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Gulfton growth / Shopping center going up along with Hispanic clout


FRI 10/26/2001 Houston Chronicle, Section Business, Page 1, 3 STAR Edition

The area was once called the Gulfton Ghetto.

But with a surge in Hispanic buying power, a Houston shopping center developer believes this once-maligned swath of southwest Houston may be the place to strike it rich.

A partnership of U.S. Builders and Ed Farris of Farris & Associates has begun construction on a $4 million shopping center at the northwest corner of Gulfton and Chimney Rock.

The shopping center, called Plaza of the Americas, will house retailers that specialize in attracting Hispanic consumers, a rapidly growing segment of the Houston marketplace, Farris said.

"It's a tremendous opportunity," Farris said.

People of Hispanic origin make up approximately 65 percent of the 26,000 people who live within a mile of the center, Farris said.

The 30,000-square-foot center is expected to have clothing stores, a discount store and perhaps a bank.

The shopping center, designed by Lane Design Group, will have archways and architectural elements with a Hispanic flavor, he said.

The Plaza of the Americas is being constructed adjacent to a Kroger grocery and a small strip center in the middle of the block. Farris said the Kroger there is a strong performer for the grocery chain, drawing in almost 18,000 customers per week.

The Hispanic market has been expanding in Texas along with steady immigration and strong birth rates.

The Hispanic community accounts for 32 percent of the state's population, up from 25 percent in 1990.

Along with the growing population comes a swelling buying power for the Hispanic community, something developers are noticing.

On the southeast side of town, Houston developer Ed Wulfe is making a play in the Hispanic market with his redevelopment of the Gulfgate Shopping Center on Gulf Freeway.

Every year in the Houston area, Hispanics spend more than $12 billion in disposable income, said Henry A. de La Garza of de La Garza Public Relations.

"It's the biggest undiscovered find out there. We're sitting on a huge dome of disposable cash there," de La Garza said.

After failing to put much emphasis on Hispanics, more businesses have begun to address their needs, de La Garza said.

"It's definitely a market that has been underserved," said Eddie Castaneda, executive vice president of Laredo National Bank.

Laredo National has focused on lending to small businesses and homeowners in the Hispanic community.

About 95 percent of the bank's employees are bilingual, Castaneda said.

The bank has been looking for land to open a branch in the Gulfton area or the southwest Houston market, he said.

Having developers and banks looking for land for expansion and construction is a reversal from where the neighborhood was a few years ago when it carried the nickname Gulfton Ghetto.

The neighborhood was once a trendy place for young apartment dwellers.

Developers, including apartment magnate Harold Farb, built thousands of units in the Gulfton area during the 1960s and 1970s.

Farb attracted flocks of young people and even opened discotheques as amenities for the apartments.

"The hot nightclubs in Houston were in the middle of Farb's projects," said apartment broker Craig LaFollette of CB Richard Ellis.

The Gulfton area, which has about 18,000 apartment units today, remains one of the biggest concentrations in Texas.

But when the the real estate crash hit in the mid-1980s, the apartments lost tenants rapidly. Landlords slashed rents to keep occupancy up.

When things bottomed out, a one-bedroom apartment could be rented for less than $200 per month in some complexes, LaFollette said.

The young professionals left the Gulfton area, and immigrants began moving in, LaFollette said.

For a while there was also a tough criminal element there. But community anti-crime efforts and the opening of a storefront police station have made the area safer, LaFollette said.

It has also made it a safer place for developers.

The Plaza of the Americas will be built on about 5.5 acres of land on Gulfton that was purchased from the Mischer family.

U.S. Builders will serve as the general contractor and own a large stake in project.

"We are wanting to add a nice center in the Hispanic neighborhood there," said John Curcio, chief financial officer of U.S. Builders. "We feel confident the market is there."

The Plaza of the Americas shopping center is not the only new construction in area.

Next door to the center, the Houston Independent School District is building the $11 million Sylvan Rodriguez Elementary School.

Building the new Rodriguez school was necessary because other elementary schools in the area have become overcrowded, HISD spokeswoman Carmen Gomez said.

"That area is growing by leaps and bounds," Gomez said.


Plaza of the Americas

Demographics of the area within a one-mile radius of the shopping center planned at Chimney Rock and Gulfton:

Population .. 26,000

Hispanic origin .. 65 %

Renter occupied households .. 87 %

Median household income .. $30,000

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