River Oaks District to go 'National and Global'
June 30, 2015
River Oaks District to go 'National and Global'
Houston Chronicle

It doesn't get any less fashionable than a reflective vest and hard hat - the required accessories for a group of business-attired visitors Tuesday morning at the construction site for Houston's latest high-end shopping mecca.



The visitors, including media, fashion bloggers and public relations personnel, sipped water and nibbled hors d'oeuvres while roaming around shells of buildings and young trees sprouting from unfinished sidewalks while construction workers impatiently waited to resume work. They were there for an early look at what, beginning Oct. 1, will be the gleaming River Oaks District and such high-end retailers as Hermès, Cartier, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, along with 279 apartments and a three-story office building.



And despite the ongoing funk in global energy, source of so much of Houston's wealth, their tour-guide developers said they remain confident that the unique retailers, local luxury market and the city's strong international ties bode well for the project.



Retailers at River Oaks District, 4444 Westheimer, will begin opening stores on Oct. 1, officials with developer OliverMcMillan said. Others will open in following weeks, with the iPic movie theater scheduled for an Oct. 30 opening, senior managing director of development Greg Wattson said.



Construction has entered its final phase, Wattson said. Streets are mostly paved, sidewalks mostly are finished and the outline of the retail space has taken shape.



Since the 15-acre property for River Oaks District was purchased in 2006, the economy has gone through the Great Recession and fluctuations like the current oil slump, which locally has shown signs of quieting some consumers' spending mood.



"Of all the retailers we've worked with, none of them have asked about oil fluctuations," said Jeff Zeigler, senior managing director of retail services for Oliver-McMillan. "They're focused on the long-term viability of Houston and the economic engine this city has."



Part of that economic engine is Houston's international reach, Zeigler and Wattson said.



Zeigler said River Oaks District will be a "local, regional, national and global" destination. The shopping district is being marketed in publications as far away as South America.



Closer to home, Zeigler said the challenge has been to not duplicate the Galleria to the west and Highland Village to the east.



"There's less options, but you still have to be very creative," Zeigler said of finding retailers. "We'll do a big local leasing push, as well, and have local merchants here so it feels like it's part of the district or the neighborhood."



High-end retail developments are safer bets in today's economy, thanks to low interest rates that have spurred investment but have stagnated middle-class incomes, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm based in New York.



Luxury and high-end retailers cater to clientele who generally are less susceptible to economic swings unless they're major changes, Davidowitz said.



"They are more insulated. However, it's a little different because a lot of the wealth is tied to the price of oil more than other places," he said about Houston.



Kelly Fordyce, a local public relations worker who was on the tour, likened River Oaks District to street-level retail centers she shopped while living in New York. She said she wished she could have seen the more finished product, and is excited for opening day.



"The services sound like something we've never had," Fordyce said.



Services focusing on convenience, a theme with OliverMcMillan developments, include "flash valets" who drive shoppers' cars to rendezvous points, load bags and re-park the vehicles.



To date, developers have announced about 35 retailers and continue to seek others. River Oaks District will have 70 to 80 retail spaces.



Zeigler said it's not about occupancy percentages, but the quality of retailers who sign up.



"We also want to make sure we make good long-term decisions," Zeigler said. "We're not going to lease just to lease space."



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