Real Estate / High-Rises

A More Walkable Houston Through the Sky: High-Rise Building Boom Promises to Transform the City Even as it Dodges Oil Fears

BY // 04.25.16

The nation’s fourth-largest city goes about its noisy business right outside the window, but in here it remains almost eerily still. Marvy Finger, the legendary Houston developer behind the game-changing One Park Place, beams. Even as he flirts with 80, Finger remains a trim, compact man who abhors hyperbole. This silence is the stuff of Finger’s double-paned, super-insulated dreams, though — and he’ll allow himself a moment.

“Listen,” Finger says as a truck barrels by outside the first-floor window. “You really don’t hear a thing.”

To Finger, it’s about keeping his future upscale renters happy — and ensuring they stay put. In many ways, this scene represents the vertical living boom that continues to grip Houston despite the continuing oil market uncertainty. It is all about creating cocoons of luxury within the neighborhood. Let it all in or ensconce yourself in your own plush personal space. Swing open the windows of Finger’s newly opened, Minute-Maid-Park-adjacent 500 Crawford in this case and take in the sights and sounds of a downtown baseball stadium. Or keep the city outside and enjoy a night to yourself. Residents of this new high-rise living surge truly do believe they can have it all.

This is the happy collision of two worlds set at a brisk march.

“We’re making Houston a much more walkable city than it’s ever been in the past,” says Finger, a Houston native who has seen 59 years of the city’s real estate scene as a developer.

Walkability’s been a buzz word for a long time, but it’s the palaces in the sky that may finally truly usher it into Houston. Nearly 50 new high-end high-rise and mid-rise buildings are in various stages of development — and they are changing the city as surely as the demographics that have Houston poised to sky rocket past Chicago and take the mantle of America’s third-largest city within the next 10 years.

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The River Oaks' exteriors are designed to be stunning showstoppers.
The River Oaks’ exteriors are designed to be stunning showstoppers.

“New York’s had these type of buildings for a while and I think Houston’s going to fall in love with the lifestyle,” says Richard Leibovitch of Arel Capital, the developer behind The River Oaks, one of the most-anticipated new high-rises of all. The lifestyle means a full-time staff of 14 at The River Oaks and a new definition of turndown service.

At The River Oaks, that term describes the luxe treatment available for residents headed out of town for a while. Their plants will be watered, fresh flowers will be brought in and the fridge will be stocked with fresh milk and other essentials. It is a lock-and-leave dream.

“You don’t have to worry if the gardener’s taking proper care of your azaleas while your gone,” says Derek Darnell, the president of Pelican Builders, the development company behind The Wilshire, another of the showcase new high-rises. “You don’t have to worry where your packages are ending up. People are much more mobile these days. They need to travel for their business. They want to travel for enjoyment and they don’t want to worry about anything when they are away. That lock-and-leave lifestyle is what people are after.”

The high-rise lifestyle often also leads to more walking. Wilshire reps use a plush, souped-up, extra large golf cart to show potential residents just how close River Oaks District is to its front door. “Rather than just telling them where it is and hoping they’ll take the few minute stroll over, we just scoot them over there ourselves,” Darnell says.

Walking takes baby steps in the city that loves its cars like few others.

The High-Rise Clusters
The new high-rise and mid-rise buildings tend to crop up around shopping, restaurants and entertainment venues — and those become the true get-out-and-walk magnets. River Oaks District, the pied piper of high-rise development in Houston, jumps out as the greatest example.

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 12.31.56 PM

No less than five new high-profile buildings (The Wilshire, Arabella, Skyhouse River Oaks, The James, The Ivy) are clustering around River Oaks District, in some cases almost bumping right up against one another, in hopes of grabbing some of the game-changing center’s uber-luxury vibe. And, this does not even include Grey House at River Oaks District, the center’s own on-site mid-rise which shows off OliverMcMillan visionary Dene Oliver’s love of art and makes Tom Ford your next-door neighbor.

The Wilshire office showcases a model of the streets around River Oaks District, with replicas of all the towering buildings that will soon be there, including a yet-to-be-publicly-announced new five-star hotel. The detailed model invokes the sense that this is Houston’s own version of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive springing to life.

“We were the first project to buy land here,” Pelican Builders founder Robert Bland, another of the eightysomething developers still changing the city, says of the River Oaks District high-rise cluster. “As soon as OliverMcMillan signed on, I knew this was poised to become the new center of the city.”

Sometimes, the building comes first and the attractions follow. Take the case of 500 Crawford. The area right around Minute Maid Park is not awash in high-end dining. No worry — Finger’s showcase building lured in two new restaurants helmed by celebrity chef Bryan Caswell, potentially turning the mid-rise into a destination spot of its own. Brocca aims to be the finest Italian restaurant in the city while its sister Panchina channels a more casual everyday café vibe.

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane is the owner of the two new restaurants, jumping in quickly when Finger Companies started looking for an operator. When Finger half jokingly asked Crane what he knows about running a restaurant, the baseball man quickly shot back, “We feed 30,000 people a night.”

This enthusiasm, forward thinking and building momentum seems poised to win out over the harsh realities of the market for oil at the moment. Sitting in Hotel Derek’s restaurant, sipping his morning coffee and watching the Westheimer construction turn the main artery outside into a one-lane snake crawl, Leibovitch is sure of it.

The former Wall Street star turned New York developer remains all in on Houston as the next growth land — to the point where he purchased one of The River Oaks’ accompanying townhomes for himself. The man behind The River Oaks envisions himself doing more high-rises in Houston. Leibovitch smiles when talk turns to Houston’s “Pothole Mayor” Sylvester Turner. Improved infrastructure is very good for high-rise developers. So is a city still finding its sky legs.

“You couldn’t buy a parking garage in New York for what some of these buildings are going for,” Leibovitch says. “I remain a big believer in Houston and its appetite for these type of special buildings. There is only one River Oaks.

“People want to be where the action is. As Houston grows, commuting is going to become less and less of a desirable option.”

Look up, it’s the future? Yes, it’s still there through the clouds. A few high-profile projects (the Al Ross midrise, The Monroe, and Mission Construction’s midrise, The California) have been canceled and another has been put on an indefinite hold (Treviso at Waterway Square, which was to be The Woodlands’ first-ever high-rise), but half a dozen new projects also have been announced in the last few months.

Houston continues to walk forward, one steady step at a time.

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