These days, on the once-blighted 3600 and 3700 blocks of Main St., you will find establishments like Double Trouble (a coffee shop/bar), My Flaming Heart (boutique), Sig’s Lagoon (record shop), Big Kat’s (tattoo parlor/barbershop), Natachee’s Supper ‘n Punch and Tacos A Go-Go (restaurants), and the Big Top Lounge (another bar). In addition to possessing colorful names, these places are all independent local businesses. Further, they are local businesses that have the firm support of developer Bob Schultz, who owns the buildings they occupy, as well as the Continental Club, his first foothold on the block and one of the city’s premier music venues.
“When this was Guy’s News, it was kinda scary,” Schultz says, pointing across the street while sipping a pint of Karbach at Double Trouble. “I never went in. I thought it was a porn store. But I loved the building.” Actually, it was a newsstand whose most salacious offerings were Playboy and Penthouse, but anyway Schultz bought the place in 1999, along with Continental Club co-owner/manager Pete Gordon, whom Schultz calls “the heart and soul” of the area, and old college friend Steve Wertheimer, founder and owner of the Austin Continental Club.
Today, Schultz’s two blocks are collectively known as The Island, a burgeoning oasis of Bayou City cool, a redevelopment effort that somehow avoided becoming something uninteresting, which sadly seems to be the norm these days, on Main and elsewhere. Instead, it’s beginning to seem like Schultz has sown the seeds of a South Congress in Austin or a Magazine Street in New Orleans—of a district that defines a city.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider what’s on its way. The area, whose epicenter is the Ensemble/HCC stop on METRORail, will be the home of the new Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston, which broke ground in May and is set to open in middle or late 2015. The $25 million facility will contain a 350-seat theater, as well as several smaller performance and gallery spaces, thereby providing a home for a number of arts groups devoted to the performing and visual arts.
Right next door, Schultz, who guaranteed the loan by which the MATCH property was purchased a few years ago, has broken ground on Mid Main, which, in addition to bringing even more shops and restaurants to the area, will also include a parking garage to be shared with MATCH, and 363 new apartments. The better to attract students, young professionals, and those on a budget, more than half of the units will be studios, and there will also be access to Zip Cars, B Cycles, and plenty of bike racks (and in-unit bike storage space), so those who want to live car-free—yes, car-free in Houston, Texas—will have that option.
Schultz is a handsome, tall, square-shouldered guy of 52, with a clear-eyed gaze under a shock of blond hair. Possessing a deeply felt and well-honed aesthetic sense married to a no-BS demeanor, Schultz has always been a bit of a maverick, even in his early shopping center and strip mall days. “One of the things we were shooting for was to be the anti–strip mall,” he says, “to bring design to them.”
As evidence, he points to the portico-lined, Spanish-style plazas around the Kroger stores at Buffalo Speedway at Westpark, and Voss at San Felipe, both designed by RHS Interests, his company. He can’t put his company’s name on a shoddy piece of work, he says, because it’s his good name, too—RHS are his initials.
Schultz hails from Davenport, Iowa, and “for them it was a matter of civic pride,” them being the German immigrants who settled it. Their attitude was,“I built this building and therefore my reputation is tied to it, and I am going to live in this community for more than 20 minutes.” (Schultz lives now in the Upper Kirby District and serves on its improvement and beautification board.) When he was in junior high, in 1976, his parents announced that the family was moving from Davenport to Houston. On his first afternoon in town, Schultz remembers, he and his sister took off to explore Spring Branch, where they were beset by toads, and a tree roach hazed his sister Houston-style by flying into her hair. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, what are these creatures?’”
Young Schultz was astounded by the city’s urban environment. “Houston, even at that time, the mid-’70s, was transitioning,” he recalls. “Westheimer out past—I don’t know, Fondren—was still a dirt road, so that whole area was still undeveloped, but for me it was a huge city. Shortly thereafter, the oil boom really started to take hold and things were getting built downtown. I’d never seen skyscrapers and I became instantly fascinated.”
In retrospect, Schultz says that the downtown Davenport of his youth does somewhat resemble what he is creating on Main. No, Midtown will never be as Norman Rockwell as Iowa in the ’60s, he grants, but memories of shopping at locally-owned department stores in a compact old town are stamped indelibly in his memory. “There’s nothing wrong with national chain retailers,” he says. “Everybody uses them and some of them are great. It’s just that there are times when people long for things that are local, and where the ownership is present. … We want to try to create a community on Main where you know the people and you come back and are a part of their success.”
The Mid Main project is poised to be the most important of Schultz’s career. He bought the parcel of land in 2008, just weeks before the real estate crash, so he’s a little bit behind on his plans, but now they are moving forward with furious momentum. Maybe it’s the beer, but sitting with him in the midst of The Island’s bustle, we can’t help but reflect that like Will Hogg before him, Schultz may well leave his mark on this city in countless ways, and do so without ever once blowing his own horn.
“I love this place passionately,” he says of this city. “When people come and they don’t know and they take on that whole national image thing that Houston sometimes gets colored with, I always say, ‘You just don’t know it.’ It’s an onion you have to peel back and that makes it more fascinating. Because you do have to peel it back. You can’t just waltz into it with everything laid out in front of you.”