Robinson Road improvement remains top Oak Ridge North priority

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Solving mobility problems associated with Oak Ridge North’s main thoroughfare, Robinson Road, has been a persistent priority for city officials, residents and businesses in an effort to unlock more of the city’s development potential.

A bid for the first phase of Robinson improvements, including the signalization of the city’s Woodlands Parkway overpass and widening of Robinson at Westwood Drive, was approved by Montgomery County in October.

While the road’s complete redevelopment is likely still years away, the city has examined commercial and expansion opportunities while balancing officials’ and residents’ desire for a continued small-town vision, Interim City Manager Heather Neeley said.

“Our neighbors, our residents want this to stay a small bedroom community, which it was built for, but we’ll just •have more development opportunities•if we get the road fixed,” interim City Manager Heather Neeley said. “We have the people, but there’s no easegoing through. So even if we wanted to build something great right next door, it’s hard to get people in and out.”

Road improvements

Residents, city officials and regional transportation planners have identified heavy congestion along Robinson Road as a major community concern over the past decade. Oak Ridge North’s 2013 Comprehensive Plan, subsequent city traffic planning documents and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s 2016 county mobility and thoroughfare plans each highlighted the road’s importance to the community and south Montgomery County region.

“You’ve got Rayford [Road] south of there that goes across the railroad, but there’s not really any other roads that cross it,” H-GAC Senior Transportation Planner Carlene Mullins said. “All of the development that’s going over on the east side, they have to use either Rayford or Robinson ... because there’s no other way to get where they need to go.”

More than 16,100 vehicles traveled the two-lane road daily in 2013-14, according to a traffic study by H-GAC. A 2018 BGE Inc. study projected daily traffic on Robinson will reach more than 30,000 vehicles by 2040.

The first phase of work on Robinson, based around the Woodlands Parkway overpass and Westwood Drive intersection, is expected to improve traffic flow around the city’s west side, officials said. Montgomery County Precinct 3 will oversee construction, which is moving forward after Oak Ridge North finalized several right of way purchases in that area this spring and Montgomery County commissioners approved a project award Oct. 22.

Montgomery County did not respond to an information request regarding the estimated timeline and cost of the overpass and intersection projects as of press time.

Additional Robinson Road projects have yet to be finalized, but city officials have said the next phases could join Robinson’s disconnected intersection at Hanna Road—a problem spot creating frequent congestion throughout the city.

“Robinson Road contributes to large volumes of vehicles trying to avoid the slow down at the intersection,” Mayor Paul Bond said in an email. “Drivers look to use alternate routes, north or south, creating higher volumes of traffic splintering off on residential streets never designed to accommodate the additional traffic flow.”

A potential third construction phase could widen Robinson from two to four lanes between Westwood and Hanna if deemed necessary following the Hanna intersection redesign.

Robinson Road businesses

City officials have said Robinson Road improvements are expected to ease driving times for residents and area commuters, but changes to the road could also provide an upgrade for Oak Ridge North’s business opportunities and sales tax growth.

“Robinson Road, the future of that, is critical to the success of Oak Ridge North’s commercial development,” said Gil Staley, chief executive officer of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership. “Mobility is going to play a key role in their future, and it looks good. It looks really bright for them.” Sales tax revenue, the city’s largest source of income, has been budgeted at around $2 million annually since 2015. Neeley said a sales tax upswing is expected with the arrivals of several new businesses in 2019 and 2020, but adding significant development in the long term is still tied to improvements along Robinson.

“At the end of the day, in order to help our current tax base, we have to bring those people in,” she said. “And in order to bring in new businesses, we have to have the right infrastructure.”

Throughout the 2010s, the city established new zoning districts along Robinson to provide opportunities for future economic growth in its mainly residential center. The RC-1 zone, or Robinson Commercial District, covers an area where more than a dozen homes are situated between Westwood and Maplewood drives on Robinson. The district was established in 2017, and the first business there will open later this year when Strickland Dental relocates from its current home on the city’s I-45 frontage road.•Founder Royce Strickland said he has enjoyed working in Oak Ridge North since opening there in 2015. Despite the difficulties that road construction could bring, he said he looks forward to occupying the space on Robinson and the future benefits of an improved roadway.

“If you look at the two ends, the railroad tracks and [I-45], improving that is going to be fantastic for traffic flow,” Strickland said. “Anything that helps that helps bring retail in.”

Creating an Oak Ridge North downtown is also a civic plan tied to Robinson. The Plaza District, which includes the north and south sides of Robinson from east of Maplewood Drive to Hanna Road, was designated as the potential site for a future civic center after the district’s establishment in 2013.

“The thought was to have a location that provided easy access, walkability for residents, and draws residents from outside the community. A location to shop, eat and provide economic benefits with a ‘hometown’ atmosphere,” Bond said. “Improvements to Robinson Road directly tie into the city’s long-term vision of developing the Plaza District.”

Relocating City Hall to the north side of Robinson and adding new retailers in the district are possible targets in creating the downtown area. However, Neeley said the district is not likely to see significant redevelopment until after Robinson Road’s redesign is complete.

“We just kind of have this cyclical pattern with, ‘When the road comes, the developers will come, and we can’t get the developers until the road, but we can’t afford the road because we need the sales tax,’” Neeley said. “We tend to think that a developer will likely rather have the road finished.”

Jen King, who owns the Space Cadets Collection Collection comics and collectibles shop at the Robinson Road Center, said she appreciates the city’s desire to expand its profile and looks forward to a solution to congestion on Robinson.

“There will be more traffic—but not in a bad way—coming by the businesses here. Exposure to more eyeballs, which never hurts,” King said. “Even when they start doing the construction on Robinson, I know it’s just something to be endured for a season but it’ll pay off.”

City economy, growth

While the city’s downtown area is a longer-term goal tied to Robinson construction, short-term improvements on the city’s west side near I-45 and the commercial developments to the east will also play into the city’s economic progress.•Along I-45, the city has seen some turnover and new arrivals in 2019 at its larger shopping centers such as the Wood Ridge Plaza and Shoppes at Oak Ridge North. Following a request from management of the Shoppes at Oak Ridge North earlier this year, city officials are also considering adjustments to the city’s B-2 business district restrictions that could bring a wider variety of businesses to that retail center.

Along Robinson’s east side near the Hanna intersection, the Oak Ridge North Commerce Park and Hanna Business Park have also expanded over the past decade and still contain some remaining vacancies for new business.

Outside its existing business areas, Oak Ridge North officials are also considering growth within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction—contiguous, unincorporated space that can be annexed by Oak Ridge North. While there are no established civic plans for that area, which includes around 1 mile of Robinson Road, it could become a larger piece of the city’s long-term expansion if more properties there request annexation in the future, Neeley said.

Several land annexation requests were approved by the city in 2019, and two larger Robinson additions—an expansion of the business park at 28131 Robinson Road and the construction of a new business park on Robinson across from Darby Loop—are signs of upcoming development on Robinson in the ETJ. Neeley also said the city may begin laying out a preliminary zoning plan for the ETJ’s future as interest in development there continues.

“I’m excited about the development within the city and the city’s ETJ for the future,” Bond said. “Looking ahead at the completion of Robinson Road, it allows new opportunities for the city, and I think new business on both the east and west side of the city once completed.”

Oak Ridge North does not have the ability to annex land itself, as property owners must go through a petition process to join the city due to a new state law passed in 2019. Still, Neeley said anticipating future growth could lead to a more organized expansion in one of the city’s remaining open areas while upholding the community’s hometown values.

“I think we have a lot of opportunities,” Neeley said. “We’re a small city, but I think there’s a lot going on, I think there’s a lot going on in the future, and we have a great council that wants it to grow but also wants it to maintain its natural state.”
By Ben Thompson
Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 and is a reporter for The Woodlands edition.


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