Oak Ridge North issued and sold certificates of obligation totaling more than $8 million in November for the long-awaited realignment of Robinson Road’s eastern intersection in the city, a move that could pave the way for future redevelopment of the surrounding city center.

The city’s main thoroughfare and its often-congested double junction at Hanna Road have been highlighted by Oak Ridge North and Montgomery County officials for years as a key need for east-west mobility through south Montgomery County. Within the city, the road realignment is also seen as a first step before work can begin to establish a new, distinct downtown along Robinson and the commercial Plaza District, a plan city officials now believe is in reach.

“What we’re looking to create in this Plaza District is a sense of place. Something that people recognize, something that they want to come to,” City Manager Heather Neeley said. “We hope to have a mix of businesses or restaurants, retail, some other office space maybe. Just something that says, ‘Oh yeah, that’s in Oak Ridge.’”

Removing roadblocks

This year saw the completion of a Robinson project phase funded through Montgomery County’s 2015 road bond. Finalized in September, the work included the $2.8 million expansion of the road’s intersection at Patsy Lane and Westwood Drive and the signalization of its connection with the Woodlands Parkway overpass of I-45.

Officials said the progress on the road’s western end and the low-interest rate environment for cities with high bond ratings allowed Oak Ridge North to consider Robinson projects.

“The interest rates that cities with a good rating can get right now is so great that everybody came on board and said, ‘This is the time to get it done,’” Neeley said.

Adding portions of road work into a single project to be funded through the certificates of obligation would also reduce overall costs and construction effects on city residents and businesses, Mayor Paul Bond said.

Improving Robinson has been cited by city and county officials and regional planners with the Houston-Galveston Area Council as one of the south county area’s primary mobility needs. The city’s 2018 master thoroughfare plan identified continuing increases to daily traffic at the double stop signs at Robinson and Hanna as one of the city’s chief concerns. Traffic counts recorded in the early 2010s around the intersections are projected to more than double to between 21,506 and 27,122 daily vehicles by 2040.

“Getting out of this area, getting in, it can be very difficult just because of the lack of consistency with the timing •that you get with stop lights,” said Marcelita Stancil, owner of the Rustic Brush boutique at the Robinson Road Center west of Hanna.

Following a series of workshops and meetings through the summer and fall, the City Council unanimously approved issuing certificates of obligation, expected to raise around $8.76 million for use on road projects and related right of way acquisitions. COs allow local governments to issue long-term debt for a variety of uses including public infrastructure projects without voter approval, according to the state comptroller’s office. The COs are backed by the city’s tax increment reinvestment zone and economic development corporation rather than a tax increase on Oak Ridge North homeowners.

“We understand that nobody wants their taxes raised,” Neeley said. “A big portion of this project is moving people from [the Grand Parkway] through to The Woodlands. ... We know that our 3,200 residents are not making the 20,000 trips a day [on Robinson], and so it’s hard to justify a cost on them.”

With the expected arrival of the CO funds in December, Neeley said the engineered realignment project could go out for bidding and begin construction by mid-2021. She said the project’s construction timeline is estimated at 18 months.

Plaza District perspective

In addition to city officials’ stated goal of needed traffic mitigation, the new road alignment is also being eyed as an opportunity to boost the city’s business profile. Alongside the CO sale process this year, officials have considered possible options for longer-term redevelopment within the Plaza District, the commercial zone covering the north and south sides of Robinson just west of the Hanna intersection.

The zone was established in 2013 with the intent to house a future town center, and while it is now home to City Hall and two shopping centers, officials have said an improved intersection with new land to build on could be the ideal location to realize the vision of an expanded city center.

“I see the sky as the limit,” said Jordan Buras, the city’s director of economic development.

Neeley and Buras said land in the district along Robinson could house local retailers, eateries and offices alongside city facilities in a modern, walkable environment. “The goal is to create a destination of our hometown,” Bond said in an email.

A more accessible city center with new commercial options could also boost city sales tax revenues—budgeted at nearly 60% of the city’s fiscal year 2021 general revenues.

“It’s those little types of improvements that we can do to the city based on when our increased sales tax comes in, and that improves the quality for the entire city,” Buras said. “It doesn’t just help businesses, it doesn’t just help us here in regular infrastructure projects, but it helps the quality of life overall for the residents.”

Paula Bertrans, a representative at the French Courtyard boutique on Robinson Road, said some local businesses may be apprehensive about the effect of sustained construction. However, she also noted the benefit that fresh commercial options could bring to the area.

“I think any additional retail business is a big plus, that you all complement each other,” she said.

No agreements regarding future development in the district are yet in place. However, as potential road and development plans progress over the coming years, officials said they hope to balance the needs of business owners and residents with a new destination in Oak Ridge North’s traditional, smaller-scale environment.

“There will definitely be growing pains, but what we’re trying to do is mesh that small-town feel with just a little bit of progress. I think a lot of times with this sort of thing you can either create your own growth, or it kind of just encapsulates you and then you’re left behind,” Neeley said.

Bond also said future development would have to fit within the city’s established character while bringing some new elements.

“Any new additions for the Plaza District must be considered carefully,” he said. “We want to ... have a small-town feel, and at the same time we want to be identified as the city of Oak Ridge North.”