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Exclusive: Six Years After Ashby High-rise Controversy, a New Luxury Apartment Tower Planned for the Site
Since a judge sided with developers of the so-called Ashby high-rise in 2016, the grassy lot at the center of one of the most closely watched land-use battles in Houston’s history has sat untouched, surrounded by chain-link fencing.
Now, the owners of the property are resurrecting efforts to build a high-rise residential tower at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby Street near Rice University. They have brought in a new development team and a scaled-down version of the original plans they hope will win over neighbors who fiercely opposed the earlier iteration.
Hunt Companies of El Paso is partnering with Dallas-based StreetLights Residential to build a 20-story luxury apartment community called The Langley. They plan to break ground in November and complete construction by 2025. The tower is one story lower with 94 fewer units than a 2016 version of the project. The new proposal also features a smaller parking garage at three levels instead of five.
Fewer units mean fewer residents, which the developers hope will ease concerns over traffic on the two-lane streets surrounding the site — a key point of contention for the prior proposal.
The Langley is expected to feature a classic design style taking cues from the nearby Rice Univeristy with brick colors and columns.
The proposed 134-unit building features unusually large two- and three-bedroom apartments, mimicking the spaciousness of a single-family home. The Langley’s average unit size is 2,850 square feet, more than double the size of the average 888-square-foot apartment in Houston, according to RentCafe, an apartment search website.
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StreetLights Residential intends to reproduce the success of a popular luxury high-rise in Dallas called The McKenzie. There, wealthy empty nesters can pay between $3,000 to $20,000 a month for luxury rentals at the 22-story tower overlooking Highland Park, according to data from Houston Association of Realtors. While The McKenzie is not senior housing, the average renter is 57 years old. Tenants can’t be under 25.
“The resident who lives at The McKenzie, as they will at the Langley, they can live anywhere. They can afford anywhere, and we have to meet the expectations they have,” said Stephen Meek, senior vice president with StreetLights Residential. “They have fine taste, and they know what elegance is that we have to provide.”
When Hunt Companies saw The McKenzie, they liked it so much they brought StreetLights on to the Bissonnet project, Meek said. StreetLights replaces Buckhead Investments as the lead developer, although Buckhead remains a passive investor.
Buckhead’s earlier proposals were also meant to appeal to affluent seniors who wanted to downsize from larger homes in the neighborhood. The proposal never had a formal name, but residents dubbed it The Ashby. Across the street from the site, a yellow-and-black sign with the “Stop Ashby Highrise” slogan is pinned to a fence - a reminder of the contentious crusade to halt the project years ago.
A “Stop Ashby Highrise” sign hangs on a fence across the street from the vacant property at 1717 Bissonnet Street at Ashby Street in the Boulevard Oaks neighborhood, Friday, April 29, 2022, in Houston.
Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
Memorial Hermann’s 30-story medical office tower is visible from the site, but Texas Medical Center’s skyscrapers still feel far away from the neighborhood where live oak trees tower over colonial-style mansions and Georgian homes with flickering lanterns illuminating manicured boxwood bushes.
When Buckhead Investment first announced a project in 2007, it quickly drew the ire of residents who argued a high-rise was out of character for the neighborhood. They worried about traffic congestion and plummeting property values.
The opposition sparked a yearlong battle to squash the project through protests and lawsuits in what became a symbol for fighting Houston’s lax zoning. Ultimately a judge sided with Buckhead in clearing the way for the developers to build.
But the legal win for developers came near the bottom of the 2014-to-2016 oil bust, which made it difficult to attract investors to Houston, and the property instead sat undeveloped.
A chain link fence surrounds the vacant property at 1717 Bissonnet Street at Ashby Street in the Boulevard Oaks neighborhood, Friday, April 29, 2022, in Houston.
Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
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Hunt Companies, however, didn’t shelve the project. The owners kept their original permits up-to-date with routine inspections and permit renewals every few months, said a spokeswoman for Houston Public Works Department. In a statement, the department said the city's legal team would review an earlier agreement with the project owners to determine how the new proposal might be affected.
The developers have scheduled meetings with the city to determine next steps in the approval process, Meek said.
The prior project was “another developer, from another time. We’re the right developer for this and we’re excited to see The Langley come forth,” Meek said.