Master-planned communities pave way for multifamily units

Several multifamily developments are set to open in Sugar Land and Missouri City in the next two years. Developments include the Imperial Ball Park Lofts and Telfair Exchange Lofts in Sugar Land, and the Villas at Sienna Plantation in Missouri City.

Though some residents are concerned about having large, high-density apartment buildings looming over their blocks, the cities' zoning laws have largely prevented this. Most apartment development has occurred outside the city limits but within master-planned communities that blend the buildings into their overall plans for the area.

These carefully planned and regulated apartment communities contribute to the area's healthy economy, said Jeff Wiley, president of the Greater Fort Bend County Economic Development Council.

"Generally speaking, apartments are very good for the area, as long as the amount of apartments are consistent with the overall picture," Wiley said.

Reasons for growth

Reasons for this wave of construction include a growing young professional presence in the area, rising costs for single-family homes and the large number of retail centers whose employees want to live near work but may not be able to buy a home nearby.

With a variety of shopping and dining options, Sugar Land and Missouri City are becoming increasingly attractive options for young professionals, who often prefer the convenience of apartment living or are not yet financially prepared for home ownership, said Doug Adolph, assistant director of communications with the city of Sugar Land.

"Recent interest in high-end apartments among developers is very likely a response to market demands and a strong regional economy that's attracting young professionals to the area who have a desire for mixed-use lifestyle centers like Sugar Land Town Square," he said.

Just as young adults frequently opt for apartments over single-family homes, so do seniors. The Huntington Apartments on FM 1092 in Missouri City leased out soon after opening in 2013.

Another Huntington location on Trammel Road is in the works to help meet the demand. Residents are drawn to the convenience and amenities, and the chance to be closer to their families than they might be otherwise, said Antoinette Christie, a Huntington leasing agent.

"They have everything nearby them," she said. "Most [tenants] already owned homes before, so they want to downsize."

Bruce McClenny of Apartment Data Services in Houston said since the housing market in the Houston area is doing well right now, seniors and empty-nesters can sell their homes quickly for a good price, while freeing themselves of a home's tax burden.

Retail developments that have drawn residents to the area— such as Sugar Land Town Square—have also created jobs that do not typically pay high wages. Employees may want to live near their workplace but lack the means to buy a house in Sugar Land or Missouri City, McClenny said.

"When you have a lot of retail, service companies and office buildings that are expanding, you're going to attract people that are probably renters first," he said. "You're going to also have people coming to that area that may be waiting for their house to be built or just don't know how long people are going to stay with

their company."

The rising cost of home ownership in the area is partly responsible for the increased presence of apartment communities in the area, Wiley said. Because home values are always in flux, the present demand for

apartments may level off in time. For now, however, developers are anxious to supply apartments where they see a demand.

"I think that for the short term, given the economic climate and rise in housing prices, that apartments are going to become increasingly attractive," he said.

Controls on apartments

Sugar Land zoning ordinances require multifamily housing developments to be integrated with the overall environment. Ordinances also dictate that no more than 300 units can be located in a single square mile and that individual sites must be at least a half-mile apart.

Missouri City has several zoning classifications for multifamily developments as well. Assisted living communities are considered medical-type developments, and independent living communities are treated as apartments, said Jennifer Thomas, senior planner with Missouri City.

"The differences between these districts include limitations on the density of residential units per acre as well as the density of residential units per a single building," she said.

Sugar Land and Missouri City have traditionally been single-family, suburban enclaves, McClenny said. Fears that apartment communities will lead to an increase of traffic and crime in their vicinity have led some residents to oppose multifamily developments.

McClenny said that because developers often deliberately build apartments in locations that provide residents with convenient access to shopping, restaurants and activities, it is difficult to separate the traffic that comes from the apartments themselves and that which comes from area residents taking advantage of the amenities near the apartments.

As Sugar Land and Missouri City continue to attract commercial development and create more jobs in the area, some traffic increase is to be expected.

"These apartments seem to be springing up because more people are being attracted to the area in general, due to jobs and development," McClenny said. "These things bring in traffic in and of themselves."

Because of the restrictions on mulitfamily housing inside city limits, developers often look to build apartments just outside Sugar Land and Missouri City.

Wiley said local governments and development groups prefer that apartments outside the city limits be built within an existing master-planned community.

"We like to see apartment complexes as part of a total master plan, and that's certainly been Fort Bend County's history," Wiley said. "They can measure the number of units compared

to the total development so we know that they're small parts of a larger development."

Although the development of apartments is tightly controlled, leaders recognize that they do contribute to an area's overall economic health. McClenny said most apartments built in recent years offer an average rent of $1,000 for a one-bedroom floorplan and require that tenants earn at least three times the rent each month. Renters frequently have disposable income to spend in local businesses, McClenny said.

As a result, apartment dwellers have helped the area maintain a robust sales tax and helped fund several economic development projects through local retail spending, Wiley said.



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