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Buffalo Bayou-Area Developers Bump Into Challenges Building On Houston's Oldest Land

Hanover Co. and Lionstone Investments designed the new Autry Park mixed-use with office, multifamily and retail as an "urban village." The 14-acre project along Buffalo Bayou will have restaurants from trendy Houston operators, multiple apartment buildings, a hotel and other office spaces. But that bayou view comes with a cost: It is also next to a busy section of Allen Parkway and Shepherd Drive. Hanover is spending about $30M on infrastructure in part so development partner David Ott no longer has to get off his bike and guide children across the street. 

Moody Law Group's John Moody Jr., Ziegler Cooper Architect's Scott Ziegler, Hanover Co.'s David Ott, DC Partners' Acho Azuike, H-E-B's Lisa Helfman

"There's going to finally be pedestrian signalization at [the] Allen, Kirby, Shepherd intersection. If anyone's tried to cross at the ground floor there, it's like a game of Frogger. It's very scary, especially with kids," Ott said.

New projects, mixed-use and residential alike, are rapidly scooping up the lands surrounding Buffalo Bayou. The bayou, with inherent green space and offering a quick trip to downtown, is proving trendy to developers, but in a March 24 Bisnow event, Building on the Bayou, developers discussed the challenges in building infrastructure and respecting nearby communities as they build on Houston's oldest land.

In an effort to make the Autry Park area more accessible, Hanover has chopped up about a 25-acre block of sidewalk into more walkable blocks, creating Buffalo Park Drive and continuing or creating other streets, Ott said. Buffalo Bayou Park is a popular recreation spot, and Hanover has extended crosswalks and other connections into it.

"Houston's culture in this area is based around physical activity, exercise, outdoors, nature and laying in on top of that a food and beverage program that's [today] kind of limited," Ott said.

The bayou area also is connected heavily to Fourth Ward in the east, a historic, primarily Black community. Acho Azuike, chief operating officer and managing director at DC Partners, which is building nearby mixed-use project The Allen, said his team is working with area leaders to incorporate history and culture from Freedmen's Town, a Fourth Ward community built by freed slaves.

"Something I'm excited about is, how do we incorporate some of that Fourth Ward tourist history?" Azuike said.

Hanover Co.'s David Ott

Scott Ziegler, senior principal with Ziegler Cooper Architects, said his firm's Inner Loop projects are mostly connected to neighborhoods that have either historically been or currently are primarily single-family homes, and the firm taps into that. He brought up The Driscoll at River Oaks, a Ziegler Cooper-designed multifamily high-rise in the 85-year-old River Oaks Shopping Center.

"When we were asked to design The Driscoll, we had to be respectful of what was there. We were going very vertical, it's a 32-story building that sits upon a very large podium of parking, which then sits upon street-level retail. We replaced all the retail we tore down, we put in a couple layers of underground parking for future retail parking and kept the entire shopping center aesthetic and design," Ziegler said.

Other unique challenges come in the highly dense, desirable land around the bayou. Developers must grapple with the density and cost issues inherent in Inner Loop development, Ziegler said. Instead of its usual mid-rise multifamily, Ziegler Cooper has moved into designing what Ziegler calls super-mid-rises, buildings that are up to about 14 or 15 stories, but have double the density, from 125 units per acre to 250 units per acre, which he said allows the firm to design a building on much less land.

"When you talk about challenges, I think the design challenges that you face are, technically, how do you accommodate the lifestyle and the uses that we're trying to put into these buildings, sites that keep getting tighter and tighter, buildings that keep getting taller and taller?" Ziegler said.

Between the price tag of developing around the bayou and high construction delays and prices, costs for tenants and residents are going up, but Azuike said it isn't driving them away.

"It's been crazy active. At The Allen, we are close to 60% sold on condominiums right now. The numbers we're seeing, I’m shocked every time a subcontract comes across my desk for what people are paying and pricing," Azuike said.

Azuike said that high demand means that, despite costs, he can keep prices relatively low for tenants and residents.

"All the projects on Allen Parkway, it's all a healthy competition to where retail tenants are coming in town, they're seeing all this activity. It's proof we all made the right decision in developing where we're developing."