[The Sprawl Net]

Utopia Limited

By Richard Ingersoll

Part 2
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(Continued) admire his progressive approach to environmental and social issues. The Woodlands indeed aspires to provide an alternative to existing urban and suburban conditions. But despite the expenditure of so much talent, imagination, and investment, the question lingers as to whether The Woodlands is appreciably different from the suburbs or its rival new towns.

The most frequently quoted reason George Mitchell gives for having created The Woodlands is that the new town represents a sort of fiscal realpolitik by which to arrest the drain of tax dollars to autonomously controlled suburbs such as West University Place and Bellaire. Mitchell advocated a well-planned suburb that would remain within the city's ultimate jurisdiction.[5] The Woodlands is unincorporated, and although currently it is more dependent on the services of Montgomery County and the more proximate city center of Conroe, it nevertheless lies within Houston's statutory extraterritorial jurisdiction. But even if the tax base the Woodlands represents is ultimately retrievable, the drain of employment, cultural, and housing possibilities it encourages is less than salubrious for the vitality of the urban core.

Mitchell started planning the Woodlands with an eye to obtaining federal subsidies and loan guarantees as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Title VII New Community Act. Approximately $30 million of an overall $2.8 billion investment came through federal grants. The public funding is one of the reasons the Woodlands is so much better documented and more accountable in social terms than its confreres. It is also more conscientious about fostering public resources such as the Houston Advanced Research Center, or HARC (to which Mitchell recently pledged $65 million in matching funds), and the Houston Symphony summer program. The terms of the New Community Act of 1970 stipulated that loans for development were guaranteed in exchange for provision of 15 percent low-income or assisted housing. Somewhat akin to the New Deal strategy of creating well-planned suburbs, such as the one built at Greenbelt, Maryland, for absorbing lower-income people from the inner cities, the Woodlands has continued to maintain, even after the terms of the initial contract lapsed, a small number of publicly assisted apartments. These constitute a far larger percentage of the available local housing than do the similar rental units available in Houston. [6] Until recently the Woodlands mixed the price ranges of houses in each subdivision, which is contrary to the prevailing practice in other master-planned developments. Currently about a third of the population of the Woodlands is employed there, predominantly by corporate and research facilities. Light industry, projected for the future, would help diversify the class and racial mix.[7]

From the outset, the Woodlands was intended to be a new type of development, closer to nature. The expertly prepared marketing literature emphasizes environmental preservation ``so that people may live in harmony with nature.'' In the first areas developed in the Woodlands, in the village of Grogan's Mill, the buildings are concealed with remarkable consistency by obligatory trees and shrubs. The result, however, is an anti-architecture. The houses of this era, mostly modest and wood-sided, are completely hidden in the trees. The five-story office buildings, just barely taller than the treetops, are sheathed in mirror glass that makes them disappear in the reflection of the sky and other natural features. Every act of building in these early stages followed a strategy that pardons uninspired design through the mitigation of the forest.

Mitchell, who in the 1950s commissioned one of the more interesting houses in Houston from Karl Kamrath, a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright, was conversant with the principles of Wright's organic architecture. His own house was a variant on Wright's Hanna House (Palo Alto, 1936), which used hexagonal planning and broad sloped roofs to blend in with natural features. Among those working on the early stages of the planning, which included Kamrath and William Pereira, was Ian McHarg, the Scottish-born doyen of environmental landscape planning.[8] McHarg made studies, including an aerial survey, of the site's ecosystems and recommended ways of placing drainage to reinforce the effluent patterns of the land.[9]

The result has been a noticeable environmental difference in the Woodlands. The ethic is to live in the forest, and thus everything in the Woodlands is set back and hidden by trees. The architectural guidelines encourage saving as many trees on a lot as possible and then planting indigenous trees and undergrowth wherever needed. There are no front lawns in the earliest subdivisions, which for the suburbs was revolutionary. Recently the guided ``natural landscaping'' has given way to more conventional front lawns and fences in order to remain competitive with the norms of upscale real estate. The development company itself is an agent of this stylistic transition, sponsoring such projects as the newly finished Bear Branch Recreation Center by Royce R. Leachman, which uses classical compositional strategies, arches and monumentalizing massing, in diametric opposition to the earlier passive approach to the same program. The design of houses in the Woodlands has also evolved, from humble, faceless wooden structures to larger houses with imposing façades, cluttered with pseudo-historical decoration and foregrounded by high-maintenance yards.

About 25 percent of the land in the Woodlands has been set aside for public space for parks and recreation. This is considerably more than any of its competitors can boast, and the green spaces, which include 40 neighborhood parks and four golf courses, are easily accessible and often quite impressively unspoiled. The minor streets retain the look of country roads because they have soft shoulders without curbs or sidewalks. Instead of sidewalks there are 64 miles of paved hike-and-bike trails, which depart from the 150-mile network of vehicular roads to form an independent system through the less-disturbed natural habitats. Unlike those at the other master-planned new towns, which have some intramural hiking trails, many of the trails in the Woodlands really break away from visual contact with the subdivisions -- a virtue that someday may become a liability. Although the crime rate in the Woodlands is relatively low, there have been isolated incidents in the past few years of minor crimes or intimidating confrontations on these paths, which, because they are not visible from the road, are perceived as less safe.

Although the efforts to coordinate the hydrological impact of settlement and to disturb the forest as little as possible proved less damaging than conventional clear-cutting, the pattern of the Woodlands' villages does not discourage the use of automobiles, which remain the most deleterious threat to the environment. Neither shopping, schools, recreation, nor employment is situated in a way that would make pedestrian transits a realistic alternative. There are express charter buses going to downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center, and the Galleria area, and there is the future option of a light-rail connection with downtown. But these commuter services cannot remedy the spread of local automobile-dependent patterns of movement. Housing for the elderly, for instance, is located far from any retail establishments. The needs of commuters in the Woodlands played a big role in the construction of the Hardy Toll Road, which provides a faster highway connection to downtown (the round-trip toll is insignificant for households with Woodlands-level incomes). This commitment to driving has been implicitly acknowledged in the Woodlands by the placement of public sculptures at major intersections of the arterial parkways, where there is no pedestrian activity.

Also problematic is the Woodlands' promise of community. Unlike conventional suburbs, the Woodlands promotes the idea that it will gather a diverse population and become a real hometown. Ancient Sparta or Mayan settlements in the Yucatán may have maintained a strong culture with a diffusely settled population, but overriding military and religious commitments provided the social glue in a way that is hard to imagine in an American suburb. During the early years in the Woodlands, when only a few thousand residents occupied the site, there was a stronger sense of togetherness. All the residents picked up their mail at the post office in the Grogan's Mill village center. Their children went ice skating at the Wharf or swimming at the YMCA. The residents, who mostly came from out of state (currently 46 percent come from outside the region), were eager to participate on the conscientious terms of the developer. Now that the population has grown to about 35,000 (the ultimate projected population is 153,000) and starting a new town is less of a novelty, the initial sense of intimacy among residents has declined. The post office was moved to an anonymous site, and mail is now delivered to each cul-de-sac. The skating rink has been closed because it was too expensive to maintain, although the Y is still a popular place.

The most frustrating impediment to a sense of community in the Woodlands is that there is no center; there is no place where the community can come together. The first ``village'' center at Grogan's Mill failed as a retail center -- perhaps, one can speculate, because the architectural attitude was overly passive. On one side of the narrow pond of Lake Harrison is the Woodlands Country Club and Conference Center, designed by Edward Durrell Stone's office in the mid-1970s with a vague suggestion of Wrightian, wing-spread eaves. It is connected by a glassed-in wooden bridge to the other side of the narrow lake, where the retail facilities are located. The buildings were somewhat cheaply built and, like all the first buildings of the Woodlands, recede timidly into the trees, making impossible the creation of the sort of visual connections that make urban space interesting. It is difficult to see the parts of this so-called center, let alone the whole. Lack of visibility from the road was particularly disadvantageous to retail. The Woodlands Information Center (Bennie M. González, 1975), an expressionistic collection of irregularly shaped wood-sided wedges in the midst of tall pines, is perhaps the consummate example of the camouflage style, building too carefully according to the dictates of the trees. Even a building of modest civic intent such as Taft Architects' Water Resources Building is lost on its site behind a thick buffer of trees that thwarts an axial view of the building's portico. The recently expanded HARC campus has indulged in more monumental tactics, with a framed gateway, emulating Rice University, and a stout brick-clad, limestone-corniced administration center. All of the signs in the Woodlands are restricted to two-foot-high sandblasted wooden panels, a nice nonaggressive touch that for the driver only increases the difficulty of finding things. The major public building of the Woodlands, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (Horst Berger and Sustaita Associates, 1990), which because it is the site of numerous rock concerts and the summer residence of the Houston Symphony should be the place that people from other parts of Houston are best able to find, is hopelessly sequestered in the middle of the forest. The thrusting peaks of its white Teflon tents, held up with soaring web trusses, make it the most interesting building of the development, yet it is not visible from any of the major roads. The combination of too great a respect for natural features (many of which, like the concrete-lined Lake Woodlands, are artificially induced anyway) and a self-effacing desire for humble structures (which became instead an excuse for cheap ones) failed to create places of assembly, where a sense of social involvement might continually be regenerated. The supermarket at Grogan's Mill went through several tenants without success and is currently used as a public library. Most people went back to the strip malls located outside of the Woodlands on I-45 to fulfill their shopping and entertainment requirements.

The new village center at Panther Creek shows that some lessons have been learned. Randall's has opened a hypermarket that is quite successful and more encouraging of social contact than any previous sites in the new town. The trees have been thinned a bit so that the complex of stores surrounding the market is visible from both Woodlands Parkway and the secondary artery. This ensures a better psychological connection. But it still does not foster the idea of public assembly the way a small-town Main Street does.

Standards of house design have also changed in response to the competition from Kingwood and First Colony. Many builders are producing grandiose mansions in the West University-South Fork Ranch idiom, with phony brick details, mammoth arched entries, and blind dormers. Natural landscaping is not appropriate to these statements of bourgeois self-importance, and high-maintenance yards have become the rule.

Few of the new, expensive houses are of much distinction except the enormous orange polygonal palace, a dubiously proportioned Taj Mahal, visible across Lake Woodlands from Woodlands Parkway. The design was mostly by the owner, an engineer from southern India who for 17 years has run a successful air-pollution-control company located in the Woodlands' business center. Its excess of taste -- slender three-story columns are linked by alternating rounded and pointed arches, in vague emulation of Mughal style -- masks an extraordinary steel-frame structure that allows the interior to have a very open section, 39 feet high, that shelters a marble fountain. There are other master-planned developments, such as First Colony, where such a house would not be allowed. It is to the Woodlands' credit that something remotely interesting, no matter how ersatz, got built. This exuberant aberration, expressing a trans-cultural affirmation of the American dream, met no resistance from the planners. The plan of the Woodlands allows for certain larger sites (in this case a two-and-three-quarter-acre lot) where exceptional houses can be built to give a sense of identity.

The missing ingredient at the Woodlands that is expected to change its entire social complexion is the new regional mall, currently under construction and planned to open in 1994. Optimistically called the Town Center (the same term is employed for the mall planned at First Colony), it does not promise at this stage in its development to add a greater sense of architectural or urban identity to the Woodlands. Codeveloped by Homart (a Sears subsidiary), the mall was designed by ELS of Berkeley and is a classic enclosed, double-loaded spine with anchor stores at each end. The first phase will be 550,000 square feet and its final phase 1.4 million square feet. Rather than occupy a position in the physical center of the new town, the mall is located on the easternmost edge of the Woodlands, adjacent to I-45, to catch freeway shoppers. It is completely surrounded by a broad apron of surface parking except on its southern side, where a link with Main Street is planned. The trees envisioned for the lot are insufficient to relieve its openness. An artificial lagoon has been dug to offset the center from the freeway and to connect the mall to a mile-and-a-half-long canal leading past the concert pavilion to Lake Woodlands. A transportation link is being planned at the canal level. Judging from the currently published plans, none of the buildings will come close enough to the edge of the water to make the water feature integral with commercial and social functions. There is no density imaginable and no reason for routes to intersect. The Rivercenter shopping mall on the San Antonio River Walk would have made an excellent model for stitching together outdoor assembly and recreational spaces with indoor retail. As planned, The Woodlands' mall is a thoroughly conventional scheme rather than one that would contribute to a real sense of community or place. The retail strips on the feeder roads on the opposite side of I-45 have recently been acquired by Mitchell subsidiaries and closed to eliminate the peripheral competition.

The single factor that might engender true solidarity among the residents, something equivalent to the threat of war, is the teenage problem. Teenagers in the Woodlands, like suburban teenagers everywhere, are the unanticipated factor that upsets the domestic tranquillity of most plans. The energy of sexual awakening is simply incompatible with the confinement of the single-family house, and there comes a point in a suburban child's life when sports no longer fulfill all of one's desires for contact with the world. Stuck out in the middle of nowhere, in an empty house (since both parents usually work), informed and stimulated through telematic excess, teenagers often become resentful of the ennui of planned environments and devote all their energies to transgressing the local limits. This had its most tragic expression a few years ago when a group of Woodlands teenagers went on a gay-bashing spree and murdered a man in the Montrose district. Last year, in an attempt to confront the problem, the Woodlands opened a teen center, a large clubhouse designed by Ray Bailey Architects, with a basketball court in the middle and video games in the side rooms. It is doubtful, however, that a mere container will be able to sublimate teenage aggression. Surveillance does not usually coincide with the concept of liberation or transgression. The weakness of the scheme for the town center is that it was not designed to answer these problems. It fails to provide enough interstitial room for slackers and, because it is hermetic, is unable to foster the streetlike connections that might permit casual socialization.

First Colony

THE PROBLEMS described at the Woodlands are present in all the other suburban new towns, where -- perhaps because there is so little idealism -- the contradictions do not seem as apparent. If the Woodlands is the best intended of Houston's new towns in terms of social conscience, First Colony is the most socially conscious. It offers no promises regarding nature, diversity, or any culture beyond that of sitcoms; its only reality is that this is status real estate. Adjacent to Sugar Land, which was the center of agricultural processing in this area, First Colony was preceded in the 1960s by Venetian Estates, a smaller subdivision of mostly one-story ranch-style homes situated on a series of artificially generated lagoons. Quail Valley to the southeast of First Colony, and Sugar Creek to its northeast, are smaller subdivisions begun shortly before First Colony opened in 1976. Since then, this area of Fort Bend County has seen a proliferation of master-planned subdivisions, including Greatwood, New Territory, Lake Olympia, Kelliwood, Green Trails, and Cinco Ranch, none of which has the size to sustain as many amenities as First Colony. Many of them in fact rely upon the higher degree of amenities and services, in particular the retail opportunities, of First Colony. (As investments, the smaller 1,000-to-2,000-acre developments reap the greatest profits, because they can be realized in the shortest time and have fewer infrastructure costs.) Fort Bend County has the fastest-growing economy in the region, with ``the lowest percentage of low income and highest percentage of high income in the Houston area.''[10] The county offers aggressive tax-abatement programs, and more than half of the businesses relocating there receive reductions according to the benefits they will confer on the county.[11]

The success of these western zoned packages was due at first to the decision of the major oil companies, such as Conoco, Shell, British Petroleum, and Amoco, to (Continues)

  1. Ann Holmes, ``Town Without a City,'' Houston Chronicle, 1 November 1992, Texas section, p. 6: ``My idea was that people would have the suburban lifestyle, in a carefully thought-out new town, and yet they want to be part of the big whole.'' [Back to text]

  2. Ibid., p. 8. Of 2,508 rental units in the Woodlands, 43 percent are subsidized; in Houston only 8,781 units are subsidized. [Back to text]

  3. The Woodlands is extremely conscientious about self-assessment and completely open with its findings. Richard Browne, who worked on the Rouse development of Columbia, Maryland, during the 1960s, leads a team of planners, architects, and economists whose coherency and sense of strategies puts Houston's planning department to shame. The available statistics reveal that median household income in the Woodlands is $50,000. First Colony claims that its median income is $80,000; Kingwood's is $83,000. The Woodlands gives a breakdown of its statistics, showing that elderly renters on fixed incomes lower the average and that those living in single-family dwellings average $62,000. [Back to text]

  4. George T. Morgan, Jr., and John O. King, The Woodlands: New Community Development, 1964-1983 (College Station: Texas A & M Press, 1987), pp. 27-30. Mitchell began acquiring land in 1964. He discussed his idea in 1966 with Kamrath, who did an initial study. Cerf Ross made another plan in 1969, which was submitted to HUD. The plan was approved for further planning studies under the Title VII new towns program of 1970. Robert Hartsfield was hired away from Caudill Rowlett Scott as the new director of planning. The final planning team included Gladstone Associates of Washington, D.C., for economics and marketing, William Pereira of Los Angeles for master planning and design, Richard P. Browne of Columbia, Maryland, for development, engineering, and HUD liaison, and Wallace, McHarg, Roberts & Todd of Philadephia for environmental planning. Pereira was chosen because of his work on the planning of Irvine, California, Gladstone and Browne for their work on Columbia. The initial plan was submitted to the federal authorities in 1971. [Back to text]

  5. Ibid., p. 34 McHarg suggested seven goals of land use: 1) minimum disruption of surface and subsurface hydrological features; preservation of natural woods; use natural drainage; preservation of existing species of vegetation; preservation of wildlife habitats; minimizing development costs; and avoiding life hazards. [Back to text]

  6. Kimberly Reeves, ``Census Indicators Put Fort Bend on Top of Houston-Area Counties,'' Houston Business Journal, 22 February 1993, p. 32. [Back to text]

  7. Ibid. [Back to text]

© 1995 The Sprawl Net. All rights reserved.

lda@owlnet.rice.edu 5/22/95