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[Houston] Urban developments gain ground against sprawl

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In Sprawling Houston, Urban Style Gains Traction

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Notes --

1. As cities across the "Sun Belt" began to embrace new urban developments -- including mixed-use projects -- Houston was relatively quiet. Until now. The city is considered one of the last open markets for mixed-use development -- rooted in "New Urbanism" which dates back to the 1980s. It is a push towards a return to the more traditional towns. Houston's vibrant economy is pushing this along -- job growth is up, office and retail vacancies are down. The population grew at more than double the national rate in 2006 from 2005, and now stands at 5.5 million.

2. More than 6 high-profile projects that mix residential, retail and office space are either under way or being planned. The projects comprise of over $1 billion in value, and "underscore a fundamental shift in the development patterns" of a major city that has sprawled out rather than built up. This also signals a "significant breakthrough" ( :dontknow: ) in the ever-popular concept of "live, work, play".

3. One such project is a 24-acre downtown development called Regent Square. The first phase includes 740 residential units, 250,000 sq. ft. of retail, and 60,000 sq. ft. of office space. It also includes a boutique hotel. The project is valued at more than $100 million.

4. The frenzy of development projects all at once has created a competitive environment where there will be winners and losers. One such 'loser' is the Houston Pavilions, a three-block, $170 million office and retail project in the downtown. It once included a residential tower, although this was scrapped because of the high cost of an underground parking structure. The residential component would have given the project more "cachet" -- but the project as it stands will transform downtown Houston into a lively urban hub.

4a. There are four projects planned or under construction in a six-mile stretch from the downtown west to the city's inner loop (incl. Regent Square and West. Ave).

5. Another project, valued at more than $100 million, is being built along West Ave. The project includes 390 apartments, 180,000 sq. ft. of retail, and 60,000 sq. ft. on ~six acres.

6. The new urbanism projects are more challenging to develop since they are in urban cores, and can be vastly more expensive. But they have proven to be popular in cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Denver. But with demand for such projects saturated in many cities, Houston's lack of it makes the new developments "something of a prize." In other words, there is sufficient high demand to warrant such projects.

7. One project being planned is the $500 million BLVD Place, which includes 525,000 sq. ft. of retail (including a flagship Whole Foods store), 150,000 sq. ft. of office, and three high-rise residential towers. One of those towers will be a luxury hotel with condominiums. The 21-acre site is located at a major intersection where there is some demand for such projects, but since the project was announced more than a year ago, it has yet to break ground. Construction could begin this summer.

8. Another is The River Oaks District, a $750 million project on ~15 acres inside the city's inner loop. It includes 350,000 sq. ft. of retail, a high-rise tower with 300 luxury apartments and two hotels (one with condominiums), and 250,000 sq. ft. of office space. It isn't expected to break ground until fall 2008.

Article information: "In Sprawling Houston, Urban Style Gains Traction, By THADDEUS HERRICK, Wall-Street Journal, May 30, 2007; Page B6"

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What is "West Avenue"? Is it Westheimer? Washington Avenue?

The only real changes I've seen in Houston in the past four years has been along Washington Avenue west of Sixth Ward (which itself had been quietly gentrifying for years) and a little bit in the area of the Montrose just east of River Oaks. Washington was the surprising one as this used to be an absolute no-man's land save for a few brave souls in the little houses just south of it and the old hipster bars that used to have the best shows (one of which is now closed). It's now nothing but townhouses, wine bars, cafes, and other signs of yuppi-/gentri-fication.

But mixed-use projects have been out there in the city for years and years, they just never came to much of any fruition and were always somewhat half-ast (sic, for board censor). The Galleria/Uptown was the hot spot for this for a long time, mostly condo-hotel or office-condo places. They all seemed like such pipe dreams back then.

My friend who still lives in Houston always tries to tell me about the sweeping changes occuring in the city, but I just don't see it. Almost everything looks the same save for a few different shops. Regardless, I do totally agree with that article in that Houston is primed for a real estate boom. I mean, you can still buy a decent house in Spring for $90k!! Where else is this still possible in a major city with a high standard of living??

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