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Recasting Memorial City

October 1, 2001

By Mike Sheridan

A transformation of a multiuse development involving more than a million square feet of space spread over 200 acres is occurring on the city’s West Side. At Houston’s Memorial City, adjacent to the area’s famed Energy Corridor, islands of concrete created by previous expansion plans are being connected to make the venue more pedestrian friendly—a tall order in an area that values the automobile. The $600 million redevelopment program, involving office, retail, residential, and health care components, is billed as one of the largest private redevelopment projects in Houston’s history.
MetroNational, a privately held real estate investment company headquartered in Houston is seeking to recast Memorial City—a 1960s retail and commercial center—into a new urban community. Its plan to remold its 40-year development includes the redevelopment and expansion of Memorial City Mall; the expansion of the Memorial Hermann Memorial City Healthcare campus; and the addition of new commercial and retail space, restaurants, and entertainment, and cultural and hospitality venues.
“Memorial City and Houston experienced uncontrolled growth in the 1960s,” says Bill Peel, executive vice president of MetroNational. “There was no limiting geography in Houston and with their wildcatter roots, developers just kept on building. They’d put a store here and a building there—typically with no thought to overall planning,” he explains. “But such development isn’t feasible in the 21st century. We are remaking Memorial City into an urban community with a vibrant main street area for the neighborhood.”
At the same time, developers say they are rediscovering the value of the pedestrian experience and the importance of space between buildings that creates a sense of community. “We have a lot of architectural islands in a sea of asphalt and concrete,” points out Peel. “We want to change that. We want Memorial City to reflect urban living for the future. We are seeking to rediscover the value of our urban centers to maximize quality of life.”
A redevelopment approach such as that outlined by MetroNational for Memorial City is laudable, maintains Stuart Gabriel, director of the University of Southern California’s Lusk Center for Real Estate, an academic real estate center based in Los Angeles. “If you look at the great cities of the world—San Francisco, Paris, London—you’ll see that they are cities with significant pedestrian opportunities,” says Gabriel. “People want to walk and yet, in most U.S. cities there are a lack of opportunities to do so.”
The epicenter of MetroNational’s urban redevelopment—scheduled for completion in 2003—will be a repositioning of Memorial City Mall from a regional shopping center to a hybrid retail, recreational, and entertainment experience. The renovation includes a 300,000-square-foot Foley’s, a 140,000-square-foot Lord & Taylor, a 250,000-square-foot Dillard’s, and 550,000 square feet
of specialty retail tenants. The mall’s new interior design will be a simulated outdoor streetscape, with each retailer having a distinctive two-level storefront. Other features include a two-story Italian-designed carousel; an ice rink with space for hockey and recreational and figure skating; and an amphitheater for performances and community events.
“Redevelopment and renovation usually mean updating buildings and maybe putting a new skin on the outside and refurbishing the space inside,” says Peel. “But oftentimes what is between buildings is forgotten. We are plan-ning environmentally sensitive ‘widewalks’ that will run adjacent to major streets and into the mall, hospital, restaurants, and other venues. Bikepaths will draw surrounding neighborhoods into Memorial City, making the area equally pedestrian and vehicle friendly. Future proj-ects such as fixed rail or another type of transportation system could enable people to travel from their offices to the mall without having to get into their cars,” Peel adds.
In an effort not only to inform the neighborhood but also to gather feedback, MetroNational moved its renovations operation center to Memorial City Mall, setting up shop in an open, glass-enclosed office. Architects, designers, engineers, and builders work behind glass walls inside Memorial City Mall where patrons can watch in real time as sketches and designs are drafted. “We realized that this is an urban community that is going to be built for the community, so stakeholders should know every last detail and be involved in the entire process,” says Peel. “We want people to be as excited as we are about this new urban community.”