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40 Years of Designing Urban Houston: Q&A with Scott Ziegler of Ziegler Cooper Architects

Scott Ziegler at book signing. Photo: R. Bivins

HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Years before it was fashionable, Scott Ziegler, AIA, Senior Principal at the Urban Residential Studio of Houston-based Ziegler Cooper Architects (ZCA) and his college roommate, Michael Cooper, were urbanists. Four decades ago, the duo began the firm that still bears their name and has since master planned, designed, and constructed multifamily apartments, lofts, high-rise condominiums, and high-rise apartments, totaling over 18 million square feet. The firm also assists corporate clients with facility planning and design services; Ziegler Cooper provides landlord representation services for over 110 buildings with more than 42 million square feet of tenant space throughout Houston. A graduate of Rice University with a master’s degree in architecture — and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Trinity University -­ Ziegler is a thought leader on urbanism and has played an active role in shaping the urban landscape through his writings on sustainable urban growth strategies and high-density mixed­ use developments. His latest book, “Ziegler Cooper: 40 Years of Inspirational Design,” has been well received. To find out where Houston density and design is headed – as well as the company and the city of Houston- Realty News Report sat down with Ziegler for an extended interview.

Realty News Report: Ziegler Cooper Architects began 40 years ago in Houston. What was your first project?

Scott Ziegler: Every young architect wants to do a house. Michael Cooper and I were students at Rice University when we started Ziegler Cooper in 1977. Our first house was a solar home for a retired Major General in the US Air Force. He was the father of a fraternity brother of mine and believed a solar energy would be the wave of the future. We had a tough time trying to find research about solar energy back then, but we built the house on Lake Travis. It was our first paid commission. When we were still in school. We were strongly influenced by our professional classes — law and real estate courses at Rice and learned the basics of real estate development. We were both master’s degree candidates and we decided to develop one of our own projects. We asked our fathers if they would co-sign on a land purchase in order to build three town homes in the heart of the Montrose area. Our land cost was very reasonable at $2.25/SF as was our construction cost at $16.50 /sf. This was 1977! We watched them being constructed during school year and took classmates by the site to see the progress. Near the completion of construction, we were stunned to learn a homeless person built a fire in the unfinished garage on a cold winter night and all three townhomes burned to the ground. It was probably the most influential beginning for two young architects because we learned how to think like a developer . . . how to design, document, permit, finance, construct, and market a development deal. It was a blessing to go through that while we went to school. We developed projects like this for our first 3–4 years after Rice Architecture School. We were real pioneers at the time and were on a path leading to a career of designing strictly residential architecture. We were still young — 27 years old — and found it very difficult to break into commercial architecture work.

Realty News Report: You concentrated on urban infill architecture. Why?

Scott Ziegler: We wanted to focus on urban architecture because we desired to create more enduring buildings that would enrich the urban character of our city. This led us away from wood frame buildings which we considered temporary structures and led us to commercial clients. We hired a business consultant who advised us to focus on practice areas that we were passionate about and were willing to become experts in. We formed a business model to focus on mankind’s most basic needs, buildings where people lived, worked, learned, and worshiped. The firm has developed architectural expertise in each of these areas and the marketplace now comes to the firm for design services in each of these practice areas. As a result, we now have a very diverse practice creating enduring buildings that have become an integral part of our urban landscape. We find this work very rewarding.

Realty News Report: Even 20 years ago, urban living wasn’t so much in demand. Why has the dynamics for living in Houston’s central business district changed?

Scott Ziegler: In the early 2000s, Houston developer Giorgio Borlenghi became a client and we designed two high rise residential towers for him — Montebello, an elegant 30 story tower on three acres and its sister property, Villa d’Este — a 27-story tower on a six-acre, park-like setting atop the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Both of these were urban projects. Before that, Houston wasn’t ripe for high-rise living because there was lower cost land available to offer a variety of low density housing products at more affordable prices. But today, the type of projects we we’re involved with – high-density urban living – are really a function of higher land costs. With land costs inside the Loop 610 well over $100 per square foot, higher density always wins out because the economics of wood frame low density development do not make sense any more. Today, the market has migrated to high-rise rentals rather than condos. The cost of home ownership is out of reach for many people desiring to live inside the Loop. As a result, our design focus is on high-rise rentals rather than condos.

Realty News Report: How have urban projects evolved?

Scott Ziegler: You have to differentiate between condos and apartments. Houstonians are more sophisticated now about urban living. We dissect the market for our clients, research the needs of the end user and dig into the demographics — who we are building for. At this point, one of the larger market segments is the empty nesters who are downsizing and cashing out of their big homes, but not wanting to buy another house or condo. Five years ago, you couldn’t talk them into renting, but now apartments are as nice — or nicer — than condos going up. The urban amenities have become more sophisticated and we are designing more stylish buildings. Twenty years ago, Millennials, young professionals weren’t a factor. Now, urban living is all about simplifying our lifestyle, unloading the maintenance burden of a home and moving into an apartment with a concierge to attend to their every wish.

Realty News Report: How does beautiful architecture enrich people’s lives in Houston? Can you give me an example?’

Scott Ziegler: The question is a bit loaded! But I’ve formed a strong belief that if you design something beautiful, it has intrinsic value. People recognize beauty and beauty is something we try to instill in every one of our projects. It’s our contribution to Houston, to make the city a better place to live, whether it is a place to work, a church, a school or apartment. The buildings we design become a piece of the city. We think the idea of beauty transcends all languages and all cultures and people actually feel the presence of beauty in good design. We work

The new Aris Market Square. Photo: R. Bivins

very hard on it. One of our recent projects was Hines’ Aris Market Square, which opened last year right after Hurricane Harvey. It has performed very well and just received a Landmark Award. It’s a 32-story residential tower in the heart of the Theater District overlooking historic Market Square — Houston’s first urban park. Aris is 274 luxury apartments ranging in size from 570 to 2,227 square feet. The project also offers a private “secret garden” – a pocket park, accessible by residents and patrons of Aris’s 9,100-square-foot food hall. The pocket park is designed to be reminiscent of the tree-shaded courtyards in the New Orleans French Quarter, with direct access to Metro Rail and the city beyond. Mr. (Gerald D.) Hines, personally felt strongly that the area between two buildings be a pocket park that residents could use and could become part of public realm. On the street level, we created The Chef’s Hall, which spills out to a secret garden. It wasn’t necessary but we did it to improve the quality of life. Aris Market is Hines’ first residential high rise in the CBD, and Hines made strong commitment to building a high quality urban residential and mixed-use project. There has been a paradigm shift towards urban densification and Hines sees this type of development as their future. Houston is still in early stages of densification right now.

Realty News Report: Tell us about it.

Scott Ziegler: Over the last 50-60 years development sprawled outward for cheaper land and lower cost construction, where people could purchase their dream house. Now, people are moving back to the city. The youth of today have no desire to live in the suburbs. Maybe when they have kids they will move back to the suburbs, but now they want to be where the action is -­ near clubs and restaurants, music, museums and ballparks. The shift in this mindset is a result of freeway gridlock and the desire for quality of life. Some people spend an hour commuting to and from work every day! Now they desire to live in what we call the 20-minute bubble — 20 minutes to get to the office, the grocery store, restaurants and back home again. Sprawl has created another problem and it is contributing to a development pattern that has an unsustainable future. Suburban development is chewing up our natural environment, covering land with roofs and concrete slabs, causing the flooding problems. I believe if development in Houston had not sprawled outward covering acres of land with impervious surfaces, Houston wouldn’t have had Harvey’s historic flooding that occurred last year. The low-density sprawl model of Houston today is unsustainable because of high infrastructure costs — Houston cannot afford to maintain roads, freeways, MUDs, EMS, fire protection with low-density development. Today, Houston’s city limits encompass 600 square miles of land and our Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) covers 5,500 square miles. This translates into 5.9 people per acre in the city, and 1.9 people per acre in the MSA. This is an absurd lack of resourcefulness and we can’t continue to support that! When comparing Houston density with other cities, you will find Boston has 22 people per acre, San Francisco 29, New York 45, and Paris at 82 people per acre. As we can see, Houston is in the very early stages of urbanization. I find it very telling to note that Hines Aris Market Square is constructed on less than one acre of land and provides a home for 300 residences, yet if 300 single family homes are built in suburban Houston it would require 75 acres of land and 29 miles of roads to service the homes. The 21st century challenge for architects will be to undo the damage caused by suburban sprawl and search for development patterns with higher density.

Realty News Report: In urban residential projects, how do you create a distinctive sense of place? How do you meet the needs of all potential groups — Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millennials?

Scott Ziegler: I think it begins with being sensitive to your urban context as we look at designing any new buildings. Aris Market Square is a good example. Hines put up tree-lined streets, paved the sidewalks, and added lighting to make an attractive ambiance. The development is also being conscious of how much space you can give back — carving out little niches of public space for the creation of a pocket park. We also worked on East Shore at Lake Woodlands, where Ziegler Cooper assisted with Howard Hughes Corp. in developing a mixed-use masterplan to create Hughes Landing, a waterfront urban village. The master plan combines office buildings, urban residential, retail entertainment, restaurants, and a grocer. The Woodlands already had the waterway and a great town center – one of the finest in the country. We helped them connect the Woodlands Town Center to Hughes Landing, creating an attractive walkable urban village. In closer in Houston, the second phase of the Sovereign, off Allen Parkway, is getting under way. It’s the second part of Regent Square, a highly-anticipated mixed-use project. Boston-based General Investment & Development Cos. is the developer. The planned walkable community is near Buffalo Bayou along Dunlavy and West Dallas streets on land formerly occupied by the 1960s­era Allen House Apartments, which were almost all demolished in 2007 to make way for Regent Square. GID has already progressed through the design portion. Regent Square will ultimately include roughly 400,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 240,000 square feet of office space, 950 multifamily units and 4,200 parking spaces.

Realty News Report: The firm just started Camden Downtown. What is unique about this multifamily project?

Scott Ziegler: Camden Property Trust is now under construction with a 20-story, 275-unit residential tower downtown that had been delayed by Houston’s recent real estate market slump. The project is at La Branch and Bell streets, next to the Toyota Center. This is a major project for Camden and it is their first ground up high-rise construction in Houston. It’s adjacent to the Convention Center, Discovery Green, Minute Maid Park, Dynamo Stadium, and Toyota Center. Camden’s new tower is part of building a stronger downtown. It’s taken a long time for Houston to develop new high quality downtown living. Five years ago, there were probably only 1,500 households downtown. Now there are 5,000+. Ziegler Cooper Architects designed Camden Downtown as a point tower. Point tower buildings have smaller footprints and sit on a podium of parking wrapped with five floors of liner units to give the street a friendly urban scale. The upper floors of the tower are set back from the street to diminish shadows and allow more light on the street. The point tower typology is something I first saw in Vancouver over 20 years ago and it has become a very well received typology for high density urban development.

Realty News Report: As Houston has grown, downtown has changed. Downtown residential projects started with conversions such as the Rice Hotel. Now there are project such as Camden Downtown. Why? How will it change in the future?

Scott Ziegler: First and foremost, development in Houston’s inner loop will become denser and denser. Land costs have skyrocketed — $100/sf or $ 150/sf is not uncommon. To help reduce the high cost of the land, we see the majority of our projects are now vertical mixed-use developments, sharing the cost of the land with each use. We’re working on Midway Cos.’ Buffalo Heights in the growing Memorial Heights area of Houston at Waugh Drive and Washington Street. It’s a 28-acre, 2 million square foot mixed-use development. The first phase of which will consist of a four-acre, mixed-use development at Washington Avenue and South Heights Boulevard. San Antonio-based H-E-B Grocery Co. will open a 96,000-square-foot store as the anchor tenant for that phase. The residential portion of the project rests on top of the H-E-B grocer. Amenities are changing too and are adopting to the tenant profile. Bike storage has become important as has bike washing – and pet washing- and outdoor grilling stations. We’re seeing private dining rooms so residents can entertain in the club, and the building have a larger room to rent out a public space. Dog grooming stations are important, too, because it gets the dog out of bathroom, where the dog hair clogs the drains. We’re always trying to stay ahead of the market.

Realty News Report: What about the new Weingarten high-rise the firm designed in River Oaks Shopping Center? How is that different from past residential projects?

Scott Ziegler: The Driscoll is an important project for Weingarten and they have elected to team up with Hanover to help them. Weingarten’s wheelhouse is in retail development and now they are moving into mixed-use. They’re replacing approximately 18,000 sf of retail at the River Oaks Shopping Center and building a 30-story residential point tower in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Houston. You can walk to Kroger, and to some 20 restaurants and a multitude of retail shops. Weingarten will be adding below-grade parking, putting back more parking than they are removing.

Coming soon: Part Two of Realty News Report‘s Q&A with Scott Ziegler: The Next Phase of Houston’s Urban Densification. CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO.

May 30, 2018 Realty News Report Copyright 2018

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