Despite the opening of Phoenicia Specialty Foods in One Park Place in 2011, the lack of a traditional grocery store (or even a well-stocked convenience store, in some areas) is still a source of frustration for the residents.

Still, ask downtown dwellers why they made the move, and you’ll get lots of answers. Some mention the easy access to the Midtown nightlife scene, the Montrose restaurant scene, and both airports. Others praise the convenience of the bike trails and light rail connecting them to other parts of the city. But for all of them, the attraction is, at its core, something a little harder to define. They like the vibe, the feeling of existing in a part of the city where pavement is all and the idea of mowing a lawn is about as distant as the suburbs lurking on the city’s periphery.

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