Major revitalization efforts are underway in the Willowbrook area with dozens of new retail and dining options coming soon and projects in the works to improve mobility along the corridor.

Fifteen new businesses plan to open within the next five months at Willowbrook Plaza, an outdoor mall at the southwest corner of Hwy. 249 and North Gessner Drive. In December, the property was purchased for $37.8 million by Miami-based developer MGold Properties, which began $30 million in renovations to the plaza in April.

“MGold Properties takes great pride in being a landlord that provides as many tools as we can to see our tenants succeed and that our community has a wonderful shopping experience,” MGold President Mark Gold said.

East of Hwy. 249, Willowbrook Mall is also planning to add businesses to its body of retailers with three anticipated to open by early 2023.

“When [the mall is] successful, the businesses around us also have a better opportunity to be successful in the community as a whole,” said Sandy LaClave, Willowbrook Mall’s senior general manager. “Plus ... that means increased tax dollars that go right back into the community.”

Meanwhile, a major portion of FM 1960 in the Willowbrook area has been pegged by the Texas Department of Transportation for upgrades. A $20 million project will expand the roadway between Hwy. 249 and Cutten Road while also adding new pavement, continuous sidewalks, traffic signals and drainage improvements.

In January, TxDOT estimated the project would break ground in August. However, construction has been pushed to early 2024 due to utility relocations, according to TxDOT Public Information Officer Danny Perez.

“The purpose of this project is to enhance safety and improve mobility,” Perez said. “This area is experiencing tremendous growth, and we certainly want to address this growth.”

In hopes of targeting crime in the area, the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce is proposing a management district with boundaries beginning at Cutten Road and following FM 1960 east to Cali/Hafer Road. Previously, the Willowbrook area—which lies west of Cutten—was included in the plan. However, Chamber President and CEO Bobby Lieb said the area was cut in October 2021 after multiple organizations opted not to participate.

“The [crime] problem is not correcting itself. ... It’s been 30 years of this problem festering, and it feels like it’s not getting better but getting worse,” Lieb said.

Businesses coming soon

In the next five months, Willowbrook Plaza will be welcoming several new restaurants, salons and medical offices. Among the additions are Pediatrix Urgent Care, a medical office for women and children; Gud Food Kitchen, which will serve Jamaican jerk cooking; and Yummy Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant.

“MGold ... is known for bringing old shopping centers back to life, which revitalizes neighborhoods and transforms communities,” Gold said.

Wild West Weebs in Arlington is planning to open its second anime collectables shop at the plaza in the coming months, owner Jeremy Owens said.

“I like the people in the area,” Owens said. “I think it’s growing. ... There’s a lot of potential in that shopping center, specifically, and I’m very excited to be in the Willowbrook area.”

New businesses flocking to Willowbrook are good news for locals, said Ron Walkoviak, the Cy-Champ Public Utility District director and board president. The Cy-Champ PUD serves areas along Cutten north of FM 1960.

“So many [businesses] have left for one reason or another,” Walkoviak said. “I think [new business] is great for the community. It always gives folks more options on where to go.”

In the last three months, Willowbrook Mall has also added a slate of new businesses, such as Game World, which sells video games and collectables; Miniso, a Japanese-inspired budget retailer; and a Toys ‘R’ Us that opened inside the mall’s Macy’s store.

LaClave noted mall traffic, sales and tenant numbers have recovered overall since dipping in 2020-21 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As of press time, LaClave did not have any major renovations to the mall to announce, but said improvements are always being considered.

“Even though we’re doing really well right now, ... we always have to keep looking for those retailers and cultivating relationships in the community,” LaClave said.

Expanding FM 1960

On the west side of FM 1960’s intersection with Cutten, TxDOT’s expansion project would add a through lane east- and westbound on FM 1960 from the Willowbrook Mall center entrance to Cutten.

The FM 1960 project has been delayed multiple times since 2018, when bidding was first scheduled. Perez said TxDOT is now planning to take contract bids in August 2023 with construction expected to last 28 months.

In 2006, TxDOT identified traffic flow problems along FM 1960 from Cutten to Hwy. 249. The years since have been devoted to designing, seeking public input and acquiring the land needed to complete the project.

Average daily traffic counts on FM 1960 near Hwy. 249 have risen overall in the last decade from 56,000 cars in 2011 to between 65,000-70,000 annually from 2014-19. In 2016, TxDOT officials estimated traffic in the Willowbrook area costs commuters 300,000 hours of time and more than $52 million in gas annually.

However, not everyone believes TxDOT’s project will improve life in the Willowbrook area.

“This will be catastrophic to the [FM] 1960 business, as many have already closed,” said Chayn Mousa, a Spring resident and co-owner of Mirage 38, a restaurant and bar off Cutten near FM 1960.

Mousa said he has worked to fight this project over the last four years by attending community meetings with TxDOT and contacting local representatives.

Deterring crime

Since October 2021, the HNWCC has been meeting with 16 utility districts along FM 1960 in Spring concerning an estimated $3.9 million contract with the Precinct 4 constable’s office for full-time patrol services along the roadway. To fund the contract, the districts could levy a tax on businesses or pay the contract through their general fund balances, Lieb said.

The boundaries of the HNWCC’s management district excludes FM 1960 west of Cutten since Willowbrook Mall and Harris County Municipal Utility District No. 191 opted not to participate, Lieb said. However, Lieb noted the organizations’ rejections will not impair the district.

LaClave said Willowbrook Mall officials decided against joining the district because they worried about increasing their retail tenants’ tax burden after the recent hardship endured during the coronavirus pandemic.

MUD 191 did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

Lieb said he believes a full-time police presence would deter crime in the area, which he claims has some of the highest crime rates in unincorporated Harris County.

“I think that [a management district] is much needed. ... I believe that the chamber will need all of the municipal utility districts between I-45 and Hwy. 249 and participation by Willowbrook Mall to support this effort,” Walkoviak said.