Steve Porter, Sugar Land District 1 City Council member, said he feels confident the city will know by the end of November whether the Imperial Market developers—associated with the Johnson Development Corporation—will move forward and break ground on the project that was announced in 2015. Community Impact Newspaper reported in January that the project was slated to break ground in March.
A records request response from the city Sept. 19 showed there are no active building or construction permits at the Imperial Market site of the old Imperial Sugar factory.
“The hold-up is the developer getting financing, and the city is not in the developer financing business,” Porter said. “They’ve gotten probably 80 percent of their financing lined up, as I understand it. They’re trying to get the last 20 percent. My understanding is either it’ll go in November, or it won’t.”
As residents in the Imperial neighborhood who moved to the area expecting the sugar refinery to be redeveloped are growing impatient, residents in the nearby Mayfield Park neighborhood worry large developments like Constellation Field and Imperial Market will diminish the area’s tight-knit community feel.
“Eventually, I think that Mayfield Park won’t exist,” longtime resident Joyce Spigner said.
Production ceased at the Imperial Sugar factory in Sugar Land in 2003, and the city has garnered interest from several developers wanting to redevelop the site since that time, Porter said.
The current Imperial Market developers—who declined to comment on the lack of permits at the site as well as the future of the project—plan to include a cinema, a hotel, retail space and office space, according to the developer’s website and interviews with Community Impact Newspaper last December.
“If it’s private property, we can’t tell them you have to do this or that with regard to timing,” Porter said. “It’s exceedingly important. It’s an abandoned industrial site. Nobody wants it to stay an abandoned industrial site.”
In December, City Manager Allen Bogard said factors such as the Great Recession of 2008, environmental remediation, land-use approval and contract negotiations slowed the process down. The developers also said in December collaborating with historical commissions was slowing down the process.
Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman said contracts for bridges, structured parking and utility work have been awarded on the site. However, they have not yet been executed because the loans were not in place. The plans have been reviewed through the city, but the permits have not been pulled, he said.
“That’s normal because, as a contractor, if you don’t have a signed contract you’re not going to pull a permit because you have to pay for it,” Zimmerman said. “Really, right now, what everybody is waiting on is the financing [and]the construction loans to close. Certain elements of that are in place to begin moving forward, the first of which would probably be the utility work—the water, the sanitary, the drainage—and then probably structured parking and then bridges.”
Another hurdle is the amount of space that should be preleased and under contract before moving forward with construction, Zimmerman said.
“It’s not just the financing—when the oil and gas market changed, that changed lender’s perspectives for the Houston region,” Zimmerman said. “Lenders typically require that a certain number of contracts be in place for vendors like an Alamo Drafthouse.”
Although it is unknown how much of Imperial Market is preleased, banks typically require 20-40 percent of a development be preleased, said Inna Gallagher, a principal with Rubicon Realty associated with The Crossing at Telfair at Hwy. 90A and Hwy. 6.
Alamo Drafthouse, a major confirmed tenant, was announced in December 2015. However, no groundbreaking has occurred at Imperial Market, and, when asked about the status of the theater in early October, Alamo Drafthouse officials said to check back in 30 days.
Meanwhile, it was announced in January 2017 that Alamo Drafthouse would anchor the LaCenterra development in Cinco Ranch. The theater opened in the development in July this year.
As homes are built in the Imperial area of Sugar Land, residents are becoming impatient as Imperial Market delays continue. Imperial resident Jackie Buckler said when she moved to the neighborhood she was under the impression the development would be open by now.
“I lived in Sugar Land before, but that was one of my reasons to move to that particular neighborhood,” Buckler said.
Buckler, who previously lived in New Territory, walks to Constellation Field regularly and enjoys the walking paths and bike trails in the area. However, she was looking forward to the Imperial Market development.
“I like the location,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful property—the homes as well as the whole development. I’m really happy with everything here, I just wanted that additional piece.”
Another concern Buckler has is paying an Imperial Redevelopment District tax, she said. The tax rate is $1.10 per $100 valuation, and with an average home value of $552,399, according to Fort Bend Central Appraisal District officials, residents pay about $6,076 annually to the taxing entity.
“I don’t like the fact that we have to pay a a redevelopment tax and the market wouldn’t be redeveloped,” Buckler said. “If the tax went away, I would be OK.”
The tax, similar to a municipal utility district tax, goes toward paying off bonds acquired by developers for infrastructure associated with redevelopments in the area, including streets, drainage and sewers, Porter said.
Porter, whose district encompasses the Imperial area, feels confident there will be a more concrete answer on the future of the project by late November.
“You think about the people in the Imperial development that bought houses thinking it was going to be developed,” Porter said. “I can understand their impatience and disappointment, but I remain guardedly optimistic. … It’ll either start, or it’ll be done for several years, which would be a terrible disappointment.”
The historic Mayfield Park community that neighbors the sugar factory to the north housed factory workers when the city was still a company town before becoming incorporated in 1959.
With developments like Imperial Market coming to its backyard, home values continue to increase.
The 2018 valuation for the entire neighborhood is $53.3 million—a 52.3 percent increase from 2013–and the average home value in Mayfield Park is $126,815, according to the FBCAD. This results in increased tax burdens for residents.
As the homes are being passed down for generations and property values continue to rise, some homes are not being cared for as well as they should, Mayfield Park resident Lesley Russell said. Growing up in the neighborhood during its company town era, Russell said he remembers the pride residents had for the community.
“[Current owners] don’t maintain the integrity of the property,” Russell said. “[Their] grandparents or parents worked hard to pay their taxes or pay for their house, and you see cars parked everywhere, no curtains on the windows.”
Russell said he has been approached by several buyers interested in purchasing his home. However, they tend to be only interested in flipping and selling the home and offer below market value for the historic home, he said.
Porter said he looked into the issue of rising property values in Mayfield Park and suggested creating a different tax rate for the neighborhood because of its historical significance. However, this cannot be done legally, he said.
“This, I think, falls under the category of gentrification,” Porter said. “What’s going to happen is if Imperial Market goes [forward], the property values in Mayfield Park are going to go up, so their tax bills are going to go up.”
The city has improved streets and sidewalks in the neighborhood as well as the park, which was made possible by a donation from the Johnson Development Corporation, Porter said.
“The more you invest in there, the higher their property values go, and for a lot of the original residents that’s going to be problematic,” he said.
Although the city does not own—and never has owned—the property for the Imperial Market site, city officials have worked with the developers to help get the project up and running, Porter said.
“The city has done everything—we’ve bent over backwards to try to help these guys make this happen,” Porter said. “We’re ready and willing to do whatever we can to help them, but they’ve got to get their financing together. If they can’t do that then they won’t break ground.”
Since the factory closed, the site has been owned by several different developers, Porter said.
“The good news is that each developer that came in has done some improvements,” he said. “It was initially a brown field. That’s all been remediated. Then there was asbestos, and that’s been remediated. … Each developer moved along the process.”
The Fort Bend Children’s Discovery Center opened at the old sugar refinery site in May 2016 in partnership with the Johnson Development Corporation, and there were no challenges converting the historic space, Executive Director Tammie Kahn said in an email.
“Johnson Development was an incredible partner who helped envision and make reality a dynamic place for Fort Bend families,” Kahn said. “They restored the historic Imperial Sugar building and constructed a unique, modern space while preserving its vintage designs.”
Despite the Imperial Market delays, Kahn reported attendance goals at the center have been exceeded since the grand opening. In August, the space had seen over 250,000 visitors.
“We have built a foundation of followers through newcomers, multicultural community partners, thought leaders and families who find the Discovery Center uniquely Fort Bend,” Kahn said. “We are already working with the city of Sugar Land and Imperial Market on a plan to accommodate our visitors when the rest of the construction does begin. We are confident the Fort Bend community will be in for a delightful surprise once the project is completed.”
Porter said he feels the city has done all it can do to work with the developers, and it is up to them to fund the project.
“I totally identify with the frustration of the people in District 1,” Porter said. “I would love to see it developed in an excellent way that it’s an amenity for all the people here, but I have no ability to influence that other than what we’ve already done as a city, which is try to help these guys get over the finish line.”
Zimmerman said it comes down to closing on construction loans so the developers can move forward.
“I’ve played the role of a facilitator—I’ve met with banks, I’ve met with the developers,” Zimmerman said. “The city absolutely supports this development. It’s important to us. … We’re committed to doing whatever we can to help them within the role that we play as the city of Sugar Land as council members. We’re still committed to that.”