Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

River Oaks

Ashby everywhere: The San Felipe highrise

Hard to keep track of them all.

THESE UNDERSTATED “Stop the San Felipe Skyscraper” signs started going up about knee-high this weekend in River Oaks and Vermont Commons to protest that shiny 17-story office tower that Hines is proposing to build nearby. Though these signs — spotted at the corner of Spann and Welch and San Felipe and Spann, catty-corner from the proposed site — might be lacking the services of an imaginative cartoonist like their yellow precursors across town in Boulevard Oaks, their message still comes through, directing the onlooker as well to a recently launched website for all things skyscraper-stopping:

Of course, Hines continues to say through PR man George Lancaster that the company plans to build something “upscale and handsome, befitting its River Oaks address.” The rendering shown here is the most recent version of that; it differs a bit from the one Swamplot published in May that seems to have sparked much of the ire — and which boiled over in what the new website describes as a “heated” and “tense” community meeting last night with reps from Public Works and city council member Oliver Pennington: “Many participants came away from the meeting with the idea that the only way to stop the project will be through immediate legal action.”

“Good luck with that”, said everyone who opposed the Ashby Highrise. You can see the antis’ webpage here. They address what I consider to be the main question here:

Aren’t there already other high-rises in this same area?
There are three other high-rises within four blocks of the site. Of these, two are office buildings that are shorter by several stories. A residential high-rise (the Huntingdon) is taller. Here are the differences:

– All three of the other high-rises are on major thoroughfares with six lanes (Kirby) or four lanes (Shepherd).
– The other high-rises are separated from nearby residences by high walls (Huntingdon), open space (Shepherd), or other intervening structures (Compass building).
– 2229 San Felipe has larger garage capacity but will be surrounded by two-lane streets
– 2229 San Felipe has only a 10-foot setback from the street.

Residential buildings have a much lower density than comparable office buildings. As an idea, the Wingate and St. Honore developments on San Felipe at Revere may add 20-30 cars to an entire block, as compared to the 400 cars being added at 2229 San Felipe.

I have no idea what they’re getting at in that last paragraph. “Density” is people per square mile, so by their own reckoning the 2229 San Felipe building contributes greatly to it. Be that as it may, I have some sympathy for these folks, since that stretch of San Felipe is just like the part of Bissonnet where the Ashby will be – one lane each direction. On the other hand, as they themselves admit, there are three other highrises in the area. It’s a little hard to claim that a new highrise would stand out.

My general rule on these things is whether or not the location makes sense. This one is more of a gray area than others. I don’t think the neighbors will have any luck blocking it, but I suppose they haven’t yet broken ground on the Ashby, so who knows. The one sure thing is that we’ll continue to see situations like this, until either the real estate market inside the Loop gets saturated, or city ordinances get a drastic makeover. I’m not sure which is more likely to happen first.

Marfreless will be back

Here’s an unexpected surprise.

We are thrilled to announce our reopening this summer at our same 2006 Peden location in River Oaks. Although we will be under new ownership, we promise the same unique atmosphere, premium menu, friendly staff, and neighborhood charm.

All this comes with a complete renovation – from wires and carpet to the furniture you… sit on. You can expect an updated feel with the same Marfreless experience you’ve come to love. And don’t worry, our upstairs seating and iconic blue door will remain.

Join us on Facebook at and on Twitter at @MarfrelessBar for updates.

At last report, Marfreless had closed its iconic location and was looking for new digs because it could no longer afford the rent where it was. I’m not sure if the new management – about which a post on their Facebook page promises “more details later” – was able to renegotiate with leaseholder Weingarten Realty or if they just have deeper pockets and less concern about making the math work. Either way, it’s great to have them back. It’s pretty rare for a piece of history that appeared to be doomed to become un-doomed in this town. Welcome back, y’all.

Marfreless to close

They’re looking for a new location, but it can never be the same.

Marfreless, Houston’s infamous make-out lounge, is closing after 40 years. Guests can have their last cocktails and smooches in the bar without a sign on March 30.

Owner Michael Wells said Wednesday that rent increases at the River Oaks Shopping Center made it impossible to continue. He is looking for a new location, possibly in the spot at Kipling and Shepherd that was formerly The Vintage.

He also is considering Shepherd Plaza and the Heights area.

“It’s such a unique spot. It’s really hard to replicate or even come close,” Wells said of the two-story establishment at 2006 Peden behind the River Oaks Theater. It’s easy to miss except for the blue door.

Will the new bar have a sign? “Interesting question. I have not thought about that,” Wells said. “I guess it depends on where and when we open. I would like to keep it as pure as possible, with just a blue door.”


Through the years, a number of celebrities slid into the bar’s booths, including Evander Holyfield, Partick Ewing and Dave Attell. “All the comedians from the Laff Stop used to come by back in the day.” said Wells, 47.

Does the staff ever have to tell patrons they’re going too far? “Just about every day,” Wells said with a laugh.

Recently, Marfreless was included on a swingers website, so Wells has had to field inquiries from interested parties.

“It’s just a mellow speakeasy. We’re relax and chill. That’s all.”

See here for more about the bar’s history, and here for their official press release. You will, I’m sure, be unsurprised to hear that their landlord is Weingarten, who denies any responsibility, for what that’s worth. Here’s the Marfreless Facebook page if you feel the need to leave them a message. Stop by before March 30 and make them an offer on a piece of their furniture if you want to have a keepsake. Don’t wait too long, because this little bit of Houston’s history will unceremoniously vanish by the end of the week.

Infill growth

Anyone who’s been watching Washington Avenue has seen this.

From downtown through midtown and along Washington Avenue, a population growth spurt has taken off since 2000.

One buzz word to describe what’s going on is “infill,” said Jerry Wood, previously Houston’s deputy assistant director for planning and development and now an independent consultant advising the city on census issues.

Wood said that infill, or the use of vacant land in an otherwise built-up area, has happened in such neighborhoods as Rice Military (between Westcott and Shepherd south of Washington), First Ward (near Houston Avenue north of Washington) and Cottage Grove (both sides of Interstate 10, between Shepherd and Hempstead Highway).

“In Cottage Grove, three-and four-story townhouses are replacing bungalows at a high rate,” Wood said. “That’s been true throughout that ZIP code.

They’re also replacing a lot of empty lots and vacant buildings. The growth in that part of town is astonishing, and for the most part good. The main downside, as noted in the story, is that the infrastructure has not come close to keeping up. Most of the streets parallel to Washington are very narrow, with no sidewalks and drainage ditches. Parking is a big problem, and there’s often no room for cars driving in opposite directions to get past each other. (Yes, this includes all of the streets around the Wal-Mart site.) The area desperately needs a comprehensive transportation solution to help deal with this.

The print version of this story had a chart listing population change in several area ZIP codes. Here’s a reproduction of that:

ZIP Code 2000 Pop 2010 Pop % Change ========================================= 77002 13,159 16,885 28% 77003 9,137 10,168 11% 77006 18,861 19,337 3% 77007 22,619 30,538 35% 77008 28,661 30,502 6% 77009 42,474 38,172 -10% 77010 76 366 382% 77018 27,094 25,804 -5% 77019 15,871 18,946 19% 77098 12,355 13,508 9% Total 190,307 204,226 7%

77010 is a tiny area, just a few blocks, on the east side of downtown; Google Maps centers it on Discovery Green, which says to me that the population growth there is likely the result of the One Park Place tower. 77002 is the rest of downtown and a little bit of midtown; if you picture the area in the middle of the Loop that’s bounded by 45, 59, I-10, that’s more or less 77002. 77007 is basically Super Neighborhood 22, which is the main focus of the story. 77019 is River Oaks/north Montrose and most of Midtown, and which includes Estates at Memorial, while 77098 includes 2727 Kirby. Finally, 77003 is EaDo and the Harrisburg area, which I’ll bet shows double digit growth in the next Census as well.

What’s truly curious to me is the two ZIP codes that show negative growth. 77009 is all of the Heights plus a roughly equivalent area east of I-45, which includes places like the Near Northside and Lindale Park. I’ll admit to not being as familiar with the eastern half of the area as the western part, but I cannot fathom it losing over four thousand people this decade. I see fewer vacant lots, not more, and the gentrification of the Heights has brought a little baby boom with it. 77018 is more or less Garden Oaks/Oak Forest, and while its loss is smaller, I don’t understand it, either.

One possible clue to what’s happening may be in the other way the data was presented, in terms of the ethnic makeup of these areas:

Ethnicity 2000 Pop 2010 Pop % Change ========================================= White 84,281 101,825 21% Hispanic 82,379 71,076 -14% Black 18,084 20,470 13% Asian 3,113 7,199 131%

The increase in white population is easy to believe, as is the increase in Asians. It’s the decline in the Hispanic population that’s strange. You can see a graphic representation of this for the whole county at Greg’s place. Obviously, some of the Latino growth in the burbs is fueled by inner city folks moving outward in search of affordable houses and better schools. I have to wonder if some of it is also due to insufficient participation in the Census. All I can say is that I just don’t believe 77009 lost ten percent of its people. I hope a review of the Census process leads to an adjustment of these numbers.

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.

Interview with Oliver Pennington

Oliver PenningtonMoving over to District G, my next interview is with Oliver Pennnington. Pennington is a retired attorney, a partner at Fulbright and Jaworski, whose practice focused on municipal law, and a Rice alumnus. Pennington has lived in District G for 40 years and now resides in River Oaks.

Download the MP3 file.


Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A