By Betsy Denson
When Jivar Foty was building a house to resell in the Brooke Smith neighborhood, he quickly saw potential in the area.
Foty, who heads up the Benchmark Insurance Group of Texas and Rise Construction, was introduced by a realtor to George Giannukos, a third-generation Houstonian and entrepreneur with investments in commercial real estate and private equity. Giannukos also had a hospitality background, both with hotels and as a member of the Pappas restaurant family.
What the two have accomplished is the Heights House Hotel, a complete reimagining of the former Astro Inn at 100 W. Cavalcade St. The new incarnation will have its soft opening in October.
The boutique hotel, which Foty said has a bohemian feel, will also have a pool, small event center, restaurant and rooms with 55-inch televisions and headboards that double as mini-murals. In other words, it will be very different than the Astro Inn.
In September 2019, when Foty and Giannukos purchased the 2-acre property right off the I-45 feeder road, they ran it as-is with rooms at about $30 per night for three months to learn more about the business.
“It was unsafe,” Foty said. “There were a lot of transient people. People lived there as well.”
When it came time to “put lipstick on a pig” as Foty put it, he and Giannukos traveled to places like Austin and Portland to look at concepts at other boutique hotels. Foty took inspiration from the mid-century for the design. He also looked on Pinterest.
“I didn’t want to hijack anyone’s style,” he said. “(We) really pieced it together.”
They knew they could improve on the cookie-cutter options in the area, and Foty said they wanted to do it at a price point that will be right at $100.
“I envision people like myself staying there,” Foty said. “They can have a unique experience and still have their savings. It’s a place you would want to go, would be comfortable being at.”
Foty said they have also formed a partnership with the nearby White Oak Music Hall to put their musicians up at the hotel.
The same people who own the High & Dry Bar on Main Street are going to open Toucan in the hotel as a bar and restaurant, according to Foty.
About 20 of the 140 rooms will be taken offline to offer guests added amenities. There will be an IV bar for hydration and one for massages, and there’s room for a gym. Foty said a yoga studio recently reached out to ask about hosting classes there.
The pool – bigger than the one at Hotel ZaZa – was recently installed with cabanas and a deck soon to follow. A courtyard area with grass is in process as well.
The gas station awning – at one time you could buy gas there – is being creatively repurposed as another place to hang out.
There are muralists from Monterey, Mexico currently staying at the hotel who are painting both interiors and exteriors, including a space-themed mural visible off Cavalcade, which Foty said is already drawing in the selfie crowd.
The hotel’s main signage was provided by Accent Sign & Awning Company, one of Giannukos’ investments.
“(They) worked closely with Jivar and myself on designing a landmark neon sign that is reminiscent of hotels from back in the day and can shine bright for our community for many decades to come,” Giannukos said. “We took inspiration from my grandfather’s hotel from the (1940s) to bring a vintage-yet-modern look to the signage.”
Foty said although there are no sure bets in real estate, he feels the project brings value, both to the guests who will stay there and to the larger community.
Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros represents the Brooke Smith neighborhood as part of District H. She said the former motel was an “eyesore” and that calls that used to come from concerned residents about the crime, vagrancy, panhandlers and prostitution near the motel have stopped.
“We haven’t gotten a complaint in months,” Cisneros said.
According to information on the Houston Association of Realtors website, the median prices for houses per square foot in the area have gone from $115.74 in 2009 to $271.81 in 2019.
Cisneros said there are a lot of young professionals and families who have been moving into the area because of its affordability in comparison to adjacent areas.
“(The area) is changing,” she said, noting the multi-million dollar renovation of the Houston Farmers Market on Airline Drive and the new Lincoln Heights, a four-story apartment complex where the monthly rent starts at more than $1,000 per month.
Cisneros said the investment in the community the Heights House Hotel constitutes is yet another welcome development.
“It’s good for the area,” she said.
For more information, visit https://www.heightshousehotel.com/.