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Things Are About To Change Quickly In Tiny Manvel With One Of Houston's Largest New Retail Developments Headed Its Way

Debra Davison, mayor of Manvel, Texas, notes with pride that her town is about to arrive: In just a few weeks, it will welcome its first Starbucks.

The 10,000-person community south of Houston largely consists of people who work in the Texas Medical Center, about a 30-minute drive away. Residents drive to Pearland, to the northeast, for their groceries, as the only food retailer in town is a dollar store. Within its city limits, Manvel has no real business hub or even a Main Street, merely a smattering of restaurants along Highway 6 and some scattered mom-and-pop shops. 

A sign on the site of the future Manvel Town Center signals rapid change is ahead for the small exurban Houston community.

But that is about to change. And a new Starbucks is just the start of the development coming Manvel's way in 2022.

At the end of the year, the area will see the new Manvel Town Center, a Weitzman-developed retail center set to encompass a whopping 1M SF. Manvel Town Center was the largest Houston-area development to break ground last year, and when it opens, will serve as a massive retail hub for that entire southern Houston area.

The development, which will sit just outside of Manvel at the intersection of Highway 288 and Highway 6, only has a small handful of national fast-food restaurants officially announced, but will be anchored by an H-E-B, and will have more retailers in home improvement, health and beauty as well as soft goods, according to Weitzman Senor Vice President JoBeth Prochaska.

For decades, Weitzman's development partner, Jerry Argovitz, sat on the 273-acre land, watching Manvel grow rapidly around it. In the years between the 2000 and 2020 censuses, the city has grown three times over, and that finally incentivized Weitzman to make the jump on building on the land.

"We're seeing homebuilders that can't get enough of that area, and the price point of that area, as well, is just super attractive. It's a very achievable home to move into. You can be a first-time homebuyer, or you can be a seasoned employee [buying their home]. There's a price point for everybody," Prochaska said. "We see great sales and great volumes out of the Pearland market, and it's just natural that it would continue to progress."

The land, however, was so underdeveloped that there were no utilities for Weitzman to draw on. Prochaska stated that the company has spent about $25M on creating facilities and roads to service the upcoming development, including making its own municipal utility district, a rare expense for a retail development.

"Our company has never done anything like this before," Prochaska said. "It's been a lot of learning as you go. It's been challenging. From an underwriting perspective, it's been something that's taken a lot of work, because we're not used to putting this much extraordinary cost upfront into a project."

Though Weitzman found success in a Kroger-anchored shopping center in the similarly small Clute, near Lake Jackson, creating a new MUD rather than simply extending an existing one was a new task for the company.

"We consider this a legacy asset that will be successful. We feel confident that the repayment will be there," Prochaska said.

The growing number of rooftops in the area makes it appealing for Weitzman, Prochaska said. The 10-year period between the 2010 and 2020 censuses saw the population leap from about 5,000 people to 10,000

That rapid migration shows few signs of slowing down. Manvel officials project it will grow to 130,000 to 150,000 residents in the next two decades, and many are already coming. Davison said that the city itself issued about 1,000 home permits between October 2020 and October 2021, and sorted through thousands more home inspections. Houses in Manvel tend to vary widely, from the $200K range to over $1M, but the vast majority of Manvel residents are homeowners, and the town's average family income is higher than the national figures, at about $86K per year.

The future site of Manvel Town Center

As homeownership becomes increasingly inaccessible for Houstonians inside the Loop, those looking to buy any house at all, let alone one with a yard or near good schools, are increasingly turning to areas well outside of the city of Houston, according to Kinder Institute for Urban Research Director William Fulton. Davison herself and her family moved to Manvel from Bellaire, and she touted the ability to purchase over 2 acres in Manvel, something nearly impossible to do affordably in Bellaire.

The swath of land south of Houston is not as popular for development compared to the north and west for a very practical reason. There just isn't as much land there to grow before bumping into the coast, and what land that does exist closer to the Gulf of Mexico is ripe for flooding, according to Brazoria County maps. Though the acres of land where the Manvel Town Center will sit did not flood during Hurricane Harvey, both Davison and Prochaska said, the town is investing in infrastructure to prevent residential flooding, including a 115-acre plot that has been purchased by Manvel for water detention.

As Houston inches further north and west, spurred by jobs in The Woodlands and Energy Corridor, Fulton says that nearly all Houston-area population growth is outside Harris County. Brazoria County, where Manvel sits, is not growing as fast as Fort Bend County to the west, but it is still leaping in population, all spurred by construction on the Grand Parkway.

"[Housing] was like an explosion. It really was. You see the development of the retail sector begin [because of that]. We're being discovered," Davison said. 

Davison was unable to cite any figures about suburban growth incited specifically because of Covid-19, but the trend nationwide of a flight to suburbs has been on the rise for years. That suburban growth is fueled by individuals and families that are younger and more diverse, Bisnow reported previously, and Davison said that many people looking to buy in Manvel are singles or young couples.

Manvel's explosive growth is exciting for the town, but it isn't coming without some accompanying growing pains. For the town to grow further, and smartly, Fulton says the area will need major employers.

"They want to make sure that they have a good mix of residents [and] businesses," Fulton said. "It's easy to build lots of houses and not get anything else. … You want more than just residents, you want shopping, schools, businesses, you want some large employers. That's the kind of a thing that a well-planned community needs to have: a balance of things."

Manvel City Hall

Fueled by its growth, Davison says Manvel is also in early research stages on developing a downtown from scratch. If that goes through, it will include city administrative buildings as well as some entertainment areas and facilities for children's athletics. A police station will come first in those plans, because the police force in Manvel is growing so quickly that temporary buildings are routinely being added to the small existing building.

While Davison balks at calling Manvel a bedroom community, Fulton says it is, without large employers, schools and other community additions. The town center is a good move for the town, he says, but it will mostly only bring retail jobs to the area.

Fulton said that Manvel's growth  or the growth of any small town — will depend on choices by area economic development leaders and its ability to develop a niche. With the number of medical workers in Manvel, he said that it could make sense for a medical developer to build a facility in the area.

Davison said there are some reservations from the Manvel community about the development, adding that city government wants to be quick to face any misunderstandings, which she chalks up to being a community in the midst of rapid change.

"Development's coming," Davison said. "We just want to see that it's done properly. So that's our role."