Houston Chronicle : New retail developments double down on Houston’s hippest neighborhood

With millennial-approved color palettes and branding, experiential pop-ups and a model that entices locals to hang out in an Instagrammable setting, lifestyle retailers are doubling down on the hipness that is the Heights.

Boasting indie-cool boutiques and restaurants mixed with forthcoming national retailers, including Ray-Ban, M-K-T (pronounced as three letters) is a new development comprising five repurposed, single-story buildings and green spaces conceived by Austin-based Michael Hsu’s Office of Architecture.

Situated on the Heights Hike and Bike Trail, the 12-acre site has office, retail and dining space. The first retailers opened in late 2020, with ongoing tenant announcements and grand-opening events.

Scott Arnoldy of Triten Real Estate — who developed M-K-T with Steve Radom of Radom Capital — says he found inspiration in developments like Fulton Market in Chicago, where he once lived.

Houston’s urban-minded set needs more design-focused, tailored environments where people can work, dine, shop and exercise, he says, adding that his partner Radom proved a similar model with Heights Mercantile.

“Having grown up here, I was frustrated that Houston didn’t have these more walkable, pedestrian-friendly office projects,” he says, adding that the chance to make use of existing architecture — rather than tearing down to rebuild — was appealing, especially in the Heights, which has “this whole eclectic artist past to it.”

“Michael Hsu came in and took that idea and put it on steroids,” he says of the series of pathways that cut through the development and four new acres of green space.

Initial retailers include national salad chain Sweetgreen, slated to open this summer, along with local brands already operating, such as Burdlife jewelry, DYI athletic apparel and Flower Vault, an experiential art pop-up.

There are fitness studios, wellness destinations, the electric bike franchise Pedego and, coming this fall, an outpost of fast-casual Mendocino Farms.

Ripe for social-media posting, vibrant, ombre-shaded signage welcomes visitors with arrows offering just two options, “Trail” — which the restaurant patios face — and, less specific, “Unicorns.”

With custom lighting, music piping throughout and easy access for locals who already use the trail — an estimated 15,000 hikers and bikers per month, Arnoldy says — “Your view at the end of the day is a lot of kids playing and people biking and running.”

The team made use of a “natural piece of the landscape that the neighborhood can use to both get to M-K-T and interact with it,” he says of the trail. “It’s our diamond-in-the-rough amenity.”

Public programming on the green spaces include DJ-driven fitness classes for kids, craft cocktail-centric events that entice singles and the monthly M-K-T Sunset Market, which offers artisan food and goods from local makers.

Currently operating a 12-month pop-up, local designer Chloe Dao — who has a permanent boutique in Rice Village — says she was drawn to the development’s concentration of female-owned businesses. Plus, the walkability and flow offered a new type of retail experience, she says. “It’s built out for community shopping.”

A 12-year resident of the Heights, Dao says the area is “a great testing ground” for her one-of-a-kind pieces and custom designs because it’s home to a mix of millennials and young families.

From her sales floor, shoppers can watch Dao and her team cut, drape and sew through an architectural feature that reveals her studio — she likens it a restaurant’s exposed kitchen.

During the build-out, Dao has gotten to know fellow tenant Molly Mathias, owner of Dallas-based Go Easy. The female-focused boutique offers all-natural self-care in categories ranging from CBD drinks and gummies to high-end skin care, rolling papers and sexual wellness products.

Likening the Heights to the bohemian vibe of Bishop Arts District, where her Dallas shop is located, Mathias says the neighborhood was the best one in Houston in which to create “a judgment-free zone … where you can come in and ask questions, no matter where you are in your CBD journey.”

Small-batch brands, some exclusive to Go Easy, in the 700-square-foot shop with a 1980s-inspired vibe she calls “this fun, trippy backyard party,” include Laundry Day, Rosebud, Prima, Everyday Humans and Good Flower Farm.

Groovy signage on the windows, a mural wall, lawn chairs and vintage coolers out front “create this hang-out vibe, because of the development we’re in,” she says.

Elsewhere in the Heights, Asch Building is a new 4,400-square-foot sustainable lifestyle concept.

The shop can be accessed by three separate entrances, allowing customers to flow throughout the spaces and check out at any register.

Dubbed Atelier, Market and Home, each store has its own warm-tone color palette in an otherwise spare environment. The design distinction is “the wow factor,” says owner Des Ellis, whose background includes jobs in the Nashville music industry and for the small-batch apothecary brand Manready Mercantile.

Ellis helped conceive the new, bricked building alongside her stepfather architect. “I wanted it to look like it belonged in the Heights this whole time,” she says.

With a goal to help Houstonians shop intentionally, Ellis says she stocked the Market with every product one might need from a farmers market or big-box grocery store, all ethically sourced and sustainable.

“It’s not like anything that we have in Houston,” she says. “We’re trying to get people to ask where their goods were made or how they were made and just do a little better.”

The name was chosen in honor of the site in Manhattan that was once the Asch Building, where a 1911 garment factory fire killed women and girls — all part of an effort to open a conversation about fair working conditions, fair wages and other topics that are important to Ellis when she sources merchandise.

Staff is knowledgeable about all the sundries, produce, wine, toilet paper and other household and kitchen necessities. “I’ve thought of everything,” promises Ellis, a Heights resident. “And anything a neighbor wants, I’ll source.”

The Atelier houses women’s clothing made in South Africa, where Ellis has spent time getting to know the seamstresses, vintage cowboy boots, lingerie and gifts, all with a focus on women-owned brands,

In Home, shoppers find all-natural cleaning products, available for refills in large bins, textiles, a leather-working station and other décor.

Two additional offerings Ellis calls “micro shops” are accessed by a separate entrance near the cactus garden and back patio.

One is Fuzz, a low-alcohol and no-alcohol market designed to appeal to the sober curious. The other is Four Circle Studio, a pottery studio where the public can take classes to learn how to make the ceramics available for purchase in the home goods store.

“The whole mission is to make ethical and sustainable shopping attainable,” Ellis says, and the Heights was the right address.

“This demographic is hungry for this resource,” she says. “We’ve had an incredible reception, we couldn’t ask for a better neighborhood. I literally wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in Houston.”

Originally published on Houston Chronicle.