December 3, 2014
Rice-owned Village Arcade shedding its suburban skin With new management, property will move to fit in with eclectic area
By Nancy Sarnoff
Along University Boulevard a half-mile west of the Rice campus, a Spanish tapas bar with outdoor seating is flanked on one side by a women’s boutique painted a warm shade of pink and on the other by a cavernous Urban Outfitters. They blend in both with the quirky mix of cafes, local boutiques and ice cream shops that give Rice Village its traditional urban vibe and the hot new restaurants and luxury apartments recently added to the shopping district.
But across the street, a set of buildings known as the Village Arcade looks more like it was plucked out of a master-planned community. It’s a collection of hulking red brick buildings erected 25 years ago and defined by such suburban touches as a fountain centered in the middle of a plaza, monument signs and bulky architectural columns.
“They contrast greatly with the rest of the Village and what people think the Rice Village is: an eclectic, funky, hodgepodge urban district,” said Tommy Miller, managing director and chief investment office of Trademark Property Co., a Fort Worth-based real estate firm recently hired to manage and revive the outdated Village Arcade.
That’s all about to change. The Village Arcade was recently turned over to new management by its landlord, Rice University, and a plan is in place to transform the property from a staid suburban-style shopping center to a place with a hip, urban vibe that has a similar character to the shops around it.
The changes, still being planned, are expected to include adding to and upgrading the common spaces, widening the sidewalks and removing dated architectural features like the heavy columns that block the storefronts.
“For the buildings themselves, it’s great they’re brick. You can paint brick, stencil on brick, you can make murals,” Miller said. “Every tenant space can look like it’s their own building.”
Earlier this year, Rice Management Co., which is responsible for Rice University’s endowment, took over ownership of the property from Weingarten Realty Investors, which developed the center on Rice-owned land.
First to go will be the name. Trademark has developed a simple new logo and website that are rebranding the buildings as “Rice Village.” Shoppers will start seeing some of the physical changes next year, but they won’t happen all at once.
Angilee Burger, a manager at the Lily Rain store, was excited to hear about the coming changes. As it is now, she said, the center has a bit of a suburban feel to it compared to the rest of the Village.
“All the buildings look the same,” Burger said. “No one has their own identity.”
About 50 businesses
Located on the southern half of Rice Village, the Arcade property comprises two large buildings along the north side of University between Kirby and Morningside that house such tenants as the Gap, Banana Republic, Starbucks and Express. A third building just to the north has a Talbots store and beauty salon. The space houses about 50 shops and restaurants.
Rebecca Lewis and her boyfriend, Brian Cera, are Rice Village regulars. They are both college students — Cera attends Rice — and their budget is limited. Lewis likes to go to Urban Outfitters, but many of the other stores are out of her price range.
“I know it’s in a nicer area, but I think they would draw in more students if they put in more stores for a younger crowd,” Lewis said.
Miller said the changes will help attract a new type of tenant that caters to a younger demographic. He mentioned stores like eyeglass boutique Warby Parker, Toms Shoes, Anthropologie and Bonobos, a primarily online retailer that sells menswear.
“They may be in a mall, but they may also need to have their brand on a cool, authentic street,” Miller said. “We want Rice Village to be one of those venues that’s authentic and historic, but speaks to that modern demographic.”
He points to some of the new stores at Highland Village as an example. The boxy building that formerly held Tootsie’s now houses J. Crew and Anthropologie. Each store has its own exterior identity. On the other side of Westheimer, Restoration Hardware, Apple and Sprinkles Cupcakes are in attached spaces, but each store looks as if it is in its own building.
$3 million from Rice
The budget for the Village Arcade project, which has a three- to five-year timeline, is still being determined. Miller expects Rice to chip in at least $3 million.
Trademark has started talking to some of the tenants about the changes.
“It’s very exciting,” said Peter Garcia, the longtime owner of the El Meson restaurant across from the Trademark property. “The sense I get is they want to blend in with the rest of the neighborhood.” Garcia has operated in the Village since 1981. He serves as president of the Rice Village Alliance, an association of area businesses. Over time, he said, Rice Village has been able to maintain its “distinct pedestrian feel to it with independent merchants.” “It’s something you don’t come across very easily in Houston,” he said.
Ken VanNostrand remembers the small buildings and shops that were there before the Village Arcade was built. Since then, the area has become much more developed — and crowded. Now that he’s retired, VanNostrand visits during off-peak hours. “One of the problems if you don’t live here is parking,” he said while finishing his lunch at La Madeleine. “I wouldn’t come here at noon.”
Miller said making the public spaces more appealing to shoppers is a priority. “Maybe there are places we could have pop-up retail, containers and food trucks,” he said. “We might tie that in with cool public art.”