Downtown Office Tower Converted to Luxe Living

HOUSTON –  By Cynthia Lescalleet (for Realty News Report) – In a twist of our times, we now work in the places we lived, so is it really a stretch that there are places to live where we have worked?

The buzz keeps building about office-to-residential conversions in metropolitan areas with high vacancy rates and rising needs for housing.

Luxury Living Gets a Modern Setting in Office Tower Conversion in Cullen Center

Houston’s most recent conversion is in downtown Houston’s Cullen Center complex. DeBartolo Development is wrapping up its residential reboot of 1801 Smith, now branded the Elev8 luxury apartments. Think of the apartment community’s makeover as “condominium meets hotel,” company sources said.

In its new use, the 1971 building – previously known as 600 Jefferson – features 372 swank units with downtown views, the amenities expected in high-end apartment living, and direct connection to the pedestrian sky bridge system of other Cullen Center buildings — and beyond.

Unlike earlier conversions that chose smaller, older or historic properties, this building is of the modern age. Given Houston’s central business district’s late 20th c. growth, modern office tower account for about 74 percent of the built environment, a recent conversion study by AECOM for Downtown Houston Redevelopment Authority found. Most of them – about 81 percent — are larger than 500,000 square feet.

At 20 stories, 1801 Smith is a 458,000-square-foot tower with parking. DeBartolo purchased the foreclosed property for an estimated $20.6 million and began its transformation during the pandemic. The first residents arrived in mid-November 2023. Upper floors are being completed at a rate of one a week, company sources said.

“The reception from Houstonians has been overwhelming,” said Edward Kobel, company president and chief operating officer. It is rewarding – and a relief – “to create these and then (have) the public say they love it.”

The building’s half-century age is of note. A recent Market Insights report by Rent Café found that office conversions nationally have reduced the average age of buildings used by about 20 years, so they’re more likely to be 60 or 70 instead of 90 years-old.

The report said office-to-residential projects represent about 38 percent of the 147,000 apartments in current, planned and proposed adaptive reuse projects. In 2024, an estimated 55,300 units are in the works, up from 12,100 in 2021.

Also helping to fuel the trend is the estimated $150 billion in office mortgages due this year. A push for Green Building practices is another factor.

“The urban landscape is getting a makeover, shifting from corporate to community,” the report observed.

SUITABLE ON SMITH STREET

Having previously handled similar projects, DeBartolo has found only 12 percent of potential conversions are actually suitable and in a market that works, Kobel said. They’re hard to find and then to buy at the right price.

That 1801 Smith had been previously updated was a plus the design could take advantage of, he said.

Although no two conversion projects are the same, they do have certain elements that have to make sense, said principal architect Eddie A. Mastalerz at ARC3 of St. Petersburg, Fla. The firm has worked with Tampa-based DeBartolo on previous projects in other markets as well as Houston.

“The purpose is to make a rentable product,” he said.

From a design standpoint, however, a building’s “geometry” has to work, he said, so that there’s sufficient light, ventilation, and ability to stack mechanicals, electricals and plumbing.

In early office conversions, the smaller floorplates of older properties lent themselves to the challenge. Hotels also snapped them up.

However, structural systems of the 1960s-‘70s can also work, Mastalerz noted. Such was the case with 1801 Smith.

As an example, the distance between floor plates was a generous 13-plus feet – not typically found in new multi-family construction. And the spans between existing joists left plenty of room to punch through for all the cables, pipes and wiring required.

The design process sought ways to make the building “look less like an office tower,” he said. To soften the honeycomb effect of the original exterior, for example, operable windows flush with the surface replaced sections of existing recessed windows. And in doing so, each unit picked up extra space just the right size for a desk with cityscape views.

In the retro lobby, vestiges of the original space remain, such as the polished flooring and elevator banks. In common areas, oversized photographs of Houston landmarks hang in contrast to contemporary artwork and murals.

The resulting vibe was dubbed “contemporary industrial” on a recent tour of the property.

Twenty-Foot Windows

Light-filled units range in size from studio to three-bedroom. There are 14 two-story lofts with 20-foot windows and some units with private terraces atop the parking level. The latter were the first to lease, said Natalie Cunningham, assistant community manager.

Building amenities and gathering spaces have been peppered throughout the property. At ground level is a pool with sizable waterfall, several indoor-outdoor lounges tucked beneath the building above, a fitness center, and an event-worthy dining room with teaching kitchen. The clubby amenities level incorporates gathering hubs, the bar, billiards and media, and flanks of private work and conference spaces.

Private storage lockers in the hallways on each level helped address what to do with areas far from the windows.

BACK IN THE DAY

The 1971 tower was originally designed by Neuhaus & Taylor. It connects by skywalk to 500 Jefferson, which, along with the hotel now branded The Whitehall were the first two elements of what was envisioned as an interconnected complex. The campus, announced by Hugh Roy Cullen in 1959, was the first multi-block development in downtown Houston, architectural guides note.


Feb. 1,  2024 Realty News Report Copyright 2024

Photo credit: Cynthia Lescalleet, CALPix copyright 2024

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