Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, hasn't had a new downtown luxury apartment tower in four decades.
That will change next year, when One Park Place opens. The $125 million, 37-story building will have 346 units, charging monthly rents as high as $7,000. The $170 million Houston Pavilions, opening in October, will have offices, shops, a bowling alley and a restaurant owned by the family of Houston Rockets basketball player Yao Ming.
Developers of the two projects are taking on the challenge of boosting the city center's population of 4,000 and enticing commuters to stay for activities after the business day ends. About 200,000 people work, shop or run errands each weekday in downtown Houston, a landscape of vacant storefronts on Main Street and acres of parking lots interspersed with skyscrapers.
"I think it's going to all happen, and it's going to happen in a hurry," said Kathleen Hayes, 58, a senior vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co. who plans to move into One Park Place with her husband in March. "It's almost like popcorn."
The timing is right for Houston, said Mayor Bill White.
"People are wanting to live closer to where they work," White said. "To build street-level retail, you need residences. To attract residences, you need street-level retail."
Three downtown projects with residential space are being discussed, he said. More offices are on the way: Houston-based Hines is developing the 46-story MainPlace, which will house offices of KPMG LLP, and Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co. is building the 30-story Discovery Tower, near the new Discovery Green park.
The advantage of living closer to his job is obvious to Cody Austin, an application consultant for Aveva Inc., a developer of software for the energy industry. He plans to move to One Park Place to reduce the $600-a-month cost of gasoline and tolls to reach his office in the western part of the city from Clear Lake, about 45 miles southeast.
"Why not put the money that I'm spending toward gas toward living in a nicer place?" said Austin, 22. "And I've always wanted to live downtown."
Skeptics say it will take years to reverse decades of neglecting downtown development in Houston, which sprawls over twice the area of New York.
"For 30 years, we've built just the opposite -- we've built away from the urban core," said Michael Shine, president of Texas Food Group, who has invested in downtown restaurants. "I think it's going to take us 20 or 30 years."