Founded in 1907, the city of Tomball sprung up along railroad tracks—today’s dividing line between East and West Main Street and the urban walkability found in Old Town west of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
The city’s future land use map adopted in 2009—outlining preferred development patterns—envisioned Old Town from Baker Drive to Elm Street west of the railroad tracks, but growing interest has caused the city to expand its vision eastward for Old Town.
“We always kind of wondered ... about why we’re using the railroad as a boundary [for Old Town],” Community Development Director Craig Meyers said. “I do know some property owners that have developed in the downtown area have stressed desires to jump the tracks and do more of what they’ve seen and been successful with on the west side.”
An update to the future land use map was included in the city’s comprehensive plan City Council members approved Oct. 7. The new map expands the Old Town land use to east of Lizzie Lane, Meyers said, meaning requests by property owners to change the use, or zoning, of land in this area would be evaluated against the Old Town character.
Old Town is intended to be an urban, highly walkable area that promotes a distinct sense of place, according to the comprehensive plan, which outlines the community’s vision for the city’s future.
About $320,000 was allotted in fiscal year 2019-20 to add a mural to the city’s Information Center, support community art and improve alleys in Old Town, according to city budgets.
“We know people come from near and far to see the railroad museum or get pictures in front of our statues,” City Manager Rob Hauck said. “If we added some really meaningful and attractive community art, [we believe] people would come here to take their photos in front of it like they do in other places.”
With an expanded vision for Old Town, Meyers said the city envisions East Main Street becoming more walkable, encouraging the same urban character as that found to the west.
The future land use map helps city officials evaluate requests to change a property’s use but does not affect current development, Hauck said.
“When development applications come through [we would] look at these visionary standards and try to get these developers to match them, or if they want to do new developments, we would encourage mixed use in that area. [The new map is] kind of an expansion of what we as visionaries think should be taking place,” Meyers said.
According to the comprehensive plan, development in Old Town should encourage or be supported by on-street or public parking lots, not have parking between the front of the building and sidewalks, and emphasize sidewalks and pedestrian accommodations.
“I think it would go well,” said Cyndi Sager, owner of The Book Attic, which relocated to 310 E. Main St. in March, east of the tracks. “I’ve had people who—even though it was summer and super hot—walk from the farmers market. ... If there were sidewalks and trees, more like it is in the downtown area, that might make it less of a strain.”
Also on East Main Street, Essentials the Salon relocated in August, Seasons boutique opened in April 2018, and 403 Eats food truck park—owned by Mayor Gretchen Fagan and her husband, Mike—opened in June 2017, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.
“You’ve got some attraction on the other side of the tracks, but we just wanted to see if we could keep the momentum going,” Meyers said.
Old Town investment
To further invest in Old Town, alleys will be upgraded in the 100-400 blocks of West Main Street over the next three to four years, Hauck said. The project proposes stamped concrete, wrap-around sidewalks and lighting.
Hauck said he anticipates design proposals to go before council for approval in late 2019. After that, the city will seek construction bids for the 100 blocks.
The city reserved about $1 million in fiscal years 2018-19 and 2019-20 for alley and sidewalk improvements, he said.
Additionally, according to city budgets, the city has set aside $2 million since FY 2016-17 for improvements to Main Street as part of a joint project with the Texas Department of Transportation and Houston-Galveston Area Council. Part of this project would extend sidewalks to Willow Street, Hauck said. A construction start date is unknown.
“As [development] continues to happen, that’s where we’ll look for those opportunities to expand sidewalk projects,” he said. “The makeup of the east side of the tracks is a little different, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be some opportunities potentially for parking, for sidewalks, for alleyway improvements.”
Meyers said a challenge to eastern walkability is crossing the tracks. Additionally, Bryan Hutson, managing director of the Hutson Group, said the lack of a center turn lane makes accessing businesses difficult.
However, Hutson said he hopes to help spur development, as the family-owned development company owns about 80% of commercial properties in Old Town west of the tracks as well as 350 feet of frontage property at 205 E. Main St. to the east of the tracks.
“We have a large enough tract of land over there that when the timing is right ... we could put in a large development like you see [on Market Street]. That would we hope be the catalyst or at least an anchor for East Main’s Old Town development,” he said.
Museum, tourism efforts
Meyers said the vision for Old Town was also expanded to improve the backdrop of the future Texas Railroading Heritage Museum at Tomball.
The museum, proposed south of the Tomball Historic Depot, will feature 23,000 square feet of covered track displaying vintage rail cars owned by the Gulf Coast Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society as well as a two-story museum and education building, and a rail car maintenance shop, said Bill Capdevielle, president of the board of directors for the museum. The estimated $10 million, three-phase project is in the fundraising stage, but could open on a limited basis once rail cars are relocated, about a $2.5 million effort, he said. An opening timeline is unknown.
Council authorized the Tomball Economic Development Corp. in July to provide the museum a $10,000 grant for marketing assistance.
“This will be the only railroad museum in Harris County,” Capdevielle said. “We believe we will generate our own tourists that will also enjoy the other railroad stuff that Tomball has to offer.”
To further draw visitors, the city’s FY 2019-20 budget reserves $10,000 of hotel occupancy tax revenue for community art grants and another $10,000 for a city mural, Hauck said.
According to city budgets, hotel tax revenue increased more than 121% from FY 2010-11 when the city first created its marketing department to the projected revenue for FY 2018-19.
“All of our festivals are around The Depot, but tourism has a trickle-down effect,” Marketing Director Mike Baxter said. “It’s more than just the businesses in the downtown area around The Depot that are benefitting from these activities.”
In addition to diversifying its festival program, the comprehensive plan recommends the city implement a strategy within five years to develop public art and cultural amenities in Old Town.
In line with this, a city mural will be painted on the west side of the Information Center at 215 W. Main St.
Baxter said his team has received concepts and cost estimates from several mural artists and hopes to start on the mural next year.
“We’re hoping first of next year that we can really get serious with this and go in and get this thing started,” he said. “We know that it would be just another tool to bring people to town and for them creating memories.”