May 22

Northeast Houston in store for rapid transformation

Ted Mandel calls himself a “city boy at heart” even though he lives in suburban Kingwood, 30 miles from downtown. He arrived decades ago via New York City and Los Angeles, drawn by the reputation of the public schools. Their quiet neighborhood was a fine place to raise two children, he says, even if the kids sometimes found it a little too quiet.

Anchored by towns like Kingwood, Atascocita and Humble but still about 80 percent unincorporated, this northeastern corner of greater Houston is best known as a sprawling collection of bedroom communities centered principally around their school districts. It lags such suburban powerhouses as The Woodlands, Pearland, Katy and Sugar Land in terms of jobs and industrial, retail and residential developments.

But that could change quickly in this hard-to-define region as it transforms into a more diverse place with mixed-use developments in the works bringing different housing types and improved public spaces. The approaching completion of the Grand Parkway in the area has helped put some 13,000 houses and multifamily units under development and is expected to bring a 15 percent population spike over the next five to 10 years.

The new houses include lakefront properties priced up to $2 million. New distribution centers for companies have opened. Generation Park, a 4,000-acre commercial real estate park, is poised to become a defining feature of the area.

Count Mandel, 72, among those thrilled by the changes. He’s hoping for better dining options that denser development might attract.

“You do it for the kids. You put up with it,” Mandel said of living in Kingwood. “That’s why I’m excited for this change. I can see the things I like about the big city are going to be here.”

Identity crisis

Cranes and construction crews are commonplace in the broad area east of U.S. 59 North, between Interstate 10 East and Beltway 8, as developers carve out swaths of land from the woods. The growth has brought inevitable traffic tie-ups, due to an unprepared infrastructure, and it’s exacerbating a regional identity crisis.

In 2009, the Humble Chamber of Commerce changed its name to the Lake Houston Chamber, a reference to the reservoir off the San Jacinto River. The small chamber team with an office near Humble City Hall meets with local elected officials and developers to plan as best they can in a region not known for coordination. The group hopes the “Lake Houston” nickname will stick.

Generation Park executives, meanwhile, are working to brand the area as “West Lake,” a nod to the West Lake Houston Parkway that runs through the area. Developer Ryan McCord agrees the efforts are necessary. Although Generation Park is only a 25-minute trek up U.S. 59 from downtown, he often has difficulty defining the area or describing where it is. McCord Development even includes a map on its business cards.

Jason Baker of Houston retail brokerage firm Baker Katz acknowledges some “head-scratching” about where the regional center is. He said retail has lagged even though the area can boast new homes, relatively high incomes and good schools. Defining the geographic area will remain a challenge, he said.

“When people say Katy, The Woodlands, Clear Lake and Pearland, things immediately jump out at you,” Baker said. “When they say northeast Houston, it’s not as clear. It’s an area that has sort of struggled.”

With improved access provided by new roads and tollways, the growth is bound to continue.

‘Complex’ land use

The broad region has more than 400 chemical plants, employing 33,000 workers, with billions of dollars in additional projects on the books. Supporting jobs, master-planned communities and new retail centers are following in the wake.

Managing all that is complicated further by the relative lack of incorporated cities and by the crazy-quilt intersection of three Harris County Commissioners Court precincts, said Michael Prats, economic development coordinator at the Lake Houston Chamber of Commerce.

“The land use out here makes it complex. So many parts of our area are just little slivers of a different (elected officials’) district,” Prats said. ” … We’re kind of the spillover area, for lack of a better term.”

Even keeping track of new residents and jobs is difficult. Prats aggregates news releases and media reports to estimate changes in his area. He said the Grand Parkway has helped attract much of the activity.

“People have moved out here out of necessity just to live,” he said. That could change, he said, if the denser mixed-use developments help transform the area into a more complete economic center.

“We have a great opportunity for urbanism. The suburbs are the best opportunity in America to do things right,” Prats said. “The new developments will help us compete if we attract a more city lifestyle out here.”

Poor urban planning

Many residents are either resistant to change or justifiably frustrated with the congestion on their small farm roads and two- and four-lane parkways, where traffic at certain intersections can stall for miles. Here and elsewhere, the Texas Department of Transportation has essentially become the land planning agency for the state, said David Crossley, senior fellow at Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that studies and advocates for urban planning and quality-of-life issues around Houston.

“Nothing would be happening that far out without the Grand Parkway,” Crossley said. “They say they are opening land for development. … They aren’t really concerned about transportation where people already live.”

“The only thing you accomplish is to enable land speculators to sell land and get it developed,” he said.

Crossley cited the gridlock on FM 1960 as an example of what happens in the absence of planning. Other streets are disconnected from new housing and commercial developments. Without public transit, bike trails or walkable infrastructure, congestion will only get worse, he said.

“It’s just a story that keeps playing out and playing out,” Crossley said. “They create something you can’t support and are still doing more of it. There is a crisis of falling-apart infrastructure all over and it’s happening farther and farther out.”

Generation Park model

In contrast to much of its surrounding area, Generation Park is carefully planned. Chamber leaders agree with McCord that it has the potential to become a regional center, or the equivalent of a downtown.

“Years from now, it will look totally different out here,” McCord said during a recent tour of the property. “This will be one of the largest new commercial developments in North America.”

FMC Technologies, which makes subsea equipment for the oil and gas industry, will complete its first phase of construction on a state-of-the-art campus at Generation Park in December. The developers have also recently attracted San Jacinto College to build on 57 acres and have several other pieces of land.

In the next few months, McCord said, construction will begin on the infrastructure of the mixed-use project next to the new campus, which will include greenspace among the Class A offices, a 300-unit multifamily project, hotels and retail. McCord is working to make sure the entire project is walkable and aesthetically pleasing, with water features, landscaping and a walking trail. A recently constructed bridge at the entrance of the park will eventually light up at night.

On an adjacent property, a new Kroger will soon be under construction. New roads are under construction to connect the undeveloped land to the future park.

“We’re trying to do quality development that will make the perception of Houston better than it is today,” McCord said. “This area has never gotten its fair share of the spotlight. That’s changing.”