PaperCity Houston : Small Footprints, Big Impact

An Architect Couple is Making Houston More Walkable With Little Slices of Development

Steve and Hilary Ybarra’s Quiet Revolution Shows That Everything Doesn’t Have to be Cookie Cutter

Steve and Hilary Ybarra imagine living in a more walkable neighborhood, a more walkable city. This is no passing daydream, quickly forgotten in the haze of a Houston summer day. The Ybarras are setting out to help make it happen.

One small footprint at a time.

“One of the reasons we liked this site is that we wanted a place to walk and get a cup of coffee,” Steve Ybarra says, standing next to the distinctive 2132 block numbers in front of the Ybarras’ new mixed-use development on Bissonnet, a short stroll from their own house. “Houston is still very much a car centric city. And it will be for decades to come.”

“But if you give people something to walk to, they will walk,” Hilary Ybarra quickly jumps in.

The new 2132 Bissonnet is a distinctive three-story development that houses Tropicales, an all-day cafe from Greenway Coffee owner David Buehrer; Westlake Dermatology, the first Houston branch of the trendy Austin skincare and plastic surgery salon; and the headquarters of the Yrabbas’ own Platform Group. There is also room for a third tenant with everything from offices to a spa to a medical group to an ice cream shop (ultimately dismissed as an option because of the open space’s top level location) being considered.

2132 Bissonnet is not a one-off development in the neighborhood the Ybarras live in. This architect couple (Steve and Hilary met while both were studying at Yale University’s graduate school of architecture) already has bought lots in the East End (at 3501 Harrisburg Boulevard, right across from a light rail stop) and at 615 West Gray in Montrose. They plan to do mixed-use developments similar in scope to 2132 Bissonnet on both sites.

Part of their vision revolves around the idea of showing what can be done with mixed-use developments built on a more modest scale (two to three stories).

“We also talked about a new psychology for Houston,” Hilary says. “These mixed-use projects replacing the generic strip mall with a something a little more dense and a little more interesting.”

Who says you need to tear down paradise to put up a parking lot? 2132 Bissonnet replaces an old convenience store that added little charm to the neighborhood. Now, an eye-catching Michael Hsu-designed building with sharp angles, patios on both the street and rooftop level and parking partially underneath an overhang, sits much closer to the street on the site, drawing the neighborhood in.

Sometimes, progress can be pretty.

“Houston has a lot of big developments,” Steve says. “You have River Oaks District. You have The Post Oak. Very large scale things. We’d certainly love to do something on that scale in the future, but for now we like focusing on smaller sites that — while not as large — have the potential to be the type of buildings that people will interact with more on a daily basis.”

The Ybarra are already seeing this play out with 2132 Bissonnet with neighbors telling them about going four or five times a week, sometimes for breakfast in the morning and then dessert at night in the same day. One couple told them how Tropicales was the site of their first walking date in Houston.

Architects in Development

Both Steve and Hilary Ybarra worked at major architecture firm; Steve at KPF, Hilary at SOM and Gensler. At those firms, they largely focused on million-square-foot-plus towers in places like Shanghai and Japan.

When they moved to Houston four years ago, they knew they wanted to do something more personal. Something closer to the ground — and their lifestyle.

Steve Ybarra comes from the Ybarra restaurant family, one of the pioneers in Houston’s Tex-Mex rise. His father, Russell Ybarra, is the president and CEO of the Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen restaurant chain. Steve grew up in the La Porte and Pasadena area. Hilary is an East Coast native, growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, who fell in love with a Houston guy.

Now, these architects turned developers are using the skills they honed working on skyscrapers to help transform the city where they’ve chosen to raise their two kids into a more urban environment. One where there are more options than just getting in your car to drive from strip mall to strip mall.

The Ybarras’ first three projects are relatively small (2132 Bissonnet is an 11,500 square foot building). Steve and Hilary Ybarra come across as the young thirtysomething couple they are rather than would be budding Masters of the Universe. They show up for an interview wearing business casual clothes rather than expensive power suits.

This couple does not want to rule the world. They just want to make their slice of it a little better.

Hiring an architect like Hsu fits that ethos. The Ybarras did not know Hsu personally before reaching out. But they knew his work “primarily from walking South Congress (in Austin)” Hilary jokes. They knew Hsu would do something distinctive with the space.

“Let people know you don’t have to do the default,” Hilary says of the thinking. “You can do something different.”

This is a couple that reveres architects like comedy nerds revere Garry Shandling. One of the thrills of their new life as developers is getting to tap architects whose work they’ve admired to design their vision.

“We just love architecture and know plenty of architects,” Hilary says. “It’s very exciting to think, ‘Who should we work with on this project?’ ’’

The Ybarras are already seeing the power of a star architect at 2132 Bissonnet. Westlake Dermatology jumped on the space in part because its owner, Dr. Gregory Nikolaidis, likes being in Michael Hsu-designed buildings, feeling Hsu’s aesthetic fits their luxury spa vibe.

Everything from the floating building look to the large custom steel windows that provide a much more dramatic look than a cheaper option to the hardwood floors have been carefully considered at 2132 Bissonnet. Even the signage and the bike racks received painstaking analysis.

“Who knew there was so much to know about fonts?” Hilary Ybarra laughs.

“It’s very much a learning process,” Steve says.

Maybe, there are advantages to being new developers with a different eye, one that focuses on beauty and how useful things are to a neighborhood as well as dollar signs. The Ybarras want to make a profit on their projects for sure. But they also want to leave a mark on Houston.

Small footprints, big impact. Could this herald a new wave on conscientious development in the nation’s fourth largest city, the one without zoning?

A New Houston?

It’s mid morning on a weekday Houston afternoon and Tropicales is still buzzing with several moms with babies on the patio and early business lunch types claiming tables in the main dining room. Steve and Hilary Ybarra take it all in, knowing this is what they envisioned creating, but feeling no need to grab the spotlight.

They are already looking at other potential lots in the neighborhood for additional mini developments. They’ve talked to the owners of the nearby Vinology about teaming up for some kind of special night. Something that brings this budding walking Houston neighborhood together even more.

“We love the idea of doing other lots on the block eventually,” Steve says. “Making a bit of a little district here.”

2132 Bissonnet is just the start, the precedent-setting first step. Steve and Hilary Ybarra see the progress every time they take a walk to get their coffee.