Chairman and CEO of commercial real estate brokerage, development and management firm Wulfe & Co., shares a look back at Houston’s commercial growth and how the Texas Medical Center is positioned to help share the city’s future.
Q | What brought you to Houston?
A | I grew up in San Antonio and had visited Houston on numerous occasions, and I was impressed with its activity and growth. I envisioned a great future for this young city and for those who were part of it to grow and experience the many opportunities it would foster for learning and succeeding.
After graduating from Texas A&M with a Mechanical Engineering degree, I moved to Houston and went to work for Texaco as a sales engineer and traveled all over the area. During that time, I sat across a desk from their in-house real estate manager and observed him making real estate deals. I saw how negotiations happened and, while it looked challenging, it was obvious that it required hard work, persistence and creativity. And, most importantly, it looked like fun. I knew nothing about real estate, but became fascinated with it and took every course, attended every class, read everything I could while listening and learning from anyone in the business. After five years I left Texaco and jumped in the middle of commercial real estate, ultimately joining Weingarten Realty’s team in its formative years, and in 1985 I established Wulfe & Co.
Q | Describe the city at that time.
A | The population in 1955 was about 600,000 and growing. It was the largest city in the state, but it was basically a small city with a few high rise buildings, mostly downtown, with the 37 story Gulf building the tallest. The site of the Galleria was a truck farm. The Gulf Freeway was opened a few years earlier as Houston’s first freeway. Gulfgate Mall had just opened as Houston’s first mall. Meyerland Plaza, which I ended up redeveloping in 1993, opened shortly after I arrived. The city grew steadily step by step in almost all directions following suburban residential development. The evolution of the Medical Center was well underway. The City’s strong cadre of local leaders was dedicated to growth and making things happen. People believed in Houston then as now and took pride in its opportunities and accomplishments.
Q | It seems that developers are more focused today on building spaces for people to gather. Tell us about the evolution of that thinking.
A | As the suburban residential expansion was underway, the first shopping centers evolved around supermarkets, followed by the next generation expanding to connect a supermarket with a drug store and other stores in between. Then regional malls began to multiply as people moved further out, followed later by the evolution of larger discount stores and big box retailers creating huge power centers. All of this was happening to accommodate the ever growing, mostly suburban, population. The latest evolution has been densification and urbanization, created by movement back into the urban city, to be closer to work and to partake in all of the amenities the city has to offer. And thus the concept of place-making came to fruition with mixed use developments combining office, residential and retail, creating a place for people to live, work, experience and enjoy. A more pedestrian friendly place with wider sidewalks became an important component.
Apartments went through the same evolution, starting with four to six units and duplexes, and progressing to what was called garden type apartments, which were usually two level, 50 or 100 units, or even 200 units with the larger spread out complexes. And now almost everything being built has a minimum of six floors, with residential high-rises reaching as high as 40 floors with over 400 units.
So it’s all evolving as a result of several things. One is densification and urbanization. Another is more people wanting to live closer to where they work. A third is to address transportation and mobility challenges. Of course, the major emphasis today is all about doing everything possible to improve all aspects of our quality of life. People want green space and the outdoors, people want cultural arts, people want entertainment attributes to experience and enjoy.
Our Bayou Greenway Initiative, which I helped start, is developing and connecting our ten bayous within the city with trails, bikeways, parks and amenities, touching almost all our diverse neighborhoods and communities. As we create more inviting people friendly places to experience and enjoy coupled with more successful and expanded art and educational institutions, we attract the intellectual capital, young professionals, and the millennials that are so important to our economy, our higher educational institutions, our medical organizations with their research activities and our corporate leadership. These people place an emphasis on quality of life issues, whether it’s green space or parks or trails or sporting activities or our thriving culinary, theatre and arts scene. They create the quality of life image of Houston and foster the unlimited opportunities to experience and enjoy this city.
Q | Have there been any standout projects from your career?
A | From a work point of view, I would say the most challenging and real game changer was the redevelopment of Gulfgate Mall. We took the forty plus year old mostly boarded up and abandoned project in a low-income, mostly Hispanic, area with little retail to serve the people, to a vibrant retail activity center. After my successful redevelopment of Meyerland Plaza, Mayor Lanier asked me to look at Gulfgate to see what might be possible to help revitalize the area and serve as a catalyst to encourage other redevelopment. Buildings and businesses were closed, cars had been abandoned, windows were boarded up and graffiti was everywhere. I told the Mayor that he couldn’t be serious, but he said find a way to make it happen. We first did a study called ‘hidden income research; which identifies people who don’t show up on the census reports, and thus found that there were more people and more income in the area to support a new center. We then went around the neighborhoods and spoke to civic clubs and asked what kind of center and stores, they would want. They wanted a conventional retail center with a broad range of stores just like in other parts of the city. So after many trials and tribulations, we came up with a concept, and took it to the neighborhoods for their input. The new Gulfgate has won many awards and received a great deal of recognition, but more importantly it has become a source of pride for all in the East End and has literally served as a catalyst for many improvements to the area, resulting in the creation of new jobs and businesses.
From a civic point of view, there are so many projects of which I am proud, being a firm believer in the importance of giving back to the community. I quite often speak to young professionals regarding my philosophy of having two careers—one professional and one volunteer. Many of the projects in which I’m involved pertain to quality of life issues. The most recent one of which I’m most proud is helping to lead the annexation of Memorial Park by the Uptown Tirz to provide the leadership and millions of dollars of financial help to develop a master plan and begin the implementation of redevelopment and reforestation of the park, which would have not been possible with the city’s minimal funds.
Q | Looking at the Post Oak/Galleria side of town that you are currently very active in, how did all of that come together?
A | Back in 2005, I saw an opportunity to seize the moment because not much had happened over the previous 25 years. We knew as the market matured, the time had come to help raise the bar and take the area to new heights. We envisioned extensive urban development possibilities and assembled 21 individual pieces of property to put the concept of BLVD Place together. The location clearly justified a mixed-use complex to capture the needs of the ever growing high profile market with a people friendly place to live, work and experience. New retail, restaurant, residential and office segments presented opportunities to serve the growing market, and would initiate activity and focus attention on the incredible potential of the area.
After going through the challenges of 2009-10, things started happening in the Uptown area, and since 2011, major projects of all types and magnitudes are coming to fruition and more are in the works. There are 17 different projects underway, mostly denser high-rise office and residential buildings. Even the Galleria is reinventing itself.
Q | What are your thoughts on the vision for the future of the Texas Medical Center?
A | Creating synergy within the Texas Medical Center is timely and more important than ever. It’s the absolute next bold and necessary giant step. I applaud the leadership and vision that Dr. Robbins has demonstrated with his emphasis on the big picture and potential benefits to all, particularly his vision for major research and laboratory facilities. The medical center itself has evolved into something really unique and special—it is a major complex unlike any of this magnitude, stature and potential. It is a world class complex made up of world class institutions and it is critical that its institutions come together as never before to find more and better ways to work together, to share and collaborate. Harnessing the strength, capabilities, knowledge and experience of all will lead to an unlimited future.
And I must mention the $2-3 billion of construction underway now and possibly another $2-3 billion in the foreseeable future. These are staggering investments in the institutions and the medical center and must all be focused on the highest possible goals for state-of-the art health care. Furthermore, an aggressive commitment to research and research facilities is long overdue, and should be augmented by an energized program to encourage entrepreneurship, such as what is being initiated in the imaginative Nabisco facility. With all of this institutional activity, the time is now for the private sector to develop nearby office, residential, hotel and mixed-use projects to serve the ancillary needs of all.
Q | It seems more than ever that the way in which land is developed is critical. What are some things on the table today that might not have been considered 20 years ago?
A | Number one is designing and including green space, extensive landscaping and trees in our developments as a very important amenity. Successful examples include Midway’s CityCentre, Trademark’s Market Street in the Woodlands, and Martin Fein’s Willow Park residential project under construction. Even developers of high-rises have gotten creative and are providing green spaces on upper levels of buildings or parking garages. In a reverse situation, look at what an incentive for development of residential and office towers in the eastern part of downtown Discovery Green provided. In all developments, business and residential, green space has become an amenity desired by tenants, employees, residents and visitors alike. In addition to green space, energy and water conservation have also become paramount considerations in the design of new buildings and projects.
Q | When building out large spaces, what are your thoughts on people movers?
A | The Uptown area is the perfect example of an area in need of a people mover. Originally, the Uptown TIRZ proposed light rail on Post Oak, to connect the planned Bellaire and West Park Transit Center to the Northwest Transit Center on the Katy Freeway. However, since light rail was not an option without the needed federal funding, a bus rapid transit system in dedicated lanes is planned to serve the 60-65 percent of the over 100,000 people who work in Uptown, but live in the suburbs and drive their cars to work. This way they can use a park and ride, take the bus to Northwest Transit Center or the new West Park Transit Center, and use the new bus rapid transit to move up and down Post Oak. We have got to do more of this.
Q | If you could make one or two changes to the city, what kinds of improvements would you like to see?
A | Rail, rail and more rail. Rail is expensive, but we’ve got to be able to move more people. As the inner city becomes denser with ever increasing numbers of residents, it is more important than ever to entice people to get out of their cars, and, for whatever reason, rail is a much more attractive incentive than buses. However, a more efficient workable bus system, together with more park and ride operations, is an important component of our public transit system.
In addition to light rail within the city, commuter rail is also needed to serve Sugarland, Katy, and communities out Highway 290 and 45 North. Mobility and connectivity will greatly influence the future.
The second necessary change, or I should say improvement, is in our public education system starting with pre-K for all through 12th grade, along with an expanded and improved community college system and our universities commitment to preparing all of our students to fulfill the needs of tomorrow’s workforce.
Q | What do you hope the city looks like in 10 years?
A | With the expansion of the Port of Houston and of the IAH international terminal together with the new international terminal at Hobby, Houston will become one of the nation’s most important gateway cities, capitalizing on our location and our economic vitality. We will build on our great advantages of a low cost of living, a no-state income tax economy, and a booming job market—all coming together in the perfect storm for us, which has really driven a lot of the activity. And the energy industry has certainly been paramount in that happening. Trees, green space and lush landscaping will be in high demand. Downtown will flourish with many new residential and hotel projects along with more office towers. Development of the East End will grow and our port and petrochemical industries will continue to be major economical engines. And with the estimated population growth, much of which will be outside the city limits, commuter rail as well as the merger of more city and county services, will be a must.
Q | Any closing thoughts?
A | Houston’s greatest asset has always been its people. They are open and welcoming to all, not only from around the country, but also from around the world—evidenced by Houston becoming the most ethnically and culturally diverse city in the country. They exhibit a can-do attitude and are willing to tackle the most imposing issues and goals. They include visionaries who can foresee the needs and possibilities for the future and power brokers who can make things happen. The many successes of the multitude of our nonprofits is due to the thousands of volunteers who so willingly give of their time and effort to serve many worthwhile causes, as best demonstrated by the thousands of volunteers who showed up on a moment’s notice in the wake of Katrina. It is truly the people who make Houston the great city that it is.