PaperCity Magazine

July/August 2019- Houston

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Page 64 of 83

concept, Tropicales has already generated a following in the Boulevard Oaks neighborhood in which it resides, from Rice University types to young parents who, like the Ybarras themselves, live close by. What's also rare about 2132 Bissonnet is that Platform has created a feeling of place from the former site of a utilitarian convenience store/fuel stop. The couple's choice of an architect was brilliant: the Austin-headquartered Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, best known in Houston for Uchi (2012) and Heights Mercantile (2017), with 20 other Houston projects in the works (see page 58 for more on Hsu). Platform's inaugural three-story development shows what the Ybarras are capable of crafting, in tandem with a sympathetic and gifted architect. The handsome first-floor brick facade, the color of oak bark, contrasts with the futuristic white, folded-steel plate on the more sculptural second and third floors, all of which dialogue with the scale of nearby domestic architecture. The building has sharp angles, patios on both the street and rooftop level, and parking partially beneath an overhang. It sits much closer to the street than the convenience store, drawing the neighborhood in. Design and Art Are Spoken It's Tuesday after Memorial Day, and the Ybarras and I meet at Tropicales. But this is not the first time I've toured the property. That happened in the fall of 2017, during the site's former gritty convenience-store life; I met artist Trey Duvall at the store, which had recently been shuttered. He turned on a strange DIY contraption and gave a demonstration of a wrecking- ball performance where the space, now stripped of its contents, was laid to waste as a cheeky bit of urban anarchy. The entire process was recorded and broadcast on the artist's website, birthing the piece Moving Right Along. That day, Duvall raved about his patrons, developers Hilary and Steve Ybarra, and how generous and open-minded they were. The Ybarras trusted him to make an art piece for a building slated for demolition — one that would go beyond a conventional mural. The distance from the Yale School of Architecture Master's program and the Ybarras' big-firm credentials — Steve at KPF, Hilary at SOM and Gensler, where they largely focused on million-square- foot-plus towers in Shenzhen, Tokyo, and Macau — to Houston is vast. They bonded when both were drawn to the more unusual offerings in the Yale program. During third-year studios, they started down a path checking out global cities and green spaces, which would shape their future development practice, as well as yield a blooming romance. They ended up together in Shanghai for a course focused on urbanism in China, followed next by studies in urban development stateside taught by Katherine Farley of Tishman Speyer, along with Deborah Berke, now dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Next, the couple trekked to Rio and São Paulo, where Tishman Speyer was working on projects. "I wouldn't say it's the traditional architecture path," says Hilary. "Most people are designing singular buildings, but we were both working on these larger- scale projects." They also traveled to Rome for a summer class on drawing and concluded the year with trips to English and Italian landscapes and gardens. The Ybarras seamlessly finish each other's sentences and appear perfectly in sync. Steve was raised in southeast Houston, where his family was Tex- Mex restaurateur pioneers. His father, Russell Ybarra, is the president and CEO of Gringo's Mexican Kitchen chain, and Steve is involved in the business end, as he also holds an MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania — something you find on The Platform website, but he does not mention in conversation. Hilary is an East Coast native who fell in love with this Houston guy. She was raised in the historic hamlet of Ridgefield, Connecticut, in an 1820s house and admits she had little experience with big cities until the couple moved to New York, then Philadelphia, where they really started their careers. It was in Philly where they made a monumental choice: whether to return to New York or break out and head to Houston. That was in 2015. "It's been a pretty eventful four years," Steve says. "We settled into a new house, got a puppy, then found out we were having a baby within the first two weeks of moving in." He worked in his family business, and Hilary for Gensler, where she focused on corporate master plans. Now the architects turned developers are using the skills they honed working in East Coast firms and on global studies to help transform the city, where they've chosen to raise their children, into a more urban environment — one with more options than driving from strip mall to strip mall. Their first three projects reflect their Gen Y status, rather than budding Masters of the Universe. Hiring Hsu fits that ethos. The Ybarras didn't know him personally before reaching out. But they knew his work primarily from walking South Congress Street in Austin. They sensed Hsu would do something distinctive with the space. "You don't have to do the default," Hilary says of the mindset. "You can do something different." One of the thrills of their new life as developers is tapping architects whose work they've admired to design their vision. "We love architecture and know plenty of architects," Hilary says. "It's very exciting to think, 'Who should we work with on this project?'" What's Next The Ybarras have bought lots in the East End (a 1940s-era former auto shop with handsome exposed trusses at 3501 Harrisburg Boulevard) and at 615 West Gray in Montrose. Expect mindful mixed- use developments on both sites. "We talk about a new psychology for Houston: mixed-use projects replacing the generic strip mall with something a little more dense and a little more interesting." Hilary says. The promise of The Platform Group — its name plays off the idea of platform as springboard as well as the builder lingo of plat and form, the Ybarras explain — is apparent but still in its infancy. "We love the idea of doing other lots on the Bissonnet block eventually," Steve says. "Making a bit of a little district here." 2132 Bissonnet is just the start — the precedent-setting first step. The Ybarras see the progress every time they take a walk to get their coffee.

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