Real Estate / Neighborhoods

Houston’s New River Oaks Village — Meet The RO, a Pedestrian Paradise With a Major Hotel First, a 28-Story High-Rise, Local Restaurants and Leafy Corridors

How a Dream Team of Architects Will Pull It Off For Transwestern, and All the Auberge Hotel Buzz

BY // 05.15.24

Attempting to create a unique new village in the heart of Houston requires a sense of boldness, an audacity of belief. But to pull it off, Transwestern ultimately decided it needed a dream team of architects on its side. These varied architectural visions working in harmony is what will define The RO, a new 17 acre mixed-use development coming to the intersection of West Alabama and Buffalo Speedway with the first Auberge Resorts Collection hotel in the Bayou City.

“We could have done this with one or two (architects),” Transwestern president Carleton Riser tells PaperCity. “We wanted different architects because we wanted the buildings to have their own personality. And the only way to do that is to get different people to do it.

“Cities weren’t designed by one architect.”

Pickard Chilton, most known for designing some of most striking skyscrapers in the world (including Uber Sky Tower in Los Angeles and River Point in Chicago), serves as the master planner on The RO, which will boast a 28-story residential high-rise (317 units) and a seven-story boutique office building with a single tenant. Kohn Pedersen Fox is designing The Birdsall, the Auberge hotel and private residences. Dillon Kyle Architects, a favorite of River Oaks home owners, is tackling the interiors of The Birdsall’s 44 private residences while Roman and Williams (which did San Antonio’s already beloved Hotel Emma) handles the interiors of the hotel itself. Michael Hsu Office of Architecture has been charged with designing the retail spaces with House & Robertson the architect of record for retail. Kendall/Heaton Associates serves as the architect of record for the office component. OJB — behind both Houston’s Levy Park and Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, and the forthcoming Freedom Plaza in New York City — gets the nod as The RO’s landscape architect.

That roster represents a tremendous amount of architectural clout and knowhow. This new village will be built by a village in many ways.

For project executive Sean Suffel, what he calls “one of the most coveted sites in the city for many decades” demands nothing less. The RO site sits right across from the St. John’s School on the former home of Exxon Mobil’s upstream research campus, which the oil giant owned since the 1940s before selling it in 2017. Having such a large site in the heart of the River Oaks area, one that has Suffel marveling at its perfect geometry, is a developer’s version of finding the holy grail.

To determine the best way to make use of this rare site, the Transwestern team studied mixed-use projects around the country and particularly in Texas, eventually landing on The Pearl in San Antonio as an inspiration for its sense of placemaking.

“The conclusion that we came to is Houston doesn’t really have anything that feels like Houston,” Suffel says. “More specifically, it really doesn’t have anything that feels like the River Oaks area.”

To make sure that The RO does, the master plan calls for all of the parking to be on the periphery and underground, creating a pedestrian-only walker’s paradise at the center of the development. The RO will be marked by leafy avenues of green, where those strolling among the shops and restaurants do not compete with cars. Instead, people will walk on cobblestone pathways with five or six signature oak trees already on site that are being moved to prime locations.

“We want to do something really special with the landscaping that felt like some of these River Oaks estates,” Suffel says.

“I don’t think there is a place like this. We’re creating a little village that I think’s unique to Houston.” — Transwestern president Carleton Riser

Central Lawn at The RO; Rendering courtesy of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture
The central lawn at the new mixed-use development dubbed The RO will be a green gathering space with a towering heritage oak. (Courtesy Michael Hsu Office of Architecture)

The RO, Where Pedestrians Rule In Houston

Having a automobile-free environment at the center of it all makes everything else possible at The RO. It may go against nearly every instinct in such a car-centric city as Houston. But that’s the point.

“From our perspective that creates a really, really special place,” Suffel says of keeping the cars out. “I’d argue that there’s nothing like that in the city. And I haven’t seen anything like that in the state.”

As Suffel talks, sitting around a large conference table in Transwestern’s headquarters on the south loop, a rendering of the courtyard outside of The Birdsall hotel is displayed on a big screen on the ball. It’s the image at the top of this story. A scene fit for a postcard. Leafy, almost pastoral and seemingly a world away from the traffic and noise of the fourth largest city in America. This is what this development team wants The RO to feel like when it opens in 2027 (the construction groundbreaking will take place this June).

The Transwestern team behind this feel something of a personal responsibility to make it happen. This special site, this location so close to their offices and their own homes in many cases, adds to this sense of urgency. Even the most experienced developers really only get one shot at a project like this.

“We live in the area. If we get it wrong, we have to move,” Suffel jokes. “We like our houses.”

As Transwestern officials give PaperCity an exclusive preview look at The RO, a giant model sits in the middle of the conference table. All the buildings coming to this mixed-use development are there in miniature, right down to some surprisingly exact detail. You can even see basketball/pickleball/volleyball sports court that will highlight the open air rooftop of the office building, which already has its lone tenant signed on (Suffel declines to reveal the company’s name). That court requires some landscaping that will keep balls from bouncing off the roof onto West Alabama below.

Every detail matters. Every little thing adds up to a greater, grander larger whole.

“The conclusion that we came to is Houston doesn’t really have anything that feels like Houston. More specifically, it really doesn’t have anything that feels like the River Oaks area.” — Transwestern project manager Sean Suffel

The Birdsall, a Houston Story and No Ordinary Hotel

To further differentiate The RO, the retail spaces are being pushed out rather than embedded in the buildings’ podium (which is typical). This allows the stores and restaurants to have their own “architectural identity,” Suffel notes.

The 75,000 square feet of retail space will include six to eight restaurants. “The idea is to bring things that are unique to Houston — to partner with the local chef community. This is going to be unique and very interesting stuff,” Suffel says. “We don’t want to translate this to national brands.”

The Birdsall hotel and residences pays homage to a very Houston figure — Birdsall Parmenas Briscoe (1876-1971), whose 50-year architectural career helped shape Houston. Auberge is known for hotels such as the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, but it’s owned by the Houston-based Friedkin Group whose owner and CEO, billionaire and storied AS Roma soccer club owner Dan Friedkin, is friends with Transwestern founder and chairman Robert Duncan, who knew the Friedkins’ long-held desire to open a hotel in Houston.

One that feels anything like some soulless hotel, even an ultra luxurious one, that could be found in any major city. The Birdsall only will have 105 rooms and its 44 private residences will be even more exclusive. While Birdsall residents will have access to all the hotel amenities, they also get resident-only perks of their own. This includes a residents’ library and a private residents’ pool that will be both open air and covered overhead.

Turning to Dillon Kyle Architects which has done so many River Oaks homes to design the interiors of these residences is no coincidence.

“The directive that we gave him is ‘Let’s take something that would be a River Oaks home and just put it in a hotel,’ ” Suffel says.

Auberge only opens hotels in special places. Its billionaire owner is betting that Transwestern and all those world class architects are creating one with The RO.

“I don’t think there is a place like this,” Riser tells PaperCity. “We’re creating a little village that I think’s unique to Houston.”

The Birdsall, Auberge Resorts Collection; Rendering courtesy of
The Birdsall will be the first Auberge Resorts Collection hotel in Houston. This is a different type of luxury. (Courtesy of Transwestern)

This special site turned out to be the perfect place, the ideal match for such a grand vision. One where influential architects work together, creating a greater whole.

“They’re bouncing ideas off each other,” Transwestern partner Gary Tesch says. “It’s cool to watch all of them play together.”

The RO is just getting started and it’s already defying the odds, creating harmony out of all its different parts. Sometimes going bold is the only thing that could possibly work.

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