Real Estate / High-Rises / Neighborhoods

Palaces in the Sky

Inside Houston’s High-Rise Revolution and Its City-Changing Consequences

BY // 10.12.15

Sipping a glass of white wine, stylish gray eyeglasses framing a still-youthful face that belies the white hair on his head, Alan Ritchie leans back in his chair. The Englishman is in a reflective mood, and he flashes a little mischievous smile. “It was just a matter of time,” he says.

The internationally-recognized architect is talking about the sudden surge of vertical living that’s coming to Houston, all the would-be Versailles in the Sky in various stages of development across the region. There are more than 40 new high-rise and upper mid-rise buildings, stretching all the way from The Woodlands (Treviso at Waterway Square) through downtown, midtown, River Oaks, Memorial and the Museum District. Sitting in the brand-new sales center of one of these opulent cloud reachers (the upcoming 16-story Aurora), safely ensconced in a glass-walled conference room as a preview party goes on outside the glass, Ritchie and Marko Dasigenis, the principle Houston-based architect for Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects (PJAR), can see the city changing beyond these see-through walls — and the clutch of well-dressed people enjoying the complimentary hors d’oeuvres and drinks.

“What we’re seeing here has been happening in the rest of the world for many, many years,” Dasigenis says. Ritchie nods. “It’s such an easy way of life. There’s no need to worry about getting someone to do the yard, no need to worry about where your packages are going, no need to worry about who’s going to watch your home when you’re on vacation,” he notes.

“It’s true turn-key living. Simple.”

One man’s simple is another’s $10 million, 10,000-square-foot penthouse with its own private pool. Or one woman’s penthouse; legendary Houston developer Robert Bland — whose Pelican Builders is behind a few of the showcase new high-rises, including the 17-story Wilshire by the city-shifting River Oaks District — says divorcees and widows are prevalent buyers and among the most-committed, early Houston high-rise adopters.

Other upscale home buyers are quickly catching on though. If you think this represents Houston’s high-rise surge, you soon may be mistaken. Bland’s certain the real building onslaught sits on the horizon. “There really are not that many projects right now, especially when you consider the size and sophistication of a city like Houston. Houston’s the fourth-largest city in the United States and an ever-increasing international hub for business, shopping and culture.

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“This is only the beginning. There will be true luxury high-rises rising in every open and feasibly convertible spot from Shepherd to the bayou before long. It will dramatically change Houston’s skyline,” Bland tells PaperCity.

The River Oaks will make millionaires gives up the mansion for the penthouse.

The change-to-come is easy to see sitting in one of the elegant chairs of the stylish lounge area of The River Oaks uber tech sales center manned by Sudhoff Companies. Outside (and overhead) the complete luxury makeover and transformation of the old 1960s-era River Oaks Apartments into a high-rise clangs ahead full force (construction-hat workers seem to be everywhere), but in here, it’s a serene oasis with the future high-rise springing to life in a computer animation display that uses the same technology as a Hollywood studio.

When the furniture in the sales center looks like it could have been lifted straight from the lounge of one of the luxury retailers in River Oaks District and the gadgets are all beyond Apple Store-worthy, you know the clientele’s purely sophisticated and ultra high-end.

The New York developer of The River Oaks — Richard Leibovitch of Arel Capital — has just jetted in from Dallas, where he has other projects. But even as he jokes about the storm in Dallas that put him a little behind schedule on this mid-week afternoon in September, it’s clear this repurposing of a Houston building that notables like John Wayne used to call home into a true modern-day, high-rise living marvel, overlooking the mansions of River Oaks and serving as one of St. John School’ School’s closet neighbors, means something more to him.

“This is my baby,” Leibovitch says. “We’ve done a number of buildings in New York and they’re great and all, but this is truly special.

“This is the one where I’m going to come back in 50 years and say, ‘We built that.’ ”

Houston's new high-life trends centers around distinctive buildings such as The Aurora.
Houston’s new high-life trend centers around distinctive buildings such as The Aurora.

This sense of pride in still having the power to transform Houston, and the weight of responsibility that comes with it, seems to be the common thread running through these new projects, big and smaller. Shahin “Sean” Jamea — one half of the brothers behind the Oxberry Group, a homegrown Houston-based development company — feels it with his firm’s new eight-story luxury condominium project, The Mondrian, in the Museum District.

“People think it’s easy to build anything in Houston because of the (lack of) zoning situation,” Jamea tells PaperCity. “But finding the right piece of land to build condos like this on is actually very difficult. We looked for a year and a half, in spots like Rice Village, before we found this perfect piece of land in the Museum District. We’re looking at this as a rare, real chance to hopefully build something of an iconic building for the neighborhood.”

Jamea views the striking and distinct, nearby Asia Society Texas Center as the high bar that The Mondrian must try and approach — that’s the way of this high-life push, everyone is reaching for something. No luxury convenience is out of range, just look at The River Oaks’ mailroom. That’s right, the mailroom.

“You think of most apartment mailrooms and they’re these dingy, musty places, maybe with fluorescent lights, disgusting really,” Leibovitch says, the excitement level rising in his voice. “You wouldn’t want to spend any time there. You just want to get your mail and get out.

“But look at this,” he continues, leading me over to one of The River Oaks’ life-like, painting-sized renderings on the wall. “Here’s our mailroom. It’s just as opulent as the rest of the interiors, there are nice couches and places to sit and soft, beautiful lighting. This is a place where you wouldn’t mind hanging out. And that’s important. You might not go to the fitness center every day. You might not use the dog park or stroll the gardens every day. But you’re going to be in that mailroom every day. That’s the best mailroom in all of Houston, maybe anywhere.” The big-shot developer, fresh off a jet, grins.

“You probably didn’t think I was gong to try and sell you on our mailroom, did you?”

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Iconic Houston developer Marvy Finger, who built the pioneering One Park Place high-rise back in 2008, argues that the new ultra-luxe mid-rises are the ones setting a new bar by taking high-rise living and shrinking it down. “These new six- to eight-story mid-rises that have all the niceties of the tall buildings — all the soundproofing and all the good finishes and all the perks — are extravagantly interesting,” he says. “We haven’t had mid-rises quite like this before. I think they’re poised to do wonderfully well.”

Finger has three such properties in 500 Crawford, The Susanne and 1900 Yorktown — and plenty of competition in the upscale mid-rise arena.

It’s all quite a leap from when the 87-year-old Bland developed a Bayou City-pioneering, high-rise on Woodway in 1973 and everyone wondered what he possibly could be thinking. Ten million dollar penthouses, 40-story luxury living towers shooting up over Market Square Park, showcase mailrooms … It’s a new high-rise age in Houston indeed.

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