Houston Farmers Market Revamp Nears Completion, With Very Different New Look
The Houston Farmers Market is nearing the end of its redevelopment, with new open-air vendors, brick-and-mortar retailers and restaurants expected to open to the public during the spring.
The market is one of the city’s oldest produce markets, known for its wide array of food offerings and its lively atmosphere. It was established in 1942 by the Farmer’s Cooperative Marketing Association of Houston and has operated in the Greater Heights area near I-45 North and the 610 Loop for 78 years.
Improvements to the nearly 18-acre site include seven new climate-controlled buildings and an open-air covered pavilion. Other upgrades include new restrooms and common seating areas, organized parking and traffic circulation, defined sidewalks, site landscaping and a 1-acre dedicated green space.
The tenant mix will feature retail, wholesale businesses, fast-casual and grab-and-go food options, and full-service restaurants. Overall, the site will have about 130K SF of retail, in addition to 100K SF of commercial warehouses for wholesaler tenants.
MLB Capital Partners saw an opportunity and moved to purchase the market in May 2017, with the goal of upgrading and modernizing the site. The firm broke ground on the redevelopment project in October 2019. Studio RED Architects, Clark Condon Associates, Gunda Corp., Arch-Con Construction and Underbelly Hospitality served as consultants and partners on the project.
MLB principal Todd Mason said that it was important to the firm to keep the long-standing tenants who have operated at the Houston Farmers Market for decades in order to keep the culture and values of the market. Existing tenants like The Egg House will open retail storefronts alongside new tenants like R-C Ranch Texas Craft Meats.
“It would have been a whole lot easier, frankly, to tell them all, 'Hey, thank you very much for your time and service, but we're going to tear this down and start over,' and we could have been done a year ago,” Mason said. “But it was important to try to keep all of them, as many of them as we could, and most of them have stayed.”
One of those long-standing tenants is Maria Luisa Gomez, who has operated her business, Vasquez Produce, out of the Houston Farmers Market for more than 30 years. Her son, José Vasquez, told Bisnow that not long after MLB Capital Partners purchased the market, rent went up between 2% and 5%.
Since then, Vasquez Produce has occupied three different locations in the market, and the square footage of the business has fluctuated, but not to the point that there have been any further significant changes in rent.
Vasquez said that the future location of the business within the market has not yet been discussed with the developer, but that he’s hoping for about 1.2K SF, in line with what the business has occupied before.
The vast majority of Vasquez Produce’s customers are Latinx, but Vasquez said he hopes that the redevelopment efforts will attract a wave of new customers.
“The culture will never stop coming here, but if we get more foot traffic, more tourists coming, of course it's going to be beneficial for our business,” Vasquez said.
Construction of the new buildings is slated for completion by the end of 2020, after which tenants will begin the interior build-out of their own spaces, Mason said.
Opening a large retail and restaurant concept during a pandemic poses a challenge, but Mason noted that Houston Farmers Market has a natural advantage because it’s an open-air site. The goal is to open to the public by April or May, but that will partly depend on how easily tenants are able to get business in through the door.
“I would say from the developer, the owner standpoint, I think if we didn't have a pandemic, we'd be 100% leased,” Mason said. “We've had to slow down a little bit, but we're still having great conversations with some amazing food and beverage people.”
Houston chef Chris Shepherd served as a project consultant for the Houston Farmers Market, and his restaurant group, Underbelly Hospitality, will operate two concepts at the market: a fast-casual concept and a full-service restaurant. As part of that undertaking, Underbelly culinary director Nick Fine will transition out of his current role to run the nearly 5K SF full-service restaurant as chef/partner. Shepherd declined to offer any further details about the two concepts.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Shepherd said that it was important to continue planning and preparing for the future, regardless of when a vaccine eventuates, because otherwise there is a risk of being left behind.
“If we don't have plans, it's not a good business decision,” Shepherd said. “Having this green space and having everything outdoors, just makes it so much better for us as a viable business.”
Even before the new retailers and restaurants have opened, the Houston Farmers Market has had another impact on the neighborhood: rising property values. According to Mason, most of the market’s neighbors have been happy to see their properties increase in value over the past few years.
Home prices in the Greater Heights averaged $419K in May 2017, according to Zillow. In September 2020, that average had risen to $460K, and is forecast to reach $488K by September 2021.
Mason said that he has not spoken directly with anybody who has complained about gentrification in the area, but acknowledged that no matter what, somebody will be concerned.
“I've seen a few different comments on social media, but for the most part, the vast majority have been in favor,” Mason said. “We've tried to do everything right, including engaging the best in the business in the public relations world, to be sure that we do handle all these [things] correctly. We engage with the Northside Management District and try and be a good neighbor with everybody.”
Vasquez grew up in the neighborhood and lives only a short distance from the Houston Farmers Market. He said that the nearby Houston Heights, one of the most expensive neighborhoods within the Greater Heights area, has been gentrifying for years, with plenty of new development occurring in the area.
"Of course, property value is going to shoot up, people are going to struggle, but sometimes, you got to do what you got to do," Vasquez said.
Overall, Vasquez said that the general feedback about the redevelopment from his customers has mainly been of excitement.
"Everybody's excited because it's basically like a new toy," Vasquez said. "Everyone's waiting to see how it's going to be."