In The Press
Upper Kirby’s Going Upscale with ‘Cool’ Factor
by David Kaplan
chron.com, July 15, 2012
When Johnny Carrabba opened his Italian restaurant on Kirby Drive 25 years ago, he moved into a space formerly occupied by a 24-hour adult newsstand.
Just up the road was Joe's Tire Shop and, across the street from that a few years earlier, a used car lot on gravel. In a shopping center just south of there was a music club whose patrons were said to sometimes shoot out the windows of nearby car dealerships on their way home.
"I was on Kirby before Kirby was cool," Carrabba said.
Today on Kirby, between U.S. 59 and Westheimer, foodies flock to chef-driven Kata Robata and Pondicheri, glitterati emerge from luxury cars outside the chic Katsuya restaurant and high-fashion shoppers head to Tootsie's, Q Custom Clothier and the recently relocated Billy Reid a half-block away.
But while this commercial stretch increasingly attracts a bustling mix of restaurants and retail, it still doesn't feel like the pedestrian-friendly shopping district that some Houston urban living advocates have longed for. At least one complains that the area remains too car-centric.
A cool spot
Regardless, Kirby has certainly gotten cool enough for Carrabba. On the block he owns he recently opened Mia's cafe, and he's planning to soon open another restaurant, Grace's, and rebuild Carrabba's from scratch. He put up a five-story parking garage to handle all the cars and "guesstimates" he'll spend $17 million to $20 million to complete all of the projects.
Among the biggest external changes to these few blocks over the past few years is a residential component, in the form of apartments at the mixed-use development West Ave and the high-rise condominium 2727 Kirby.
The street also has more retail, including high-end apparel and home-furnishings stores either on Kirby or just off. Whole Foods Market has been there 12 years.
Jamie Brewster, executive director of the Upper Kirby Management District, said her organization has strived to make Kirby a more urban, mixed-use area. It's even upgraded the street itself, with infrastructure improvements that have ranged from landscaping and flood control to the widening of streets and sidewalks to the burying of power lines.
Brewster said the district will soon announce a major sculpture on the median across from West Ave.
She also said Kirby Drive benefits from its location, being a convenient drive from River Oaks, West University, Greenway Plaza, the Galleria, Montrose and downtown.
That part of Kirby is becoming an increasingly plum spot for retail and restaurants, said Lilly Golden, president of Evergreen Commercial Realty. Rents have risen dramatically, she said, thought they still aren't as high as in the Galleria area.
Retail and restaurant rents along that portion of Kirby range from about $35 to $45 per square foot, said Lance Gilliam, managing partner of UCR moodyrambin, a retail-real-estate brokerage firm.
Too many cars?
David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit group focused on improving Houston's quality of life, said he is disappointed in the evolution of Kirby. He had high hopes for West Ave, for example, but some of the stores there don't even open to the sidewalk, he said: "Everything is based on driving in."
Julie Wilsey, vice president of retail development at Gables Urban, developer of West Ave, said a few doors do open to Kirby. She said the private street cutting through the project encourages pedestrian use.
Commercially, she said, West Ave has already attracted a number of first-to-market tenants. Gables is planning 302 more apartments just west of the current West Ave, she said.
Noting that Whole Foods and the shopping center across the street have big parking lots in front of them, Crossley said, "I was hoping those buildings would come up to the sidewalk on Alabama with cafes up front. But what they built is what banks want to invest in, and it's illegal to do what I'm suggesting unless you get a variance."
"Retail developers are just following the rules," Crossley said. "Everything in Houston is focused on cars, and I don't see it changing unless we begin to embrace what I call 'walkable urbanism' at the political level."
The Upper Kirby District had wanted to make Kirby more pedestrian-focused, Brewster said: "Initially, we tried to make it two lanes each way instead of three, with wider medians, and we looked at diagonal parking along the street to give it a more intimate feel."
But, she explained, Kirby is classified as a major thoroughfare and the city's Public Works Department has specific guidelines for such streets.
Still, Brewster said, you can see people walking and congregating outdoors. The nine galleries on and near Colquitt off Kirby, known as "Gallery Row," swarm with art lovers on opening nights, she said, and neighborhood residents walk to Whole Foods.
And the Taco Milagro patio at the Westheimer intersection is often packed with people, even when the weather is hot.
'A decent drive'
At Katsuya last weekend, energy consultant Jack Belcher was having drinks with his wife and friends. He grew up nearby and said he once worked at the River Oaks Tennis Club, where the restaurant now stands.
Kirby is getting better "little by little," he said.
"The best thing they did was to make it a decent drive along Kirby."
More dining options are on the way. Nosh Bistro, a wine/champagne bar serving modern cuisine from Singapore, Thailand and India, is scheduled to open at 3963 Kirby in about a month, owner Neera Patidor said. At 3819 Kirby, Elevation Burger, set to open in August, will serve fast food such as organic grass-fed beef burgers and organic shakes, Houston franchisee Nasser Edlibi said.
The lease has not yet been signed but Del Frisco's Grille hopes to move to West Ave in spring of next year, said Lisa Kislak, vice president of marketing at Del Frisco's Restaurant Group. Brio Tuscan Grille will move into the space formerly occupied by Pesce at 3029 Kirby.
And next door, in the former home of Borders, Ulta beauty-product store will be at street level and Texas Children's Pediatric Associates will be on the second floor, said Gilliam, who with his business partner Ed James brokered the leases for the landlord, Centre at River Oaks.
Meanwhile, Kirby pioneer Johnny Carrabba said his popular Carrabba's restaurant is having its best year and, "Kirby is the goose that laid the golden egg." He went on to open another Carrabba's at Woodway and Voss, and he has a franchise royalty agreement with Outback Steakhouse, owned by Bain Capital, for the 233 Carrabba's sites open nationally.
Now he's creating more concepts on Kirby: Mia's, named after his 11-year-old daughter, is a Hill Country-style fast-casual cafe. And early next year he'll open Grace's - named after his late grandmother Grace Mandola - an eclectic-comfort-food restaurant.
He predicted Kirby will one day be entirely shadowed by buildings:
"I tell my children, 'Don't ever sell this property.' "
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Photos by Cody Duty for chron.com