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New kid on a very old block

by Peter Radowick    June 1, 2016

Sunset Coffee Building opens new possibilities at historic Allen’s Landing

The Sunset Coffee Building is a welcome newcomer to Downtown Houston that is more than 100 years old. And no matter what the name says, it’s definitely not just for coffee, though soon enough you’ll be able to get a cup o’ joe there, too.

Located on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou, where the waterway flows between Main and Fannin streets, the old brick edifice has been totally refurbished into a multi-purpose building that promises to infuse Downtown with another in a seemingly continuous series of B-12 shots that have pumped fresh vitality into the city center.

The four-story building will open in phases throughout the remainder of 2016. The first function is the bicycle and kayak rental locations found on the ground floor, conveniently adjacent to the bike paths and the bayou. These units will be up and running in time for a plethora of summer and fall outdoor activities.

Still to come, as interior build out was ongoing at press time, is the second-floor café. This is envisioned as a gathering place for those who congregate on the northern edge of Downtown, especially University of Houston-Downtown staff and students, Harris County employees, and others who live and work within easy walking distance.

There are two pieces of the complex that will appeal to the large corporate presence found Downtown. One is the rooftop terrace that is ideally suited for client receptions, company parties and so forth Sweeping views of the bayou and vantages of the Downtown skyline that few of us ever witness will lend drama to any event.

On the backside of the building, away from the bayou and fronting Commerce Street, is an outdoor plaza that would work as a staging area for parties, fun runs, team-building exercises, employee rallies and so forth.

Finally, the third floor will be occupied by the offices of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which led the push to refurbish the building after years of disuse and neglect.

This $5 million project to transform a derelict place of yesteryear into a fully functional venue for today and tomorrow is the result of a collaboration dedicated to improving the face of Houston. 

BBP takes the first step  

Buffalo Bayou Partnership got the ball rolling in 2003, when it purchased the Sunset Coffee Building for $2.3 million. It was a bold move by the organization to preserve one of Houston’s most historic sites for future development.

“Buffalo Bayou Partnership is very excited about completing restoration of the Sunset Coffee Building,” said Anne Olson, president of BBP.  “It will be a very significant destination for both the bayou and Downtown. 

“The amenities offered in the building – café, rooftop terrace and the boating and biking concessions – complement what we are offering west of Downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park,” Olson added.

BBP worked for over a decade to raise money for renovation of the 12,000-square-foot building and in 2013 finalized an agreement with Houston First Corporation to contribute $2.5 million for the project.

The born-again building has been designed by the nationally recognized architecture firm Lake Flato, along with local architect BNIM and landscape architect SWA Group.

Once construction is complete, Houston First will take over ownership and operation of the facility. Houston First is a quasi-public, local-government corporation that manages such high-profile facilities as the George R. Brown Convention Center, Wortham Center, Jones Hall and Miller Outdoor Theatre.

“We think the Sunset Coffee Building has tremendous appeal,” said Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First. “It will become a true landing place for historical-minded visitors, who form a large segment of the tourism industry.

“What’s more, we believe the next generation of Houstonians coming to the bayou to rent bikes and kayaks will learn – perhaps for the first time – about the founding of our city,” Ullrich added.

Veteran facility managers Sheila Turkiewicz and Michael Coppens will be Houston First’s on-site team.  

In addition to the financial outlays by BBP and Houston First, the Downtown Redevelopment Authority is providing nearly $1 million in public infrastructure improvements. Other funding included $500,000 from the federal government, with the rest coming from private donors, including Houston Endowment, Wortham Foundation and Brown Foundation.

With this historic place known as Allen’s Landing poised for a rebirth, this might be a good time to pose the question: How did we get to this wide place in the bayou?

Allen Brothers stake their claim

In a city where it seems everyone is from somewhere else, it might surprise native sons and transplants alike to learn that Houston is a city founded on a waterway.

In early 1837, John and Augustus Allen stepped off their 85-foot steamboat Laura at the spot where Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou flowed together. Their landing place was no accident; it formed a suitable turning basin that would allow larger ships to deliver goods to the new city on the bayou and then return to the Gulf of Mexico. As Houston’s first port, Allen’s Landing became a thriving commercial hub and came to be a symbol of our city’s entrepreneurial spirit.

It is at this confluence – where today it can be found beneath the Main Street bridge – where one finds what is known as Allen’s Landing, sometimes dubbed Houston’s Plymouth Rock.

Today the site is gaining new life.

Lots and lots of coffee

You might expect a building named Sunset Coffee Building to sell coffee. You might even guess that any java outlet inside might go by the name Sunset Coffee. And you’d be right on both counts.

Construction of the Sunset Coffee shop on the second level will be completed in late summer. Owner Linda Assaf says Sunset Coffee will have a much larger footprint than your average coffee shop, with room enough for live music from time to time. And, Assaf says, the food menu being developed will be a notch or two higher than your standard “grab and go” cellophane-wrapped items.

The café will also carry a large selection of locally roasted coffee brands.

Assaf’s company, DayStar Specialty Group, brings decades of coffee purveying experience at high-profile locations. She has provided coffee service at the George R. Brown Convention Center since 1993 and is also in place at Wortham Center. DayStar also operates at NRG Park’s trio of facilities (stadium, convention center and arena) as well as at convention centers in New Orleans, Austin, Orlando, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Baltimore and Kansas City.

“Last year we sold a total of 25,000 pounds of coffee throughout our locations,” said Assaf, who will be assisted at Sunset by her daughters, Rachael Polglaze and Kristi Grace.

Assaf said Sunset Coffee also will have an outdoor presence at the new location. As availability allows, Sunset will set up shop on the outdoor plaza for the convenience of Downtown office workers and nearby UH-Downtown students.

Bayou refurbishments

Buffalo Bayou Partnership itself will call the Sunset Coffee Building home when it establishes its office space on the third level. Founded in 1986, the nonprofit organization focuses on the 10-mile stretch of the bayou from Shepherd Drive to the Port of Houston Turning Basin. Over the years, BBP has spearheaded projects such as the Sabine Promenade and Sesquicentennial Park and last year completed the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project.

Activity at the Sunset Coffee Building promises to create another new nerve center in Downtown. Its proximity to nearby Market Square Park – just three blocks away – allows for the kind of continuous street activity that all urban centers covet. This modern-day linking of Houston’s early port at Allen’s Landing with its original seat of government at Market Square offers a certain historical symmetry.

But even if you’re not of a historical mindset and all you want to do is ride a bike or rent a canoe, that’ll work too at the Sunset Coffee Building.

These guys know what they’re doing

Anyone checking out a bike or kayak at the Sunset Coffee Building will be reassured to know that operations there are in thoroughly professional hands.

As they say in these parts, this ain’t the first rodeo for either rental company.

Bike Barn is one of the big boys in Houston’s local bike shop community. For proprietor Neil Bremner, the Sunset Coffee Building is his second rental location along the waterfront bike trails. Last fall he opened Bike Barn Bayou Rentals on Sabine Street and so far, so good.

“The whole area has been a big draw for those who live near the bayou, those suburbanites who want to explore Downtown and even tourists,” Bremner said.

Bike Barn will lease hybrids, cruisers and tandem bikes for adults and big kids, and tagalongs and trailers for the wee ones. Rental rates range from $9 to $12 per hour (with a two-hour minimum). Bikes are also available for half-day and full-day rentals.

Bremner has entered into an arrangement with Bayou City Bike Tours to provide group rides. Bike Barn will provide the wheels and Bayou City Bike Tours will provide the tour guides.

John Boerstler has been operating Bayou City Bike Tours for four years, providing Downtown historical and architectural tours as well as pedaling excursions along the bayou. Private group outings (think: family reunions and wedding rehearsal activities) are also available.

“We love, love, love delivering the message about Houston, whether you’ve lived here all your life or are new to town,” said Boerstler, who estimates his current business is 60 percent tourists and 40 percent locals.

Like Bremner, Rico Torres  is opening a second front on the bayou with his paddlecraft business Bayou City Adventures.  

Bayou City Adventures may also be familiar to Houstonians as the provider of boats at Discovery Green.

His upstream location at Buffalo Bayou Park’s Lost Lake has been in operation since last October, and has been well received, Torres says.

“We’ve put more people on the water at Buffalo Bayou than any other company since 2010,” Torres said, estimating the number to be at 10,000 rentals.

Vessels available for rent are kayaks, tandem kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards. All rentals are for up to two hours at a time with a refundable deposit. Rentals include a life jacket and paddle.

A new twist for the operation, Torres says, will be the availability of shuttle buses to return paddlers to their point of origin.

“Right now we just offer an out-and-back option out of Lost Lake,” he said. “But when we open at Sunset Coffee Building, kayakers can start at Lost Lake, finish at Sunset Coffee and then take the shuttle back.”

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