Houstonian Ben Ackerley has wanted to open and run a boutique hotel since he was 20 years old. At 33, he is a lot closer to achieving his dream.
His holding company has purchased a half-acre on the corner of 20th Street and Ashland Street, where Ackerley hopes to build Maison Robert, a five-story, 37-room hotel in the heart of the Heights.
Ackerley’s dream was born during a trip to Paris during his college years when he discovered that “traveling was the greatest thing on earth.” What he also came to find out was that hosting visitors can be equally gratifying because of the opportunity to be the ambassador of a city. His father, Robert, a computer executive turned organic farmer, told Ackerley that he needed to see if he was serious about his ambitions before he’d consider being an investor in any project.
A graduate of Memorial High School and Southern Methodist University, Ackerley’s first job out of college was working the front desk of the Empire Hotel on West 63rd St., a 125-year institution popular for its proximity to Central Park and Lincoln Center. From there, Ackerley moved to the Mandarin Oriental to be the assistant front desk manager and then relocated to Switzerland to get a degree in hospitality and hotel management.
After time in Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia, managing restaurants, Ackerley had been away from home for 10 years. He decided to return to Texas in the summer of 2017 and work to make his dream a reality.
Ackerley’s first thought was to open a hotel in Austin, where he thought the concept of a boutique hotel would succeed.
“Then 15 new hotels opened and that window shut,” Ackerley said.
He looked at an empty lot on Westheimer Road that later became the parking lot for Goodnight Charlie’s. Then his attention turned to Kansas City, where the family had ties. But then, one night at dinner at Presidio in The Heights, Ackerley had the eureka moment that set him on his current path.
“That was when it dawned on me that there were no hotels here,” Ackerley said. “I thought the Heights was ready for something like this and started looking for land.”
A commercial realty for-sale sign in the yard of the house at 347 W. 20th St. piqued Ackerley’s interest and he began discussions with the owners, who had previously purchased the house from the homeowner who’d lived there for decades.
“We began negotiations in March and bought in May,” Ackerley said.
The house, which was demolished last week, was not structurally sound or in condition to be renovated into part of the hotel, according to Ackerley, who said they had donated the house to the Houston Historic Salvage Warehouse.
Plans for a new structure on the land were inspired by Faena Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina. California architect Darwin McCredie, who was the senior designer on the Westin La Cantera in San Antonio, the Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and the W in San Francisco, was tapped to design Maison Robert.
“We wanted a place with personality and character,” Ackerley said. “A hotel with a cool bar. The kind of place where you could check in and spend the whole weekend there.”
After initially intending to put up a brick wall around the hotel to maintain privacy, Ackerley and McCredie redesigned somewhat after meeting with then-Houston Heights Association Board President Bill Baldwin.
“(Baldwin) helped us make this something more that the neighborhood would like,” said Ackerley, who added that plans include wider sidewalks as well as a short fence and hedges in place of the originally planned brick wall. “If people are walking by, we want them to feel welcome to stop in and have a look around.”
Parking and perceptions
Of course, any dream has hurdles to cross and Ackerley is working through them as they come. First, he applied for a hotel/motel variance to build a hotel with 50 rooms or less in what the city classifies as a residential neighborhood. An old city ordinance to thwart such structures was intended to prevent drugs and prostitution in low-income neighborhoods.
The other aspect of hotel planning that Ackerley is spending a lot of time on is parking. City ordinances stipulate one parking space per room, which meant that Ackerley needed room for 37 spots. For a time, he planned to ask for a parking variance but has since reconsidered.
Ackerley was in talks with the owner of a lot down the block at 20th and Rutland Street, but those talks fell through. He also approached St. Joseph Medical Center in The Heights about leasing some of its spots, but the hospital is also short on parking by modern codes, although it was grandfathered in.
The parking answer is now Heights Floral Shop, which has agreed to sell Ackerley its shop at 401 W. 20th St. The florist plans to move inside the hotel, and then the lot where its building is now will be parking for both businesses.
Ackerley is aware of the backlash about both the parking issues and the demolition of the house where the hotel is planned.
“Can they just stop with the development for a bit?” asked a commenter on Swamplot.com, which first reported the plans for Maison Robert. “The neighborhood has not had time to absorb all of the development going in – and the related traffic/parking issues.”
Ackerley said the other two bidders for the site were a self-storage unit company and a mixed-use, multi-family high rise. He also said that at five stories, Maison Robert would be fewer stories than both St. Joseph and the nearby office complex.
“I’ve gotten to meet with some of the opposition and hear their concerns,” Ackerley said. “There was a house there and now it’s gone. Also, I think people felt like this was all a surprise and didn’t get the gist of what we want to do from reading the application to the city.”
Ackerley is meeting with local residents and concerned citizens Tuesday evening at Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room to answer questions.
“We want to be a part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” Ackerley said.