Kurt Nondorf, managing partner for the Houston branch of Jackson Walker, beams with pride about his law firm’s recently renovated and expanded offices in 5 Houston Center. From their perch 19 floors above Walker Street, the central lobby features a wide-open, double-height view of downtown looking north.
Jackson Walker recently extended their lease for approximately 70,000 square feet through June of 2020, with future expansion and renewal options. Tim Relyea of Cushman Wakefield and Steve Biegle of Studley brokered the lease with the building owners, Wells REIT II. Gensler redesigned the space and Harvey Construction was tasked to handle the renovation.
The redesign of their space yielded seven additional attorney offices, two more paralegal offices and a conference room, without adding to their footprint. The project also allowed for an employee lunchroom/lounge on the 18th floor that Nondorf and other staffers sometimes refer to as Club 18. The improvements were much needed by the Houston firm, which has grown to 80 attorneys and 146 employees overall.
The firm officed on the west side of downtown back in the 1990s at 1100 Louisiana and moved in 2002 after their client, Crescent Real Estate, approached them about moving to their new high-rise project, 5 Houston Center. The 27-story postmodern skyscraper sits adjacent to Discovery Green (and is coincidentally less than two blocks away from the would-be intersection of Jackson and Walker streets if the two streets actually crossed each other).
Now, with 10 years at their present location, the move to 5 Houston Center has been very good for business. “For some of us it was a bit of a leap of faith back then to think of moving to the other side of Main Street, because it wasn’t as vibrant as it is today,” says Nondorf. “As it turns out, we represented Crescent in all the equity, finance, leasing, refinance, even the sale of the building to Wells REIT II. And then Wells became a client as well. That’s just one example of why being downtown is good for our business.”
Nondorf, who specializes in real estate law, adds that downtown business relations have brought them other major real estate clients, such as JP Morgan, Metropolis and Skanska. Stockholm-based Skanska, the construction giant whose development arm is redeveloping the Houston Club Building, also recently purchased the block bounded by Main, Bell, Clay and Fannin from the First United Methodist Church. A portion of the block will soon feature a 10,000- square-foot day care facility for Chase, whose existing facility will relocate there from the Houston Club Building.
“Being downtown helps us serve our clients, knowing the areas on the real estate side and being able to counsel them,” says Nondorf. “And downtown offers advantages from the legal perspective, too. Many of our clients are here and, of course, the courthouses.”
Of the firm’s 80 attorneys, about half are litigators and about half are transactional lawyers. “Litigation has actually expanded for us over the past three years, which is unusual compared to most firms,” says Nondorf.
Energy & Excitement
Nondorf is enthusiastic about the energy of the revitalized portion of downtown that borders Discovery Green. “I love being in this part of downtown. Discovery Green is a great amenity, and the whole area offers so much within walking distance. The park and downtown together are a great amenity for all of Houston, but it’s particularly great to have that available to employees, who can walk to dinner at The Grove or The Four Seasons.”
Beyond the culture and entertainment, Nondorf says Jackson Walker employees value the access to mass transit. “If I were speaking with George Greanias today I’d tell him our employees would love to see even more bus service on the east side of downtown. We have many employees who take the bus, park & ride, or even bike to work.”
According to Nondorf, one of the firm’s partners lives in One Park Place just across the street. Nondorf says other employees live nearby, too. One attorney is also classical musician; she lives at the Post Rice Lofts so she can play gigs downtown. Another attorney lives at The Four Seasons, while many employees live in Midtown and the Heights.
“There’s something about downtown, that excitement – that sizzle –helps retain employees,” says Nondorf. “It’s where things are always happening. Our clients from other areas often want to come downtown because they enjoy the atmosphere.”
Nondorf says beautification and community improvement projects have made Houston what it is today. “Houston is a great place because people who have succeeded actually give of their time and talents,” says Nondorf, who collaborated with Tom Bacon at The Lionstone Group to facilitate complex land acquisitions for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. “Projects like this help attract other businesses to Houston, because they see our environment is both workable and livable. That type of thing makes a big difference.”
“If you look at the various office building owners now – and we represent a lot of them – there are many who are very proud of their space and their position downtown, and rightly so,” says Nondorf. “We know it goes through cycles, but if you look at the numbers and all of the factors, they point to increased employment, more population growth, good support from the energy industry, more diversification of our city, and better transportation.”
Nondorf also praises the value of the diversity of people downtown, who not only originate from the region, but have moved from other states, Canada, Mexico, Central America and beyond. “In Houston, if you work hard and have a good idea, you can succeed,” says Nondorf. “That’s more true today that it’s ever been. Whether you’re a woman, minority, whatever your background, it’s not about gender or race, it’s about what you can bring to table.”