June 05, 2005
Far out!

There's some good conversation going on around suburbia versus inner-urbia and the nature of mixed-use development - see Atrios, Kevin Drum, and Jim Henley. Taking the point closer to home, at least in some sense, is Ginger, who writes about this Chron article on the farther and farther reaches of Houston's outer limits. She's hit all the main points, so I'll just add in a few short takes.

One of the next outposts of suburbia is west of Houston near Fulshear. Jefferson Development has just started work there on Firethorne, a 1,400-acre master-planned community about a mile south of Interstate 10 between Fulshear and Katy, about 30 miles from downtown.

The project, which promises "Hill Country atmosphere," is expected to have 3,500 houses when completed in 10 to 12 years.

That would be "Hill Country atmosphere" without all those annoying and inconvenient hills. Oh, there's a bit of a roll to the landscape - certainly anyone living in Houston, even in The Heights, should think twice about mocking anyone else's hills - but go and spend a weekend in Fredericksburg, or San Marcos, or Austin for that matter, and then compare it to the Katy prairie. You'll see what I mean.

"Houston is growing by leaps and bounds. And it's growing in all directions," said Mike Manners, president of Houston-based Elan Development.

At what point, if any, will we cease to think of this sort of development as being part of "Houston", for some value of that term? These developments aren't just 30 to 50 miles or more from downtown, they're in other counties - Fort Bend, Waller, Montgomery, Liberty, Brazoria, even Galveston. More to the point, as Henley talked about, a lot of these places depend heavily on the older, "classic" suburbs for their amenities. If you live in one of these new west-of-Katy or north-of-the Woodlands developments, you don't have to drive too far to shop or eat. That wouldn't have been the case a few years ago, as the cited example of Fairfield out on 290 shows.

My question is will we ever see these developments as being suburbs of Sugar Land or Kingwood or whatever? And if we do, is that good, bad, or indifferent for Houston?

Developers pick sites along the routes of big highway projects. Firethorne is north of the town of Fulshear, just south of the Katy line. What was once a farming town is in an area being transformed by three road projects: the Grand Parkway, Houston's outermost traffic loop, which is still under construction; Interstate 10, which is being reconstructed and vastly expanded; and the Westpark Tollway, expected to reach the Grand Parkway later this year.

Ginger's already talked about this, I just wanted to highlight it. The land speculation and buddy-system politics that has given rise to the Grand Parkway really ought to be a scandal, but it isn't.

Mark Wimberly, a commercial real estate broker who works in the Kingwood and Atascocita areas, said so much of the land on the west side of Lake Houston has been purchased that the next logical place for development is across the lake in areas near Crosby and Huffman, about 30 miles from downtown.

"When you jump the lake, there's a ton of farmland that could easily go for residential development," he said.

Wimberly expects residential developers will soon start buying parcels along FM 2100 just east of the lake.

Wimberly has a message for the area's residents who live in an almost countrylike setting: "They need to enjoy it because it's not going to last."


So far, the projects planned around Fulshear haven't changed the country feel of the place, according to Tammy Canton, who recently moved from Sugar Land to a new house on 10 acres. She and her husband, John, wanted a place where their son could go to a small school. She gets the impression people like the two-gas-station town the way it is.

"They don't want it to grow too much. I think they like it how it is now. You have to drive a little bit farther out to go the grocery store, but that's OK."

Enjoy it while it lasts, Ms. Canton. And don't come crying to me when you decide that Fulshear is no longer the idyllic small country town it was when you bought into it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 05, 2005 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

Don't worry. In about 20 years they'll be advertising suburbs of Houston sporting a "Hill Country atmosphere" with actual hills.

One of the sources in the Chron article says that 20 years from now, commuting from Brookshire and Sealy will be commonplace. Brookshire and Sealy are darn near (if not more than) half way to Columbus.

For what it's worth, though, Kuff, read the story on the Web about coastal subsidence (predicting Galveston will be under water in a couple hundred years). Probably not a good idea for Houston to expand south and east.

The most stunning quote, I thought, was the the one claiming that 75 percent of home purchases are outside of Beltway 8. If we Democrats can't turn the tide in the suburbs and exurbs, we're going to be in even worse trouble.

Posted by: Jim D on June 5, 2005 8:13 PM

Houston is where LA was about 20 years ago. Commutes from as far away as Victorville, Riverside and even Bakersfield are commonplace and it's only getting worse. In 20 years it is expected that there will be buildup along the entire I-10 corridor to Palm Springs (halfway to the Arizona border) and all the way up I-15 to Barstow (nearly halfway to Las Vegas). It's absolutely ridiculous.

Posted by: Double B on June 5, 2005 9:47 PM

That's nothing.

I have neighbors in my China Spring subdivision (outside Waco) who commute daily to the DFW metro area. That's a 90 mile 1.5 hour pedal-to-the-metal run up I-35 on a twice daily basis.

For them it's really a case of one spouse working in Waco and the other in DFW and deciding to live near Waco.

But still. 30 miles is nothing.

Of course I've got two words for all these people planning to live in remote suburbs: Peak Oil.

Posted by: Kent on June 5, 2005 10:57 PM

"I think we'll be astonished in 20 years to see how far people are driving."

I'm not sure how far we'll be driving in 20 years when we'll have to take out a small loan to fill our cars up.

"The next logical leap for Fort Bend County is down the 59 corridor to Richmond/Rosenberg," he said."

It's already started with the new River Park West subdivision, and I hear we're getting not one, but two Starbucks. I don't know what all us country bumpkins out here are gonna do with all those Venti Mochacino Lattes.

Posted by: Bryan on June 6, 2005 10:57 AM


You're going to need all that caffeine for the hour-long commute!

Posted by: Kent on June 6, 2005 1:07 PM

Hey Kent, from what I've seen, most folks sleep through the morning commute anyway!

Thanks for this important topic, Kuff.

All this unplanned growth is not sustainable. It scares me.

The problem is that developers own all the politicians on commissioner's court in Fort Bend County, and I imagine it's the same everywhere. Our county commissioners (and creepy county judge) bring in about $100,000 a year in tax free political contributions that they can use for darned near anything they want. (Hey, one of our former commissioners bought a car with his campaign contributions, calling it his “campaign car”!)

The majority of those contributions come from developers and vendors doing non-bid contracts for the county. Commissioners make determinations helpful to developers – including tax abatements.

These political contributions have to be reported twice a year. They are kept on paper in the election division office, which is open during regular business hours – hard for working folks to get there – and copies must be paid for at 10 cent a page. This can run into some money for the average taxpayer.

Our district attorney has refused on several occasions to investigate and/or prosecute misuse of campaign funds or failure to file reports at all. Guess who sets his salary? Uh huh, – county commissioners. He’s the second highest paid DA in the state of Texas.

Promise me one thing, Kuff. Promise me that when Democrats regain power, we won’t be this darned arrogant and contemptuous of those who elected us.


Posted by: Susan DuQuesnay on June 6, 2005 2:29 PM