Bucking trends: Urban renewal revisited
Bayou Place, the downtown’s early entertainment pioneer, revs up for the future
by Sandra Cook | 06.01.11

OPENING: NOW THROUGH FALL 2011

The Bayou Place complex was a novel concept back in the late 1990s when the former convention center was converted into a dining and entertainment destination. Back then, Houston wasn’t exactly known for repurposing old buildings, and downtown Houston was not broadly considered an entertainment hub beyond the Theater District venues.

So when it opened in December of 1998, Bayou Place was a remarkable project for downtown Houston. Brought about by a then-rare public-private partnership between The Cordish Companies and the City of Houston, Bayou Place received the Urban Land Institute Award of Excellence in 1999 for transforming the vacated Albert Thomas Convention Center into a thriving entertainment destination.

The property sits at the eastern edge of downtown at Texas Avenue and Smith Street. Throughout the year, Bayou Place’s patios, balconies and walkways offer lively views of theater patrons entering and exiting Theater District venues, such as the Wortham Center, Alley Theatre and Jones Hall, many choosing to linger for conversation on Fish Plaza and Jones Plaza.

The reinvented space got off to a strong start, with many of its original tenants lasting more than 10 years. Houston audiences and performers alike frequently list the Verizon Wireless Theater as a favorite venue for concerts. Even the departed Angelika Film Center and Mingalone were anchors of the Bayou Place scene for the complex’s first decade. Hard Rock Café moved from its Kirby Drive location in May 2000 and is still rocking.

Sure, other restaurant and club concepts have come and gone, but fads, fashion and food trends change.

According to Blake Cordish, a vice president with The Cordish Companies who oversees their development projects, the company expects such tenant changes as part of the natural progression of an entertainment destination. “Cordish takes a long-term approach to all of its development projects,” says Blake Cordish. “Shifting public interest and evolution of tenants is the nature of the entertainment industry.”

 Fresh faces

An influx of new tenants is helping to build new Bayou Place momentum initiated by the openings of Samba Grille and The Blue Fish Sushi, Sake & Martini in late 2010 and earlier this year. Samba Grille, a South American churrascaria-style restaurant has received rave reviews for its extensive lunch selection of appetizers, homemade soups, fresh salads and choice meats and seafood. Dinner features the famous gauchos (the guys, the pants, the steaks of the same name) almost dancing through the dining room during churrascaria service.

The Blue Fish Japanese restaurant at Bayou Place is the first of two that the small, but wildly popular chain from Dallas has opened in Houston this year. A second location is expected to open this summer on Washington Avenue. Amid a palette of ocean blues, the sleek sushi bar and dining room serves up artful, delicate creations against the downtown backdrop that pours in through the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

So, what has sparked the recent momentum in this more than 12-year old project? “Bayou Place was initially a new concept and image for downtown Houston,” says Cordish. “Like anything in life it’s going to evolve. The current changeover is a natural, positive evolution of Bayou Place. The city has undergone its own evolution since Bayou Place opened, and Bayou Place is now experiencing the same type of thing.”

The Bayou Place structure itself can accommodate a wide variety of tenants. Blake Cordish points out that the restaurant, bar and club operators they considered over the past year for spaces at Bayou Place were drawn to the venue’s attractive location on two main access thoroughfares into the downtown entertainment areas. Bayou Place is also conveniently located within walking distance of major office towers, is accessible from all arterial highways feeding the central business district and is located directly above over 4,500 parking spaces.

Big news

The first quarter of 2011 brought major announcements of more coming attractions. Sundance Cinemas, part of Robert Redford’s Sundance Group, has taken over the shuttered Angelika space and 18,000 square feet of the property’s second level are being converted into a four-club concept known as Bayou Place Live! An additional lineup change was announced in April. The Mingalone’s vacated space will be replaced by Norton’s Texas Grill & Pub. Northsiders may be familiar with Norton’s Willowbrook and Atascocita locations.

“We really got the best of the best in Sundance Cinemas,” says Blake Cordish. “Their president and CEO Paul Richardson is one of the leaders in the industry, plus the strength of the Sundance brand goes along with that. It’s a real coup for Bayou Place – a real coup for the city.”

The Houston venue will be the third cinema location for Sundance Cinemas, offering the same unique patron experience of Sundance's two other theaters, located in San Francisco, CA and Madison, WI.

Richardson, the former President and CEO of Landmark Theaters, is no stranger to Houston. Richardson attended the University of Houston Architecture Program during the early 1970s and says he fell in love with Houston back then.  

“As the President and CEO of Landmark Theatres for many years I had a special place in my heart for Houston, because of my college experience and the many friends that lived there,” Richardson wrote in an interview via email. “The River Oaks was the third ‘new’ theater in our chain, opening in 1977. Some years later Landmark acquired the Greenway 3 from AMC. So coming back to Houston is like coming home. During the years that Angelika operated the theater, the downtown area continued to evolve and mature. It’s better than ever now.”

Richardson reports that the general layout of the eight-screen venue will remain the same, but the entire space will feature a new decor that is pleasing and comfortable, in keeping with the Sundance aesthetic. The auditoriums will feature reserved seating and digital stereo sound. With community outreach as part of the Sundance philosophy, Houston audiences can expect to see works by local and regional filmmakers in the Sundance Houston lineup. Look for listings when Sundance Houston opens in November.

Food and beverage service will be quite simple. The self-service set-up will allow patrons to take food and drink selections to their seats to enjoy during the movie. “The food is designed to be easily portable, alcohol friendly, and eaten in the dark without spilling it all over yourself,” Richardson said. A bar will offer premium wines and beers, along with cocktails.

 Nightlife times four

PBR is the first of the nightclubs to open, debuting in March. The almost 9,000-square- foot club features professional bull riders on mechanical bulls along with country-western music and dancing. “We have put together a collection of entertainment venues with broad appeal,” says Blake Cordish. “PBR is one of the fastest growing sports concepts in the country and this club concept extends it into a country-western atmosphere.”

Cordish compares the popularity of PBR – that’s the sport of professional bull riding – to NASCAR. In fact, PBR Inc. boasts more than 100 million annual television viewers worldwide.

 Additional clubs include a cigar lounge called Chapel Spirits, an '80s and '90s music club called Shark Bar, and a casual hang-out dubbed Lucy's Liquors. Shark Bar features a retro surf theme with beach-inspired cocktails and dance music from the late 20th century’s danceable decades. The third club, Chapel Spirits, is a cigar and whiskey lounge. The 3,000-square-foot venue boasts a luxe décor, fireplace and a glass-enclosed patio.

The Cordish Companies worked with the same venue operators at their successful Baltimore and Kansas City developments. “We are fortunate to have long-term relationship our business partners and operators,” says Blake Cordish. “The Baltimore Live! has been going 15 years, Kansas City Live! has been running just over three years.”

 Proven partnership

“We have a very long-term partnership with the City of Houston,” says Cordish. “We are thrilled with how the city has lived up to its end of the bargain. We are both looking toward the same direction, so we have a shared vision. We have both delivered and therefore earned trust. That’s part of the success of this development.”

“Bayou Place is positioned to capture different slices of the pie – convention traffic, office workers, weekend crowds – so we have to be able to appeal to a broad base of people,” Cordish continues.

Cordish – like many Houstonians – is eagerly anticipating the opening of Sundance Cinemas.  “Sundance is going to be awesome, especially if you love the movies. By November, when we’re all open and everything is happening it will make for a really great night, filled with that fun energy that, in my opinion, you can only get in a downtown.”

That’s what Bayou Place is meant to be.

Bayou Place, Chapel Spirits, Cordish, Live at Bayou Place, Lucie's Liquors, PBR, Robert Redford, Shark Bar, Sundance Cinemas
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Sure, other restaurant and club concepts have come and gone, but fads, fashion and food trends change.
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