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High-rise face-lift

31-story apartment tower to get $10 million renovation

One of downtown’s oldest residential high-rises, Houston House Apartments, is getting its first major face-lift since the property opened in 1966.
The longtime owner is putting more than $10 million into the 31-story tower on the southern end of downtown.

Larry Hill of Sumar Realty Corp. has owned the building at 1617 Fannin with investors since 1983. He tried to sell it a few years ago to a Chicago group, but the deal fell through, leaving Hill and his partners with an aging midcentury building in a real estate market that was starting to decline.
“The property needed serious renovations,” said Hill, who refinanced a maturing loan on the property and took out cash for the improvements.

With a relatively small number of apartments being added to the Houston area this year, those with new or refurbished properties will be at an advantage, said Bruce McClenny, president of Apartment Data Services.
Coming off its low point at the end of last year, the Houston apartment market is seeing a slight rebound.

Occupancy citywide has risen to 86.5 percent from 84 percent in December, according to Apartment Data Services.
Rents, too, have grown — reaching $722 per month over the summer compared with $709 at the end of 2009.

Why the change? Employment gains early in the year and the slower single-family housing market, McClenny said.
“The pendulum has totally reversed, and more people are becoming renters because of how hard it is to get into homes,” he said.
The renovations to Houston House, designed by the Kirksey architecture firm, will modernize each of the 396 apartments, the resident-amenity floor, the lobby and building exterior. Some of the work has already started, including the ninth-floor amenity level, where a night club operated when the building opened.

A long wood-paneled bar is being removed, and the entire space is being gutted to make way for a new fitness center, media, conference and billiards rooms, as well as a business center.
The area around the outdoor swimming pool, also on the ninth level, is being improved with new planters, cabanas and outdoor seating. And an old basketball court that a downtown energy company once used as a training center is being restored and expanded to full size.

In the units, which average 650 square feet, carpet is being replaced with laminate floors and the kitchens are being opened up and upgraded with stainless appliances, stone countertops and new cabinets.
The tan concrete exterior will go back to its original darker hues. The mechanical systems are being upgraded, too.
The renovations are starting on the top four floors, which have already been vacated.

Residents have the option to move to lower levels during the renovations or they can terminate their leases without a penalty if they don’t want to move or pay the new rents. With the empty upper floors, Hill said, the building is about 65 percent occupied.
Rents will increase to $1.90 per square foot plus utilities, from $1.45 per square foot today. The rents include utilities.
The work will be done in phases, but the entire project is expected to be completed in the spring of 2012.

Doug Hammel, an executive vice president with Kirksey, said the building has been maintained, but it appears dated.
“It doesn’t look like much has been done to the interiors in many, many years,” he said.
The lobby, for example, was renovated shortly after Hill and his partners took over the property in the 1980s.
It’s hardly been changed since but soon will get new flooring, walls and finishes to reflect a midcentury-modern style.

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