Houston History: The Woodlands
In 1964, George Mitchell, an oil industry magnate, purchased 2,800 acres. Over the course of the next 10 years, over 300 transactions added 17,000 more acres, and turned The Woodlands into Houston's most buzz-worthy master planned development.
After attending a symposium on how to develop HUD-financed Title VII towns, Mitchell (below) had the horse for his cart. In 1972, HUD provided $50M in loan guarantees to Mitchell, and work on The Woodlands began shortly after. In 1974, The Woodlands celebrated its grand opening. The project had its skeptics; the HUD New Town Program had a low survival rate.
The original planning utilized many of the planning concepts and design consultants employed in other well-regarded new communities of that era such as Columbia, MD.
The Woodlands is true to its name, firmly planted in the nature that surrounds it. The original development plan included environmental design principles espoused by Ian McHarg, a landscape architect and author of the seminal work Design With Nature. By 1983, total investment in The Woodlands had reached $1B.
The rapid growth of the community drove development of new routes, like Harmony Bridge and the Hardy Toll Road, connecting Harris and Montgomery County residents. In 1989, golf legend Arnold Palmer teed off at his TPC-designed The Woodlands Country Club. The affluence and rapid development of the area was electric. By 1990, the Woodlands population had surpassed 30,000 and total investment in the area was over $2B.
Frank Sinatra was the opening act at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in 1990, adding even more buzz to the area. 1993 was an important year for the area's commercial real estate with the formal announcement of Town Center, a mixed-use development. The area's rapid growth demanded a form of government. The Woodlands Township was established in 1993 followed by The Town Center Improvement District in 1994.
1997 was the year Mitchell parted with his baby. A partnership of Crescent Real Estate Equities and Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund acquired The Woodlands for $543M. The new owners continued Mitchell’s bold vision, beginning construction on The Woodlands Waterway in 1999 and opening a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course in 2001. In 2003, the first urban residential units opened on The Waterway in Town Center, solidifying the area's mixed-use future. Meanwhile, ownership made a few rapid changes. That year, The Rouse Co acquired Crescent Real Estate Equities’ 52.7% interest in The Woodlands, only to sell it to General Growth Properties the next year.
It was around this time that the City of Houston got serious about annexing The Woodlands, something George Mitchell had always envisioned. Many residents feared such a move, pointing to developments like Kingwood. Eventually the City of Houston and The Woodlands agreed to allow The Woodlands to determine its own future. The Woodlands got state approval to form an independent government in 2007 thanks to state senators Tommy Williams and Robert Eissler.
By 2011, the population of The Woodlands exceeded 100,000. In January of that year, The Howard Hughes Development Corp purchased both GGP and Morgan Stanley’s shares, giving it full control. The investment immediately paid off with the announcement of ExxonMobil’s massive new campus along the freshly minted Grand Parkway. The Woodlands is now a hotbed for corporate campuses with the likes of Chevron Phillips, Anadarko Petroleum Corp, Baker Hughes and SWN.
For better or for worse, in many ways The Woodlands is the quintessential American suburb. (It's even the subject of the famed song The Suburbs.) Its success was anything but accidental. The tightly controlled development stands in stark contrast to Houston’s lack of zoning. Now a mature community, the tale of The Woodlands flows over its borders, enriching the surrounding area with the vibrant culture and lifestyle residents have come to love.