HOUSTON – Ralph Bivins of Realty News Report: The latest edition of The Ralph Bivins Project podcast features an interview with Stephen Meek, senior vice president of development at StreetLights Residential.
RALPH BIVINS: We’re here today to talk about a site that has been key to city-wide discussions about how Houston – a city with no zoning – develops our land. Our guest today is Stephen Meek from StreetLights Residential, which has introduced a new project on the so-called Ashby Highrise site. That residential project started in 2007, but the site remains fallow. It’s almost two acres of grass, located a mile west of the Houston Museum of Arts on Bissonnet Street. It probably took a lot of courage to jump back into this site that generated a lot of controversy in the past. Stephen, tell us about your vision.
STEPHEN MEEK: Well, I think it was probably research more than courage which led to this. The idea of the Ashby – and I only learned that the name was given to it by the neighborhood so they could set up a campaign against it. Certainly, it was controversial. Right now, I am more concerned about the cycle we are in, the construction costs, than the neighbors.
RALPH BIVINS: Have you had any interaction with the neighborhood yet? I drove by there yesterday and I didn’t see any new signs. At one time, about 10 years ago, there were large black and yellow signs warning of a “Monster Tower” coming. Are these gone now?
STEPHEN MEEK: There are still some residual signs. But we are not building the Ashby. What we propose is a very different building. I’ll start with the property. It’s 1.6 acres, there is no historic overlay or historic zoning. It is a historic neighborhood — affluent, with two-story homes. The residents didn’t like a building [Ashby] of that scale – massing, height, traffic impact, all of that.
There are significant differences from then – when neighbors began the campaign against the project — until today. First of all, the fact that the building case was litigated, with a lawsuit between the city and the developer. There was a settlement agreement, in which the city said if you do these things, these restrictions; if you abide by them, we’ll hand you a building permit. We didn’t have to submit a plan this way, we just had to submit a plan.
We read over the restrictions, and we realized that – listen, you can’t have a car exit onto Ashby street from the garage and turn south into that neighborhood. We’re not doing it. We are following and abiding by the guidelines. Going back to the litigation, after the case with the city, the neighborhood came along with a lawsuit that went to the appellate court where the neighborhood lost. They spent money on legal fees and lost. So did the developer and its partner, the Hunt Co., who entered into the venture right before the neighborhood sued. They were ready to demo – well, actually they did demo an older apartment community that was there on that site.
Actually, in my view – and I have been involved in redevelopment, urban development, new urbanism. Why do you want to live in a community? Live, work, play, walkable, close to employment, close to retail. It may take a bike ride to get to The Village. You have a lot of options there.
We’re not going out into the suburbs tearing down trees and having an environmental impact like that. We are taking an infill site. It may not be the highest and best use as would a lot or an old apartment use. It’s just a matter of what we’re going to do. We have developed, say, 40 buildings. I doubt if the original sponsor, the Buckhead guys, who were wonderful people, had that on their resume. They didn’t have, as we do, an in-house design team for a design-build process. We also have a self-performing, in-house construction company. We have done billions of dollars’ worth of these residential buildings, and every project has its own challenges – the neighborhood, the city, construction costs. This is a problem-solving business.
What we will be bringing is something beautiful to this neighborhood. We’re going to add color to a black-and-white map, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a lot of color around it, but there’s a hole right there that’s black and white.
RALPH BIVINS: Can you discuss the differences between the two projects – the concept for Ashby Highrise of the past and the current residential tower under development on that same Bissonnet site?
STEPHEN MEEK: The good news is that our project is very similar to one adjacent Highland Park in Dallas, called The McKenzie that StreetLights developed. The protect that was labeled The Ashby was to contain 232 residential units and 10,075 SF of retail. Of course, retail is a big traffic generator.
What we plan is an exclusive residential building with 134 units [rental] – about 100 fewer units than previously planned. We don’t have any one-bedroom apartments. The two-bedroom unit is about 2,600 SF; the three and 3 ½ bedroom units are around 3,300 SF. The average is about 2,900 SF.
According to the restrictive covenant, we are allowed 115 vehicle trips per hour maximum. Our studies show 57 trips an hour. The traffic count had been a matter of concern. We are doing less.
RALPH BIVINS: You announced this project in early May. I haven’t seen any new signs or haven’t heard about it in letters to the editor. Could they be planning opposition in secret? I haven’t heard anything.
STEPHEN MEEK: I’m not worried. I do think that there will be some angst and they want to know how well we build it and what the construction impact will be.
I did meet with two board presidents and a couple of gentlemen who head the boards of the Boulevard Oaks and Southampton neighborhoods. One of them asked: “Do you have to build a high-rise?” Yes, this is a high-rise site. We are not building student housing. There is not enough land to build a four-story wraparound.
We are building a legacy building, a building with a long-term business plan based on the investment we have made, to last 10, 20, 30 years. This is very different from a brokerage. When you develop something like we are planning, you change the nature of the area for decades. You can build something terrible, unaesthetic, cheap, a commodity, which really describes a lot of multifamily development.
Our view is, let’s be thoughtful and design and craft a building that will stand the test of time, architecturally, and fill it up with people who live in this neighborhood and others like it, and want to sell their homes and not have to move to a condo or out of town. They want to still live in a neighborhood with everything they love.
Stephen Meek’s biography
Stephen Meek joined StreetLights Residential in 2011 as director of land and entitlements. In his role, he sourced projects for the company’s development pipeline and carried potential development through the site acquisition / pre-development phase and into the design phase. As senior vice president of development, he oversees all multifamily development activities in Texas — with concentration on urban areas of Dallas, Houston and Austin and suburban neighborhoods in Austin, Fort Worth and Frisco
Prior to joining StreetLights, Stephen was founder and president of Rivendell Development, co-founder of The Apartment Group (now JLL), senior vice president of the Staubach Company and director of New Markets & Acquisitions for Post Properties. During his time at Post Properties, he led efforts to diversify geographically by creating high-density, mixed-use residential developments in major urban markets in the western United States.
June 6, 2022 Realty News Report Copyright 2022
File: Upscale Residential Tower Rising
June 6, 2022 Realty News Report Copyright 2022
File StreetLights.Upscale Residential Tower Rising. Ashby Highrise. Bissonnet. Buckhead Partners.
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File: High-rise residential Houston