It is a new breed of urban village occupying the heart of cowboy capitalism, a playful, colorful, expansive shopping area with the atmosphere of a European hamlet. Six separate buildings, all with different elevations and utilizing distinct materials such as stucco, stone and brick, comprise the development. A large, European-styled thoroughfare intersects the project in Houston's high-energy, high-concept Galleria/Uptown area.
Banners display works by artists such as Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin and van Gogh as well as Renoir. The light fixtures replicate ones from streets in downtown Milan, Italy. It's called Uptown Park and, when bigger is considered better and mega-malls have become the retail rage, Houston impresario Giorgio Borlenghi, CEO of Interfin Corp., has decided to scale down.
"In today's era of malls, I believe there is a trend in this country for retail projects that are a little bit smaller and more a part of the city itself," says Borlenghi, known for developing luxury high rises and Class A+ office towers in the area.
In building Uptown Park at the intersection of Loop 610 and Post Oak Boulevard, where some 300,000 cars pass each day, Borlenghi and the Houston architectural firm of Brand + Allen sought to create a European-styled shopping experience with an inviting ambiance that encouraged visitors to stroll from shop to shop, dine in an assortment of restaurants and cafes and linger in the piazza, with a cup of cappuccino or glass of Chardonnay.
The result is the 150,000 sq. ft. Uptown Park, a new urban village with an Old World flair. Borlenghi, a well- regarded entrepreneur in his adopted hometown of Houston, is careful to note that Uptown Park is not a re-creation of a European village, but merely "has the flavor of Europe." Even so, such a distinct ambiance has already caught the fancy of residents.
"Uptown Park is located in a very exclusive area on Post Oak Boulevard, which is kind of like Houston's Rodeo Drive," says James Palmer Woodson, president of Woodson Properties, a firm that specializes in commercial and investment real estate. "It is one of the nicest things to happen to this part of town. It should do extremely well."
Ed Wulfe, president of Wulfe & Co., a Houston-based international real estate concern, points to Uptown Park's unique design, creative storefronts and inviting site plan.
"The architecture is exciting and creative, and the location is very much in demand," he explains. "I think the ultimate question is how the tenant mix will evolve. It's been very good so far with several strong restaurants."
A touch of the continent Uptown Park is not merely a retail center. It is part of a 34-acre, multi-use project that includes the 100-unit Villa d'Este luxury high-rise condominium complex - scheduled to open in the spring - as well as three additional sites for multifamily use. Uptown Park is the focal point of the development and provides the old-fashioned function of a piazza, a place where people go to eat, drink, shop and socialize in an open space surrounded by taller buildings, explains Borlenghi.
"While we wanted the project to be unique, we also wanted it to be very Houston-like," he adds. "We all know that in Houston we are spoiled with our cars and that we are accustomed to parking right outside the store we want to visit. So, we designed large pockets of parking areas, giving the center a ratio of over 5.4 cars per 1,000 sq. ft. (the norm in Houston being 4). It is our hope that our patrons will be so intrigued by the special pavers on the sidewalks, the extensive landscape, the benches, the fountains and all the delightful historic details, that they will just park their cars and start exploring the atmosphere of Uptown Park."
But do people want to sit outside in Houston, a city known for sweltering summers and as the world capital of air-conditioning? The Milan-born Borlenghi asks, why not?
"In July, August and September, we may not have people going outside, of course, but what we always forget in Houston is that, in New York and Paris during the winter, nobody is sitting outside either. We have a tough summer, but they have a tough winter. There are many more days we can stay outside in Houston than in Milan."
Houstonians eager to sit outside will have a prime opportunity with the extensive outdoor seating provided by such anchor tenants as McCormick & Schmick's, a critically acclaimed seafood eatery from Portland, Ore.; Champp's, a casual dining outlet with a sports theme; and Cafe Express, an offering from the locally based Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group.
A concept evolves Borlenghi began thinking about the Uptown Park concept several years ago, primarily because Houston didn't have such a distinct retail area. Plans called for a major piazza in the center onto which most of the stores would open. "We gave our shoulders to the freeway to tease people passing by. We wanted to invite them to come and see what we have done," he says. "Every store has its own individual aspects, quality and characteristics as in what we call the 'old country.' Uptown Park appears as if it were built a long time ago and over a considerable span of time."
Borlenghi had the luxury of time to meticulously plan the project. Originally, Interfin paid $20 million to the federal Resolution Trust Corp. to buy 28 acres at Post Oak and Loop 610; an additional six acres were purchased five years later. He took his time to develop the project.
"I think the biggest motivation for us was a spectacular site and an impeccable location that deserved to have not just another strip center on the freeway," he adds. "And it needed something more than a retail center. The site needed to become a destination, an environment in its own right, a place where people could go and congregate, have a cup of coffee or a gelato and enjoy themselves even if they didn't need to buy anything."
Thus, to attract patrons, Borlenghi and planners decided restaurants would play an integral part in the design of Uptown Park. Borlenghi notes that in today's retail thinking, centers need an entertainment component - not just movie theaters but eateries as well.
"Entertainment provides a reason for people to come to a center," he adds. "We have 150,000 sq. ft., on 14 acres of land, to make the Uptown experience special. We could have opted to go with a typical form of entertainment, like a movie theater, but we didn't want to build a five-story parking garage on the site. We were trying to do something unique, and we thought having certain food establishments would capture people and bring them in."
Ciao, tenants Attracting the right tenants was another challenge. The leasing assignment for Uptown Park was given to Boyd, Page & Associates, a well-known brokerage firm in Houston.
"There was never any doubt about the strength of the trade area," notes Ed Page, vice president and a director of Boyd, Page & Associates. "The area has extremely strong residential demographics, with annual household income exceeding $100,000. It has a very strong daytime population. If the Uptown district were its own Central Business District, it would be ninth largest in country, with 37 million sq. ft. of office space within a 3-mile radius, over 4 million sq. ft. of retail and hotel space, and by far the highest density of tourist traffic in the city. We had a lot going for us."
But the team also had a major concern: For years, the major retail focus in the area was a mile away, at the Galleria, a 3.9 million sq. ft. office, retail and hotel complex anchored by Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's and Lord & Taylor built by Developer Gerald Hines in the 1970s. In addition, Boyd, Page had recently leased another nearby upscale project, Highland Village, and had attracted a number of major lifestyle retailers new to Houston, such as Williams-Sonoma.
"Our problem was, how do you create a real draw that can compete with the strength of the Galleria while giving shoppers a different retail experience," Page says. "We had a great location and terrific accessibility. We realized that Houston has the highest spending per capita per restaurant in the country, after New York, so we decided to concentrate on restaurants as anchors."
Boyd, Page decided to base its leasing program around three restaurants, as well as luring other, well-known upscale retailers to the area. Both McCormick & Schmick's and Champp's had a good track record, with higher than average per-unit volumes, recalls Nick Hernandez, a broker with Boyd, Page. The two dining establishments were also new to the Houston area.
For the third food anchor, Boyd, Page sought an established local brand name, settling on relocating Cafe Express, then located in the Pavilion Shopping off Post Oak Boulevard.
"Cafe Express had an established clientele, and by moving them to Uptown Park we thought they would bring their clients with them," says Hernandez. "At the same time, Uptown Park would give Cafe Express the visibility it didn't have in the Pavilion, and we thought it would significantly increase their business."
Adding other retailers took more time. Most national luxury tenants were already in the Galleria market and merely adding another outlet, the leasing team felt, really wouldn't work.
"We decided to relocate existing retailers in the trade areas to Uptown Park," says Page. "The challenge was convincing these tenants that have been on Post Oak Boulevard to move even farther away from the Galleria - and into a new project concept."
Many retailers made the move. Bill Walker Clothier, a family-owned menswear business located in the Post Oak area for 17 years, opted for space at Uptown Park, as did another Houston retail institution, Walzel Jewelers.
Other tenants signing up for space included Longoria Collection, a 5,000 sq. ft. luxury home store; and Uptown Day Spa, which offers full-service skin care. Retailers from outside the area include Gelateria Parmalat and Jamba Juice, a purveyor of blended-to-order smoothies, juices and healthy snacks.
Staying selective Open since October, Uptown Park is about 70% leased, Page and Hernandez say, adding that they are taking their time to fill in the vacant shops.
"We've been very careful in trying to put together just the right tenant mix," Page adds. "We haven't taken every tenant that walked through the door."
Woodson, the real estate broker, agrees: "Uptown Park would be 100% occupied if they just wanted tenants, but Borlenghi is very careful to make sure it's a good blend of tenants. Other developers are willing to lease to anyone willing to pay the rate. But Uptown Park has turned down quite a few tenants that wanted to take big spaces, because Giorgio felt they would not complement each other. He will take his time to fill the center."
Real estate observers say rents at Uptown Park are slightly more than those in the Galleria area - lower than a mall but higher than a strip center. Tenants such as McCormick & Schmick's and Cafe Express already say they are very pleased with the success of the project.
"Uptown Park is doing very, very well. McCormick & Schmick's is doing more than double what it was projected to do, and the Houston outlet is No. 2 in sales out of 25," Hernandez says. "Sales at Longoria have more than doubled, and at Bill Walker holiday sales were up 40%."
Interest is increasing in the project, partly for its uniqueness, partly for its whimsy and partly due to the reputation of Borlenghi for quality. To design his office towers in the early 1980s, for instance, Borlenghi hired a little-known architect named Cesar Pelli, who has since become world famous.
"Houston needs about five more Giorgio Borlenghi's," adds broker Woodson. "Some developers will build a development where the outside looks good and the inside is third-rate, but Borlenghi makes sure it's first-class all the way."You're going to see a lot of people copying the Uptown Park concept around the country."