Real Estate / Mansions / High-Rises / Neighborhoods

High Times in the City?

Oil Uncertainty Only Makes Houston’s High-Rise Boom More Million Dollar Buyer Focused

BY // 10.11.16

An orange construction elevator will take you up to the very top. In actuality, it looks more like a giant basket than an elevator, a grown-up version of a half-finished Disney ride. The foreman grins and guarantees everyone a smooth trip, right before he presses a button and sends the contraption lurching to life.

A few moments later, you’re on the top of The Wilshire and the wisdom of these makeshift elevator rides immediately comes into focus. The walls of this floor haven’t been put in yet, putting nothing between you and the views. There is the Williams Tower on one side, there is River Oaks and its canopy of trees on another, there is downtown, there is the crawl of cars on 610 down below. All of Houston stretches out below you.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” Robert Bland says, ambling up close to the edge. Bland, the 88-year-old founder of Pelican Builders who looks and acts like he’s only 68, has seen it all in Houston real estate. Views like this still make him pause and slurp up the wows. No wonder why many of The Wilshire’s future resident ownership agreements are consummated after trips up that orange elevator.

Something else becomes apparent after only a few minutes on top  as well. Houston’s high-rise building boom — the one oil uncertainty supposedly put into peril — has not stopped. Instead, it’s become more refined, selective and high-end. New projects are still springing up. Developers are still gobbling up any decent sized plot of land anywhere close to River Oaks. Looking out at the cranes and the land being cleared, it’s clear this is the epicenter. Houston’s own version of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile takes shape below, only like most things in the Bayou City it’s a little more spread out.

“Location is more important than ever,” Pelican president Derek Darnell says. “And River Oaks is still River Oaks.” That is why Pelican is already jumping full speed ahead into a new high-profile luxury project, The Revere at River Oaks — a nine-story building with only 33 residences that’s close enough to Armandos to make it a de facto lobby bar. Bland sees it as Houston’s own little slice of Park Avenue, a building that would fit right in with all of the luxury retreats in Manhattan.

These are the types of high-rises and mid-rises selling fast in Houston. The more high-end, the more demand. Developers who elected to go after slightly more modest price points, to ramp down amenities to keep rents and purchase prices lower, found trouble. A high-rise needs to be in a coveted location or posses an attention-grabbing amenity (Market Square Tower’s glass bottom pool that dangles out over the street or 2929 Wesleyan’s show-stopping steak and sushi restaurant, Roka Akor, for instance) to excel in this market.

Just ask the developers of The Ivy Lofts, who confidently introduced micro condos to Houston only to find that even Texas Millennials have little interest in going small. That project’s now being recast as a condo hotel.

Market Square Tower’s pool takes swimming to new heights.

Buyers are looking for “custom homes in the sky.” That is how Giorgio Borlenghi, the always sharply-dressed developer from Milan so beloved by the River Oaks crowd, puts it.

Borlenghi follows one high-profile luxury project with another, going from the plush 26-story, nearly sold-out Belfiore on Post Oak to the plush 26-story Villa Borghese that’s close enough to River Oaks’ official boundaries to coyly flirt with the neighborhood. Just as importantly, Borlenghi’s new building displays an understanding that downsizing in Houston is still fundamentally different from downsizing in New York.

“Going from a 12,000-square-foot house to a 2,000-square-foot condominium is not feasible,” he says. But moving into a near 5,000-square-foot condo with a 24-7 guard house, 24-7 valet parking, and 24-7 concierge service just may fit a River Oaks’ empty nester’s lifestyle. Size still matters in Texas. So does location.

A Travelin’ World

A successful building does not have to be in River Oaks — as long as it has the type of features found in a River Oaks luxury palace. One Hermann Place — a new seven-story mid-rise going up right across from Herman Park on a 6.86-acre total footprint of land that Tema Development owns — follows a five-star hotel blueprint. This comes through in touches as seemingly minor as hallway size. One Hermann Place’s corridors are much wider than a standard apartment complex’s.

“This gives you a much more comfortable sense,” says Haytham Haidar, Tema’s ownership representative. “It makes the building much more welcoming.” Haidar would know. He took the wider corridor concept from the St. Regis hotel chain (Haidar developed a property in the United Arab Emirates in which St. Regis was the branded hotel and operator).

These high-rises and mid-rises need to appeal to travelers. Many of the million-dollar-plus purchases have come from international businessmen looking for a Houston base. Bland believes this could change with this next wave of new luxury buildings, though. Including his own, The Revere. “This is the first one where I don’t think a majority of the buyers will come from Timbuktu,” he jokes. “It will be more local buyers. More River Oaks people.”

Still, the lock-and-leave lifestyle remains a vital part of the high-rise appeal. “Our residents are in Aspen one week, Pebble Beach the next,” Borlenghi says. “The building’s never crowded.”

Crowds don’t sell. Special does. That’s why a makeshift orange elevator — a cage to the sky — does some of a high-rise’s most convincing pitches.

Come back to for our breakdowns of the most interesting — and city-changing — high-rises in Houston in the coming days.

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