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Nature-Based Communities Are The 'Next Big Thing' For Houston Master-Planned Communities


With hundreds of people moving to the city every day, relatively cheap land and room to grow, Houston has a lot to offer master-planned community developers. 

The positive fundamentals mean numerous developers are active in the region. But residents are demanding more from them, namely more nature and community-based developments, according to panelists at The Future of Houston’s Master-Planned Communities event hosted by Bisnow Thursday. 

Quiddity Engineering's Bryan Kennedy, Hotwire Communications' Jim Traxinger, TBG Partners' Drew Mengwasser, Meristem Communities' Clayton Garrett, Oxland Group's Tom Woliver and Land Tejas' Uri Man.

The event at the JW Marriott Houston by The Galleria brought together developers, brokers and finance experts who discussed the challenges and benefits of building communities in a rapidly growing place with residents whose demands are evolving.

“Houston is the shining star,” said Jim Jenkins, vice president of master-planned communities for Toll Brothers. “This is the best place in America to be able to do large-scale development.” 

Jenkins cited great access to groundwater and surface water as well as the freedom to choose development locations as reasons Houston is an ideal place to build.

“You can develop where you want to without having some government tell you where to go and develop,” Jenkins said. 

About 100,000 people are moving to Houston every year, buoying the success of its master-planned communities, and further expanding its suburban sprawl, JLL Managing Director Simmi Jaggi said. Since the pandemic increased the cost of living in urban areas, buyers are heading further out of the city to purchase homes and find good schools, she said.

“There are communities I’m hearing about in Navasota, in Sealy,” Jaggi said. “Our city is growing so fast. The trend to move outward is definitely in fast pace.” 

Buyers are also beginning to flock to more eco-friendly developments that celebrate the outdoors.

Houston’s land presents some challenges for developers, though, depending on which of the Houston area’s seven ecoregions developers decide to build in. Most metropolitan areas have just one ecoregion, said Drew Mengwasser, managing principal of TBG Partners' Houston office.

It is important to understand a site before deciding how to develop it and what natural feaures are worthy of preservation, he said. That might require working with nature and science consultants to create ecologies with a high survival rate in that climate, Mengwasser said.

Winstead's Mark Grobmyer, XAG Group's Nathaliah Naipaul, Caldwell Cos.' Peter Barnhart, Wan Bridge's Ting Qiao, JLL's Simmi Jaggi and Howard Hughes' Brandi Coatsworth

Developments in Montgomery County, for example, can take advantage of pine trees and create trails through the woods, Oxland Group co-President Tom Woliver said. But west of Houston, developers may be building in a rice field, which means creating something else.

“It’s looking at it from a case-by-case basis … What does the land tell you that you need to do? Try to carve around that and protect the asset,” Woliver said. 

The conversation was part of the nature-inspired community design panel, which also included Clayton Garrett, founder and partner of Meristem Communities, which is developing an agrihood-type community in Fort Bend County, and Uri Man, founder and CEO of Land Tejas and The Lagoon Development Co., which constructs man-made beaches and lagoons as amenities for master-planned communities. 

Nature-first design has grown in importance since the pandemic, when lockdowns helped people realize they wanted to connect with the environment and each other, panelists said. 

“Nature is the next big thing,” Mengwasser said. “That’s what people are craving or wanting in their developments.” 

Agriculture-based communities have taken off in the past few years, Garrett said, citing high demand sparked by a longing to return to roots and engage on a sensory level. 

“From a development perspective, I think we need to speak to those meaningful interactions,” Garrett said. “Our senses are how we create memories and agriculture really activates the human experience.”

Trails and nature are popular in master-planned communities that aren’t agricultural in concept as well. Howard Hughes’ communities average about 28% green space, said Brandi Coatsworth, senior director of master-planned community land sales for Howard Hughes.

Wilson Cribbs + Goren's Chris Nichols, The Signorelli Co.'s Harry Dinham, Greater Houston Builders Association's Aimee Bertrand, Starwood Land's Mike Moser and Toll Brothers' Jim Jenkins.

“During Covid, that’s what folks wanted,” she said. “They wanted to get out of the house and go walk those trails and take advantage of those outdoor amenities.” 

Coming out of lockdown, people wanted shorter commute times to work, she said. Howard Hughes has significant office space in The Woodlands and is soon building more in Bridgeland, enabling residents to work, get childcare, eat at restaurants and enjoy amenities within a small radius from their homes, Coatsworth said. 

Hybrid and work-from-home trends have dramatically changed the daytime population of the suburbs, said Peter Barnhart, president and CEO of Caldwell Cos. 

“All of those people that are working from home a couple of days a week, they go out and have lunch and meet someone,” he said. “It’s out in the suburbs, it’s not in the city core.” 

But the shift has made it easier to attract restaurants and other tenants to master-planned communities, he said. 

Because of its abundant land, Houston is a unique market with numerous large-scale developers, Starwood Land CEO Mike Moser said. Many opportunities remain, though he joked that Toll Brothers, which has 11 communities in the Houston area, needs to slow down and leave some crumbs for everyone else. 

Harry Dinham, chief financial officer for The Signorelli Co., said he jumped all over the opportunity to move to Texas instead of Arizona or Florida. In other states, it would be reasonable to get a 60-lot deal as a homebuilder, while in Texas, builders get 1,000-lot deals.

“This is really a robust economy with the in-migration and the playing field that’s out there now,” Dinham said. “It’s a terrific opportunity.”