As villages near completion, planners look to downtown
As The Woodlands builds out its final village in Creekside Park, the focus of residential growth and development is beginning to shift from the traditional village center concept to more of an urban living design. The lure of living, working and playing in a defined geographical and cultural district has led to an emerging urban living lifestyle in Town Center.
Developments such as The Boardwalk and The Millennium Waterway apartments, Remington Brownstones, Waterway Lofts and Waterway Village town homes, make Town Center the go-to destination for those seeking a new modern way of living.
"We do business all over the country, and we specifically chose the Town Center because it incorporates the greatest components of new urbanism," said Brian Dinerstein, president of Dinerstein Properties, developer of The Millennium Waterway.
According to www.newurbanism.org, the concept of new urbanism is the creation of diverse, walkable, vibrant, mixed-use communities comprised of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities.
Robert Heineman, vice president of planning for The Woodlands Development Company, said the concept of urban living has been a part of the larger plan for Town Center since the master-planned community's inception. It was Heineman's now-famous sketch of Town Center on a napkin in 1972, a sketch that has a striking resemblance to the actual layout today, that laid the groundwork.
"It was the planners' concept that urban living was part of the urban experience in Town Center," Heineman said.
But before the lofts along Waterway and town homes on Riva Row could be built and the concept of urban living could succeed, a strong supporting base of amenities needed to be established.
"Town Center was saved for higher density urban development until after the residential villages had developed," Heineman said. "That way the supported population for the mall, for the speciality shopping, the [Woodlands Pavilion] could be built. And now with all of those things in place during the last five years, it has made sense to come in and develop the urban residential."
Those amenities include shopping districts at The Woodlands Mall and Market Street, two movie theaters, several restaurants, The Woodlands Waterway with its scenic pathways and water taxis, two grocery stores, after-hours bars and clubs, and The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Town Center also offers transportation and mobility alternatives such as the Waterway taxis, Town Center trolleys, and connecting hike and bike pathways that make getting to and from those amenities easy and even enjoyable.
"You can argue that The Woodlands downtown really offers more of an urban experience than downtown Houston does," Heineman said.
John McBeth, CEO of the Brazos Transit District, which operates the Town Center trolleys and Waterway Cruisers, said forethought was put into mobility concerns by Heineman and [Woodlands founder and developer George] Mitchell at the onset of the plans for Town Center.
"The Town Center corridor, the Waterway, the transit way, pedestrian corridor with hike and bike paths, all of that was planned years ago by Mitchell and Robert Heineman," McBeth said. "That was planned to be put in place in order to not have the type of congestion you see in other urban centers. A lot of our challenges have already been met and will be met because we set that corridor aside."
McBeth said that although the hope that Town Center residents would utilize the Waterway Cruisers to get to and from work has not materialized, he envisions that, after some tweaking of the system, those residents will use the Cruisers.
Jobs and the office market
One of the key components of the urban living design in The Woodlands is the influx of quality jobs and the ability for those who live in Town Center to get to work quickly and easily.
"Having an employment base, along with residential, was a goal from Day One," Heineman said. "George Mitchell did not want to build a bedroom community where everyone just drove to downtown Houston."
In fact, The Woodlands has such a strong economic climate, the opposite has proven true. Heineman said 10 percent more people commute to The Woodlands rather than out of The Woodlands and the average drive time for Woodlands residents if about 4 minutes.
Dinerstein said The Woodlands, and Town Center specifically, had long been a target for a development for his company because of the economic climate.
"Going back five years, we circled The Woodlands as somewhere we wanted to be because of the incredible job market and vibrancy there," he said.
The strongest demand for housing in The Woodlands is still in single family homes and Creekside Park, the final village to be developed, which has seen its population numbers increase exponentially since its opening in 2006. But with the end of single-family home construction in The Woodlands in sight, Heineman said the most potential for residential growth is through multi-family, multi-story development within Town Center.
"We will see more multi-family, simply because the land that is left is either along Waterway or just more suited for higher density development," Heineman said.
New development throughout Town Center, particularly along The Woodlands Waterway west toward Lake Woodlands, could include town houses, condominiums up to six stories, flats and high-rise housing.
"There is an argument for all of those," Heineman said. "One of the planning objectives is to maximize the best location for each of these different products."
One project that is already in the planning stages is a 140-unit high rise for Waterway Square. Dinerstein said a second phase of Millennium Waterway is set to begin construction in about 60 to 90 days. The new phase will include 312 more units, he said. The Millennium opened in 2009 and is 95 percent leased.
The Woodlands Development Company is projecting that, once complete, housing within Town Center could be about 3,500 units.
"That's probably more than downtown Houston," Heineman said. "And right now, we're just at a fraction of that."