SWAPPING PERSPECTIVES ON THE HOUSTON STRIP MALL MODEL “They’re neighborhood centers,” not strip malls, developer Ed Wulfe insists to Katharine Shilcutt in this month’s issue of Houstonia. And call them — all 25,000 or so in the region — what you will, they’ve been scratching the relatively-high-density retail itch for Houston’s sprawling residential areas since WWII. Shilcutt admits that “in the Bayou City, defending the ubiquitous strip mall carries the same whiff of insanity as defending giant tree roaches or mosquitoes. . . . Their aesthetic merits are dubious; their environmental impact, baleful.” But is there any more pure distillation of Houston? (Shilcutt goes on to relay her discussion with restaurateur and actual strip mall tenant Kaiser Lashkari, who owns Himalaya restaurant in Olympic Center off Hillcroft and agrees that there are some benefits to the strip mall model. When asked if he would move to a freestanding building given the opportunity, his answer is still an unequivocal yes.) [Houstonia] Photo of strip center at 13326 Westheimer: Swamplot inbox
Joining the lunchtime crowd in front of the 1600 Smith St. tower today: the towering inflatable rabbits of Australian artist Amanda Parer. Brookfield Properties, which owns the downtown office tower complex where the rabbits are loitering, is sponsoring the leporine art installation’s 4-stop North American tour of other Brookfield commercial properties. The bunnies spent some time in New York City before getting transplanted downtown for a week; they’ll be hopping off to LA and then Denver after the tour’s Houston leg wraps up this Saturday the 14th.
The installation is called Intrude, an allusion to the rabbit’s time-honored place in modern Australian lore as an ecological disaster. Here are a few more daytime angles on the critters, which are also getting lit during their nights downtown:
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Downtown From Down Under
The front is up on the shipping-container-containing duplex under construction now at 3622 Lehall St. between Tierwester and Scott. The box-based structure is similar to builder Krieger Containers’s first such project (down the street at 3802 Lehall); both buildings consist of 2 separate 2-bed 2-bath units framed around 2 steel containers each. The company claims on its website that the model can beat ‘any general contractor in Houston’ on a cost-per-sq.-ft. basis.
Back in September, company founder and steel box aficionado Sean Krieger spoke with Nancy Sarnoff about plans to built dozens more container houses in the South Union neighborhood over the next few years, aiming to draw students and young professionals. Krieger now tells ABC13 that the project underway at 3622 Lehall has faced abnormal scrutiny from city inspectors and officials, recently including a heated verbal exchange on site with District D councilman Dwight Boykins (who also spoke to ABC13 about the incident after Krieger sent them a recording).
The floorplan above shows the layout of the downstairs unit of completed 3802 Lehall; the bathrooms, bedrooms, and closets fit within the footprint of the shipping containers, which flank a central living space. Here are some shots of the inside, both during and after construction:
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Checking All the Boxes
The company developing the block across Prairie St. from the Houston Chronicle‘s downtown ex-headquarters filed a lawsuit last week over the impending demolition of the paper’s former haunt at 801 Texas Ave. Theater Square, an entity connected to Linbeck, claimed in a Wednesday night filing that the upcoming demo interferes with its plans to build a tunnel through the former newspaper building’s basement to connect its across-the-street property into the broader downtown tunnel network.
The ex-Chronicle building (actually a collection of buildings later wrapped together behind a single facade) currently sits above a tunnel segment connecting the 717 Texas Ave. building (the office building formerly known as Calpine Center) sharing a block with the Lancaster Hotel and its new parking lots) to the Chase tower (south across Texas Ave., between Milam and Travis). Theater Square’s filing alleges that news corporation Hearst agreed back in 2007 to give the company permanent access to some underground easements for the purpose of building a new tunnel segment leading to the property across Prairie (currently a surface parking lot previously slated for the International Tower project). Theater Square also claims that the easement access agreements transferred to the next owner when Hines bought up the property last year.
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Downtown Tunnel Tussle
POPULARIZING TIRZWATCHING AS A HOUSTON PASTIME This week the Houston Chronicle editorial board called for TIRZ authorities to keep publicly accessible and up-to-date records, as well as to start recording videos of their meetings, as occurs with city council proceedings. The board says that the 27 TIRZs in Houston collected more than $100 million in 2015 — “about what the city spends on parks and libraries combined,” allowing some individual TIRZ management authorities “to take on projects with a region-wide impact.” Some Houstonians have already been keeping an eye trained on the TIRZ’s movements, cameras or no — last month residents of the Cosmopolitan condos (via Wayne Dolcefino) filed a criminal complaint alleging that members of the Uptown TIRZ had failed to keep records of meetings related to the purchase of land for the Post Oak bus lane project. Meanwhile, a group of residents on the flood-prone Memorial City TIRZ is preparing a lawsuit related to this week’s city council approval of new TIRZ board members. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Map of Houston Tax Increment Reinvestment Zoness: City of Houston
A more permanent fence has taken over for the one previously wrapped around the lot at 3482 Inwood Dr., where possibly-murdered apartment tycoon and singer Harold Farb was midway through building a house for himself and his wife at the time of his death in 2006. The property initially hit the market partial-house-and-all, with the expectation that future buyers could finish up the construction of a 17,404-sq.-ft. estate overlooking the River Oaks Country Club’s golf course. After a steady price decay from $14.75 million to about $10 million by mid-2010, tactics changed; the property got a demo permit and a subsequent smoothing over, and was relisted in October of 2012 (and again in December of 2014, then to the tune of just under $9 million).
The fully re-undeveloped land hit the market again last Thursday, now for $8.5 million, Here’s the current view of the front gate, and what’s inside it:
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Green in River Oaks
COSMOPOLITAN’S CONDO ASSOCIATION PREEMPTIVELY SUED BY WOULD-BE NEXT-DOOR HIGHRISE DEVELOPER IN UPTOWN Dinerstein is evidently embracing the ‘inevitable lawsuit’ over its proposed 40-story Vantage highrise (planned for the northwest corner of Post Oak Blvd. and San Felipe Dr. next to the 22-story Cosmopolitan condo tower) by suing first, reports Nancy Sarnoff. In 2014, Cosmo residents formed a political action committee to oppose a now-scrapped 50-story tower planned by AmREIT for the same Uptown corner; Sarnoff reports that the lot’s current owner has filed a suit against the condo association to preemptively block nuisance claims related to the tower’s construction (which featured prominently in the legal fight surrounding the Ashby highrise). The plaintiff also wants a judge’s declaration that the condo group doesn’t have legal standing to sue based on alleged violation of city ordinances; the developer wants attorney’s fees paid, too. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Elevation of proposed Vantage tower: Gensler
HOW A DEVELOPER MAKES FRIENDS IN GERMANTOWN Fisher Homes owner Terry Fisher has been scuffling with city officials and residents of the Germantown Historic District over the dilapidated state of the recently renovated 104-year-old bungalow at 121 Payne St. that he bought last year, got permission for a 2-story addition, but then let sit for months with an opened-up roof protected only by a blue tarp. Fisher may have had some difficulties maintaining the sticks and stones on his property (“demolition by neglect” is how one inspector put it), but he sure has demonstrated a way with words: “The neighbors and anyone else who doesn’t like me is welcome to go walk off a bridge,” he reportedly texted to Woodland Heights Civic Association member David Jordan: “Just try and remember I am a property owner in that neighborhood also and I’m just as important as the others. Considering how much I own, I may be more important.” The latest document attesting to that importance: the violation letter he received from the planning department ordering him to stop work on the Payne St. property and address concerns identified by the inspector. But Fisher tells reporter Erin Mulvaney his text to Jordan has been taken out of context: “God gave me two cheeks and I do what I can to turn them, but enough is enough,” he tells her, explaining that he lives in Spring, rather than in the Heights, where many of his developments are, in part to avoid ending up next door to a development he doesn’t like. “I have done nothing wrong,” Fisher says, “I’m not just a big bad developer. I’m a human, too.” But wait, there’s more: “I’m not ashamed of anything, including the Payne house,” says Fisher, who according to the article has been developing in Houston for more than 30 years. “At the end of the day,” he tells Mulvaney, “I’ve never done anything intentionally wrong. Anything has been out of ignorance.” [Houston Chronicle ($); previously on Swamplot] Photo of 121 Payne St. in better times: HAR
This is one of the trees that the city alleges was “wantonly” and “maliciously” chopped down over the weekend by developer Signature City Homes. (This and another 100-year-old live oak that used to stand across town on Bomar in Hyde Park.) In response, the city is seeking $500,000 in damages. The tree stood in front of 1702 Blodgett — which, you’ll remember, was demolished a few weeks ago to make room for 4 townhouses. That demolition was precipitated by an approved variance request by Signature City to reduce the setback on this lot at the corner of Blodgett and Jackson in Museum Park, just down the street from that strip center that caught fire in August.
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHO’S MAKING CARRION OF HOUSTON? “I love reading comments from our real estate investor and developer friends who do not see or understand the value in salvaging older homes/buildings. I also love reading their complaints about COH’s minimal/laughable pro-development ‘restrictions’ as some sort of tool of communistic oppression. I guess if I agreed the profits and bottom line of real estate investors/developers are more important than the quality of life of every single other person in Houston, I could possibly see their points. However, because I don’t care about their profits or their bottom line, I don’t see their points. Instead, I see these people and their friends as vultures, slowly picking away at the bones of our city. My community does what little it can to swat away the vultures, and I am heartened to see others in other communities doing the same, but unless the City’s short-sighted attitude toward development at any cost changes, we can count on ‘development’ eroding the rest of the inner loop.” [mel, commenting on Comment of the Day: The Qualities That Make Houston So Special] Illustration: Lulu
Yep, it was a costly mistake: A $300,000 fine was paid to the city on Friday with a cashier’s check signed by Bill Workman, the first-time developer who says a miscommunication with a subcontractor led to the clearing of almost an acre of trees and stuff near Little White Oak Bayou in Woodland Park.
Though neighbors accused Workman of ordering the slashing to improve the view of the 8 townhouses he is building on Wrightwood St., he denied those accusations, telling Swamplot in June that one of the reasons he chose the site for development was its proximity to the park. Seeing what happened, he says, left him “devastated.”
Apparently, the fine isn’t quite enough to satisfy Andrea Greer, who originally reported what she called “egregious clear-cutting” on her blog:
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THE WOODLAND PARK THINNING STORY THICKENS The backlash to the clearing of Woodland Park vegetation behind the 7 townhomes he’s building on Wrightwood St. seems to have encouraged first-time developer Bill Workman to make hardhat-in-hand rounds this week with local media: He’s given similar statements regretting the snafu to Hair Balls, KUHF, Click2Houston, and abc13. But more details are coming out that complicate a situation that Workman maintains resulted from a miscommunication with a subcontractor hired, he says, only to grade the site: Debris from what’s been reported to be 3/4 of an acre of parkland has been pushed down to the banks of Little White Oak Bayou, presenting a possible drainage problem — which, of course, the grading was undertaken in the first place to solve. And the claim that only invasive species had been removed doesn’t seem to be the case, either, reports the Houston Chronicle: “The Parks Department reported that the cleared property included some healthy trees,” write Erin Mulvaney and Mike Norris. (As many as 100, estimates abc13.) “Reforestation and replanting will be necessary, and erosion control and possible regrading of the site may be required, officials said. A debris pile will also need to be removed. Workman said a large amount of bamboo and an undergrowth of vines were removed in the clearing.” [Houston Chronicle ($); previously on Swamplot] Photo: Andrea Greer
According to developer Bill Workman, the clearing of parkland behind his Woodland Heights townhomes stems from a miscommunication: “I never intended for this to happen.” A subcontractor, he says, was hired last week only to grade the land as dictated by a city plat for drainage purposes. In fact, Workman — a first-time developer — was out of town when the so-called “egregious clear-cutting” went down. Returning to the site on Wrightwood St. on Sunday, he saw the missing vegetation, he says, and was “devastated.”
That might be because one of these townhomes Workman is building for himself, and he bought the property in 2011 because of its views of and proximity to the park. Coincidentally, he says that he’s a member of Friends of Woodland Park — the organization tasked with protecting the very land that was — well, overzealously groomed. And he claims that he never said he was trying to improve the townhomes’ view — as blogger Andrea Greer reports that she was told by a neighbor.
Since the weekend, Workman and his general contractors have been meeting with the parks department and flood control management to begin resolving the situation; he says he intends to follow their recommendations.
Photo: Andrea Greer
Note: Read more on this story here.
Some neighbors seem pretty darn upset with the developer of these Woodland Heights townhomes for “egregious clear-cutting” of about an acre of vegetation from nearby Woodland Park, reports the blog Nonsequiteuse. The report, posted yesterday, claims that the developer acted in order to improve the townhomes’ view of Little White Oak Bayou. Bill Workman, the owner of the property and developer of these City Homes of Woodland Park, wasn’t immediately available to give a different side of the story that the photos taken at the site suggest.
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MAKING THE TITLE INSURANCE PAY A Harris County district court has ordered Stewart Title Guaranty to pay $2.8 million to a Sugar Land developer after the title company failed to pay out on a title policy. Back in 2007, Ponderosa Land Development was hoping to build a Chase Bank branch at the corner of Settlers Way and Highway 6. AmeriPoint Title, the title company for the transaction, had obtained title insurance from Stewart Title to cover its work. But AmeriPoint’s title search failed to uncover a deed restriction on the property that specifically prohibited banks from being built on that site: “Stewart Title only offered to pay $200,000 of the $1.83 million title policy, arguing that the land was not worth that much.
[Ponderosa’s James] Chang says the purchase price was dictated by the value of the property with the ground lease to JP Morgan and planned sale of the bank to an investor upon completion.
Ponderosa is now free to sell the vacant property. Houston Suds has had a contract to buy the site for $953,000 since November 2008, but could not close the transaction and build a car wash until the legal matter was resolved.” [Houston Business Journal; previously on Swamplot]