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Regent Square

Hey look, a Regent Square update

Sometimes I forget this is still a thing.

In 2007, longtime urbanites said goodbye to the Allen House Apartments, a decades-old complex along Dunlavy just south of Allen Parkway. The multiblock property was a Houston institution, housing hundreds of college students, senior citizens and professionals behind brick walls and wrought-iron balconies that gave it a decidedly New Orleans feel.

The demolition of most of the units there – while marking the end of an era and eliminating scores of reasonably priced inner-city apartments – was done to make way for a more modern development covering 24 acres of prime property. The land has sat mostly dormant during the years following the initial announcement, but several new signs point to a coming revival of the project, Regent Square.

The development was the subject of a meeting Wednesday night of the North Montrose Civic Association. Scott Howard, the association’s treasurer, presented details about the project to residents. He said he had met with an official from the Boston-based development company earlier in the week.

“They’re ready to go,” Howard said, explaining how the project had been shelved during the recession. He showed off booklets the developer had passed along containing renderings and site maps. It was dated Nov. 16, 2015.

Howard told the group, which was meeting in the library of Carnegie Vanguard High School in the Montrose area, that the project would contain 400,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 240,000 square feet of office space, 950 multifamily units and 4,200 parking spaces.

Plans for an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an entertainment concept that combines a movie theater and dining, in Regent Square are still in the works, as well.

“Alamo is coming to Regent Square,” Neil Michaelsen of Triple Tap Ventures, owner of the Houston locations, said Thursday in an email.

See here for prior updates. The last news we heard about this was almost three years ago, when the announcement was made about the Alamo Drafthouse. The developers did recently finish off a high-end apartment complex a bit down the street on West Dallas, so they haven’t been completely inactive, but I think it’s fair to say the main event has taken a lot longer than anyone might have expected. At this point, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Alamo Drafthouse at Regent Square

This is an interesting development.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which is opening its second area location Thursday in Vintage Park Shopping Village, just announced that it will open a third location in the Inner Loop mixed-use project Regent Square, where it will also show outdoor movies in a park there.


At Regent Square, occasional outdoor movies will be among such other park activities as concerts and farmer’s markets, said James Linsley, president of its Boston-based developer, GID Development Group.

The park plaza will feature a portable movie screen and serve as “another anchor,” Linsley said.

“Since Alamo Drafthouse is the premier theater operator, we thought we should collaborate with them on programming the outdoor movies,” he said.

The 4.2 million-square-foot Regent Square project, already under construction, will include a 21-story luxury apartment high rise at 3233 West Dallas and other retail and residential components.

The Alamo Drafthouse, part of the project’s phase 2, will begin construction later this year.

That’s very cool, and I’m certainly happy that I’ll have the chance to visit an Alamo Drafthouse without having to take a road trip, but I shudder to think what traffic will be like once that’s been built. West Dallas and Dunlavy aren’t exactly major thoroughfares, and the proximity to Allen Parkway will make this even dicier. I foresee a traffic light on Allen Parkway at Dunlavy when this is built, which totally ruins the Allen Parkway Psalm. Alas.

As long as I’m talking about parking, let me be the first to suggest that this new Alamo Drafthouse do what it can to provide bike parking, preferably in a covered location. The area around Regent Square is already densely populated, and I’d bet that folks who live around there would be willing to bike in. Hell, if the traffic is as heavy as I suspect it will be, it’ll probably be quicker to bike there if you live within a one mile radius or so. There will be a B-Cycle kiosk nearby, at the Sabine Bridge; perhaps a second location at the theater is a good idea, as well. Paging Laura Spanjian…

Alamo Drafthouse had previously announced plans for a Midtown location at a proposed development on Louisiana, but [Neil Michaelsen, CEO of Triple Tap Ventures, owner of its Houston-area locations] said his group now is “reviewing alternate sites in Midtown for an Alamo and is committed to bringing the concept to that market.”

That announcement was last May. I wonder what happened to make them change directions so quickly. Still, between that and the other new high-end theater mentioned in the story, which will be on Westheimer just inside the Loop, there will be more close-in movie options than we’ve had in a long time, at least since the days of the old Bellaire Theater.

Your one-minute real estate update

I just have one mostly tangential thing to say about this.

Houston will see a modest and steady growth in retail activity in 2013, according to Ed Wulfe’s annual retail forecast.

And the following year should be much better, said Wulfe, who is chairman and CEO of Wulfe & Co., a retail development, brokerage and property management firm.

The amount of new shopping center space to be built and opened in 2013 will be slightly greater than this year’s, while 2014 should be “very strong based on what’s underway,” Wulfe said.

I note that story mostly because it seems like as good an excuse as any to wonder once again about the status of all those long-dormant projects whose empty lots serve as a daily reminder of their lack of activity. I speak of course of the Stables and the Robinson Warehouse, now celebrating its sixth anniversary of vacantness. At last report the Sonoma site was being redeveloped; I can’t personally confirm this, as I generally avoid the area. Regent Square was supposed to have commenced construction in October, but I haven’t seen anything on the Allen Parkway part of the property. And one property that I generally forget about but was in the news recently, the old Astroworld site, also continues to lay fallow. I know this story is about retail development, and most of the sites I’m talking about were intended to be residential or mixed-use, but I feel like the Houston real estate market won’t truly be healthy again until something is happening with all of them.

Regent Square gets off the ground

This has been a long time coming.

More than five years after announcing plans for the 24-acre Regent Square project off Allen Parkway, GID Development Group has begun construction on the first building, a 21-story apartment tower called The Sovereign.


GID said it remains committed to Regent Square, which is to go up in multiple phases on land abutting Allen Parkway near Dunlavy and Dallas, on the site of the old Allen House Apartments. The development could take 10 years to complete.

Plans include about 400,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space; more than 1,500 residential units; and 250,000 square feet of office space in what the developer refers to as an “urban district” where residents can walk to everything. The walkable nature of the project extends beyond its borders, [GID President James] Linsley said, with a pedestrian trail around Buffalo Bayou and high-end shops and a new Whole Foods a short distance away.

Additional construction could begin in about a year as the company is “moments away” from signing up a major retail tenant, Linsley said.

We heard about movement on this front in May. Like many other projects, it was the collapse of the economy that brought it to a halt. I’m glad to see it finally get going, that’s far too valuable a property to sit vacant like that. Prime Property has more.

Signs of life at Regent Square?

From Swamplot:

HERE’S A LATE addition to the demolition of the Allen House Apartments, the first portions of which went down in 2007, in anticipation of the giant Regent Square mixed-use developmentin North Montrose that never happened — or rather, hasn’t yet.The smashing of one Allen House’s 2 remaining buildings is now taking place across West Dallas from Teala’s Mexican Restaurant,just beyond the back windows of the Piedmont at River Oaks condos on Rosine St. A Swamplot reader sent us the above photo last Friday. Does this mean the long-dormant Regent Square is at long last ready to stir?

The North Montrose Civic Association announced in a recent newsletter that a “big announcement” about Regent Square is due in May: “Rumors are that a high rise residential [tower is] being planned as [the] first building.” Separately, Regent Square developer GID Development has promised additional details in May or June about this 21-story highrise apartment building, called the Sovereign, which happens to feature a large number ofdog-friendly amenities, including canine wash/dry facilities, a pet grooming room, and a private doggie park:

There’s pictures of what may be to come at Swamplot, so check it out. As noted, Allen House was demolished in October, 2007, though we first heard about its demise in January of that year. The last update I had on Regent Square was from August of 2010, and it did say that they hoed to break ground in 2012, so this thing is actually on track. I may haul out the camera again when construction starts.

Apartment boom coming

I have many things to say about this.

High occupancies and rising rents for apartments are driving a new wave of development in Houston’s high-end urban neighborhoods.

More than 3,500 units in a dozen complexes are under construction primarily inside the 610 Loop and around the Galleria. Nearly 8,700 more are proposed, according to Houston-based Apartment Data Services. Most, if not all, are being planned with top-notch finishes and high-dollar rents.

The flurry of activity is meaningful after a period where construction was virtually nonexistent. Amid the nation’s economic crisis, developers couldn’t get loans to start new construction and the appetite for apartments soured as renters moved in with relatives or doubled up in units.

But with the local job market beginning to recover, demand has been ramping back up, and the numbers of available units are dwindling. Few are concerned about a glut.

“If we ever needed construction, we need it now and need it soon,” said Bruce McClenny, president of Apartment Data Services.

Most of the units won’t be ready until late 2012 at the earliest.

The print edition of this story, which ran on Sunday, included a completely inaccurate map that among other things confused Weslayan with Shepherd and Richmond with both Bissonnet and Allen Parkway. I eventually gave up trying to make sense of it.

Among the projects listed were several of the longstanding vacant lots that I’ve noted from time to time. One that is actually under construction is the Ashton Rice Village, formerly the hippie bohemian attorney Sonoma development. Two others that are listed as “proposed” are Regent Square, home of the former Allen House apartments, which claimed last year that it would break ground in 2012, and the infamous Ashby Highrise, which may have lawsuit issues of its own to deal with. Not included: The site that used to house The Stables restaurant, which was torn down nearly five years ago. I have absolutely no idea what is going on with that site and when if ever something will be built there. At the time, one of the buyers said “We’ve acquired a crucial one-acre parcel in the Med Center area, which is hard to do”. You’d think by now someone would want to do something with it.

About two thirds of the 37 properties shown on the crappy map are in the rectangle bounded by the West Loop, I-10, the Southwest Freeway, and I-45. In other words, basically Montrose, Rice U/Med Center, Upper Kirby, West U, and River Oaks. If all of these projects get built, and all of the apartments get leased (I know, not going to happen) you’re talking 20 to 25 thousand more people in the area. As these are mostly high-end places, you have to wonder what effect this will have on the demographics and the politics; most of this territory is in the court-drawn HD134, and in the new City Council District C. Greg often talks about the re-honkification of the Heights. This isn’t the Heights, and this area was pretty Anglo to begin with, but there’s likely to be an effect nonetheless.

(Alta Heights, at 141 Heights Blvd, is the closest project listed to the Heights proper. This is basically across the street from the Ainbinder Wal-Mart site, and used to be a low-income apartment complex.)

With all this dense construction taking place in an already crowded part of town, you would hope that the need for more and better transit would be seen as increasingly urgent. Some of these projects will be close to the Universities rail line when it finally gets built, but a lot more than that is going to be needed to handle this and to allow for future projects like them. I’ll say again how nice it would be if the county, instead of spending gazillions of dollars on a road to nowhere to accommodate people that might live there 20 years from now, spent a few dollars helping to improve mobility where people are right now.

What if they built it someplace else?

For better or worse, the argument against the Washington Heights Wal-Mart mostly boils down to the fact that it’s an inappropriate location for a suburban-style big-box store. There are also concerns about traffic, and about the nature of Wal-Mart, both in terms of its business practices and its 24/7 operations, all of which have helped generate the pushback from residents in the area. The argument for Wal-Mart, beyond the basic belief that developers should be mostly free to develop what they want where they want, is that the city and the immediate area would benefit economically from its presence, as a provider of jobs and of affordable merchandise. The vacant lot sitting there now isn’t doing anyone any good, and there are people nearby who would like to shop and work there. There are nuances and variations and whatnot to each argument, but that’s more or less what they come down to.

If you agree that these are the main points, then you might observe that the Yale/Koehler property isn’t the only vacant lot in this part of town. What if Ainbinder or some other developer had picked a different location for a Wal-Mart? I got to wondering about that. Here’s the result of that little thought experiment:

Empty lot #1: Sonoma/Bolsover

Of the places I have in mind, this is the hardest to imagine being proposed as a Wal-Mart site, never mind one actually being built there. None of the streets that surround it are capable of handling the kind of traffic a Wal-Mart generates. There are many large retailers nearby – high-end grocers Rice Epicurean at Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway, Kroger Signature and HEB on Buffalo Speedway between Bissonnet and Westpark; CVS stores on Kirby in the Rice Village and at 59, and on Greenbriar at Holcombe. The immediate area is relatively wealthy, so both the customer base and the pool of potential employees is smaller. They would likely be at least as hostile to the idea of a Wal-Mart as they were to the Sonoma project and to the Ashby highrise. Other than it being a vacant lot, I can’t think of a good reason why a Wal-Mart would ever be proposed there.

Empty lot #2: The Stables

Conversely, this seems like the best fit. With access from Main and Greenbriar, traffic would be much less of an issue. Lots of apartments nearby, in the mid- and lower-income ranges, so there should be a solid customer and employee base. Extra points for being close to the light rail line, making it easier for employees to get there via transit. It’s mostly surrounded by Medical Center structures (more potential customers), with the only adjoining neighborhood being north of Main Street, so there would likely be little political pushback. There are similar retailers nearby – the Fiesta at Old Spanish Trail and Kirby, the CVS at Main and Kirby, and the Target at Main just west of Kirby are all within walking distance – but Wal-Mart didn’t get where it is by shrinking from a little competition. Whatever traffic issues there are would annoy me – I’m mostly thinking of people turning left on Greenbriar as they pass Main heading south – but beyond that I can’t think of a strong reason against it. This location just makes sense.

Empty lot #3: Allen House/Regent Square

Possibly the largest lot on my list, though it’s split by West Dallas, so that would present some challenges. Mostly good access from Dallas and Dunlavy, plus eastbound on Allen Parkway; entering from or exiting to the west on Allen Parkway would almost certainly require adding a traffic light, which is of course an abomination. There’s some nearby retail – a Kroger Signature at Gray and Woodhead, the future Whole Foods at Dallas and Waugh, just across the street from a CVS – but not that much. There’s a fair amount of low-income housing in the immediate area, and I’d bet The Center would be interested in possible employment opportunities for the people they serve. On the other hand, this location is also right next door to River Oaks, and they might not be too hot to have a Wal-Mart right there.

Empty lot #4: Robinson Warehouse

The only lot among the four that wasn’t originally intended to be some kind of high rise/mixed use development. About a half mile away from Empty Lot #3, so all of the same things apply to it, though it’s farther from River Oaks and closer to many apartments and lower income housing east of Montrose/Studemont. Easier access, from Dallas, Montrose, and the existing intersection/traffic light at Montrose and Allen Parkway, but possibly the largest impact on traffic, as both Montrose and Dallas get mighty busy at rush hour.

So there you have it. Obviously, none of these sites were bought (and none of the then-existing structures demolished) with the idea of putting up a big-box store. But with all of them being fallow for three years or more, possibly much more as things stand, who knows what might happen. The question is, whatever your opinion may be of the Washington Heights Wal-Mart proposal or the now-approved 380 agreement, what would your reaction be if that same project were to be suddenly relocated to one of these places? Discuss in the comments.

Regent Square update

I drive down Allen Parkway several times a week, and I’ve been wondering when the Regent Square site, which has been vacant since the old Allen House was demolished in October of 2007, will begin construction. Ralph Bivins provides an update.

Developer John Darrah is the keeper of the vision. The flame still flickers. The delays have been long. Years have passed since the billion-dollar vision for Regent Square was announced. But the developer still believes these 24 acres of urban land off of Allen Parkway in the northern part of Montrose, will be the site of a phenomenal new project with high-rise condos, stores and offices.

“We’ve owned the land for 24 years and we are very much proceeding with the development,” says Darrah, vice president in charge of the project for Boston-based GID Urban Development Group, a division of the General Investment and Development Companies.

Regent Square was talked about in 2006. It was formally announced in January 2007. Construction was supposed to start in 2008 and part of it should have been finished by now.

But the recession came along. Lenders quit lending. Retailers quit expanding. And new construction projects became a rarity. So Regent Square, like many other proposed developments, was put on hold.

Darrah now says groundbreaking for the project is anticipated in 2012.

Sometimes I feel like the recession won’t be truly over in Houston until some of these longdormant projects finally get underway. Seems we’ve still got a ways to go on that.

Whose TIRZ?

My reaction to this story about whether some development projects that didn’t benefit from getting a TIRZ designation might have been better suited for it than some that did get that benefit is that as long as there are those who get and those who don’t we’ll always have those questions. Maybe that’s an argument for doing away with TIRZes entirely (I suspect such a proposal would not go very far) or for making the rules about them more objective, but I don’t think you’ll ever be able to remove subjective evaluations and, yes, politics from consideration. I also don’t think comparing two recent projects will tell us much, since frankly either of them could have gone either way.

As for the case in question here, there’s no doubt that Sawyer Street needs massive improvements between I-10 and Washington Avenue. Between the successful Sawyer Heights development and the new housing springing up on the side roads, what used to be a low-traffic street for mostly trucks is now heavily used, both to access what’s now there and as a cut-through to I-45 by those who want to avoid the horrible I-10 to I-45 interchange. It’s likely to get busier as the industrial lots in the area get sold off and redeveloped. I believe a proposal to fix and widen Sawyer Street is in the CIP for District H; all I can say is the sooner the better. Perhaps we’d have gotten a good result faster if Sawyer Heights’ TIRZ plan had been accepted, and perhaps we’ll get a better result this way, I don’t know. As long as it happens and gets done right, that’s what will matter.

Council OKs TIRZ deal for Regent Square

The deal to jumpstart Regent Square, the idle development on Allen Parkway, was approved by City Council yesterday.

The program, approved unanimously by City Council, will reimburse the developer of Regent Square — a 4-million-square-foot community that will abut Allen Parkway near Dunlavy and Dallas — for public improvements the developer has agreed to make to public roadways, sidewalks and streetscapes. The money will come from tax revenue generated by the development and will be paid through the Memorial Heights Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, or TIRZ.

In exchange, Boston-based GID Urban Development Group, which had been on the brink of putting the project on hold indefinitely, has agreed to begin work on the public improvements by Oct. 1, and initiate the private aspects of the property by Oct. 1, 2010. It also will provide 150 free parking spaces and rehabilitate a nearby historically black cemetery.

White said he generally has shied away from such public-private development efforts, but would continue to review opportunities on a case-by-case basis for distressed properties, such as Sharpstown Mall and for other major projects already in the works that have been delayed or canceled amid the national economic crisis.

In this case, the overriding question was whether the city would get the same benefits without the reimbursement, White said, adding that he did not believe it would.

“I would say that this is an unusual project in its scale and scope to be started in a big urban city today when real estate markets are seizing up,” he said.

Critics contend that the economic development effort is an artificial benefit to the economy, one that creates winners and losers in the marketplace.

“If these projects are stalling and developers are saying they’re not going to execute them, well, that’s the market and the market has slowed down,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of GoodJobsFirst, a national watchdog of public economic subsidies. LeRoy said the city could do further harm to the local real estate market by helping add capacity when there is less demand, or creating more commercial space when rents already are growing soft.

The more I think about this, the more I think that the objections raised here and in the earlier story don’t add up to much. By the time the developer gets started on the project, the economy may be in far better shape and the real estate market may be back to normal. It’s not like this is a speculative area, either – there’s some high-end stuff immediately around it, and the location and view can’t be beat. And the city will get some infrastructure improvements out of it as well – just working on the sidewalks puts this in the W column as far as I’m concerned. So while this sort of thing definitely needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis, this particular case made a lot of sense to do.

Further, as Council Member Brown says in this KHOU story from Tuesday night, it’s not like the city has never done this sort of thing before. The fact that it didn’t even draw a token No vote from the likes of CMs Holm or Sullivan, and the fact that none of the people who could be Mayor by the time this project gets underway have raised any objections says to me this is no big deal.

Stimulus package, Council-style

What to make of this?

Houston is set to embark on a program to provide a boost to some of the city’s biggest developments, many of which have been put on hold amid the ongoing financial crisis.

The plan aims to entice developers not to put their multimillion-dollar projects on hold in exchange for millions in incentives if the companies begin building soon and agree to make improvements to public roadways, sidewalks and streetscapes.

City Council is scheduled to vote today on what would be the first such incentive package for Regent Square, a planned 4-million-square-foot, $850-million mixed-use development that city officials said was about to be put on hold indefinitely by Boston-based GID Urban Development Group. The development will abut Allen Parkway near Dunlavy and Dallas.

If council approves, the company will receive $10 million in reimbursements to be paid out of tax revenues generated by the development.

“This is our own stimulus program,” said Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering, who helped negotiate with the developer on behalf of the city. “The alternative to what we’re talking about would have been to have a great deal of investment going on in this community and to have a big, giant piece of property sitting vacant for a long period of time.”

Critics say such incentives go too far and run the risk of artificially propping up some property and creating more commercial real estate than there is demand for at a critical time for the economy.

“It’s a zero-sum game,” said Barry Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, who has fought the expansion of government-involved development in that area in the past. “There’s no net gain to the economy. It doesn’t change the demand for commercial space, it simply changes the supply. The favored developer who owns the land is the beneficiary and the victims are taxpayers on the one hand and unfavored, unsubsidized developers on the other.”

On the one hand, it doesn’t do anybody any good for these lots to lie fallow. Empty lots are a drag on property values and property tax revenues, and can negatively affect nearby businesses; as Christof writes about the shaky start for Houston Pavilions, one dead block can turn off a pedestrian easily. We should want something to get built on them, it makes sense for that to be the original project where possible, and frankly some kind of incentives for developers is what makes the world go ’round, at least around here.

On the other hand, and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, I think Barry Klein has a point. If we’re incentivizing commercial development at a time when the economy can’t support it, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. How sure are we that this is the best use of our resources at this time?

Having said that, I disagree that this is a zero sum game. It’s an investment, and if it’s a good one there will be a return on it. It’s certainly fair to question the value of such an investment, and I hope this is being done on more than optimistic assumptions. What kind of improvements would the developers be required to make, and would they be above and beyond what they would have done anyway? How many jobs might be created by getting these projects off the ground? Surely we can quantify some of this stuff.

I think Campos has a reasonable take on this:

Two things: 1) Commentary doesn’t have a problem with this as long as other parts of town also get stimulated, and 2) How do the Mayoral candidates feel about this since they are the ones that are going be dealing with it next year.

Yes, if we’re going to go down this road, we ought to make sure it’s not an exclusive road. As for the Mayoral candidates, we’ll know how Peter Brown feels about this by his vote on the measure. Annise Parker is still City Controller, and as such is well placed to speak out on things she thinks are Bad Ideas, so I’d say if we don’t hear anything explicit, we can assume she’s okay with it. I can predict with a fair degree of confidence that Roy Morales will oppose this on grounds that the government doesn’t have any business stimulating anything. That leaves Gene Locke, and I don’t know what he might think about this. But I agree it’s a good idea for all of the Mayoral candidates to get asked about stuff like this going forward.