The Woodlands: One of the most unique communities turns 50

George P. Mitchell, chairman of the board, Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., hosts the opening of The Woodlands, a town 28 miles north of Houston in Montgomery County. Joining him at the opening were US Rep Charles Wilson of Lufkin; Dr. Phillip Hoffman, University of Houston president; and Texas state senator H.J. "Doc" Blanchard of Lubbock. Orie Collins/Houston Chronicle

Fifty years ago one of the most unlikely environmentalists — a Houston oilman and the father of modern day fracking — embarked on a massive experiment — to build his own vision of an environmentally friendly community where residents could be in harmony with nature.

In part as a reaction to his disillusionment with the chaotic, unplanned development of Houston in the 1960s, oilman George Mitchell set out to build the opposite — a
carefully planned sustainable community where residents could enjoy nature and still be within a short distance to work, entertainment and all their daily needs.

Five decades later the result of Mitchell’s vision is The Woodlands, one of the more sought-after suburbs of Houston — in part because the forested, cohesive
community is so unlike the unplanned, un-zoned urban sprawl of much of Houston.

The Woodlands has grown from a rural neighborhood of just a few residents to a massive 28,500-acre community with more than120,000 residents and roughly $27.9 billion worth of real estate development, according to the community’s developer Howard Hughes.

As one of the first true master-planned communities in Texas, Mitchell and his team of designers and urban planners created their own self-induced zoning with a
master plan defining where residential, commercial, roadways and forest preserves
would go, said Jim Carman, president of Howard Hughes, the developer of The
Woodlands today. 

"Nothing in The Woodlands happened by accident. Every school, every church, every hospital, every shopping center has been part of the plan,” Carman said.

Through strictly enforced development standards dictating things like landscaping and setbacks, The Woodlands has maintained its forested feel with about 28% of its development to greenspace.

“So many people don’t think about this (design standards), they just know when they hit the border of The Woodlands, they feel different,” Carman said.

1964: George Mitchell aquires first acreage for a new community.

Around 1964, George Mitchell bought 50,000 acres of timberland north of Houston from the Grogan Cochran Lumber Co, including about 2,800 acres that would become the first pieces of The Woodlands. Over the next decade, more than 17,455 acres were obtained for the community. Dubbed The Woodlands by Mitchell’s wife, Cynthia, many of the trees would be preserved for future residents to enjoy.

1972: Mitchell receives HUD funding.

Mitchell sought to have a mix of incomes within The Woodlands and successfullyapplied for and received $50 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for development of the community. The agency at the time was financing projects for moderate- and low-income families.

1974: The Woodlands opens with first village, Grogan's Mill

After a decade of acquiring land, designing and planning for a new community, The Woodlands opened its first “village,” Grogan’s Mill, on Oct. 19, 1974. The Woodlands would grow to have nine “villages” with a mix of housing, parks, trails, schools, shopping, dining and services within a 1- to 2-mile radius. The initial villages were built around what would become the Town Center almost 20 years later.

1985: The Woodlands Hospital and Lake Woodlands open.

The Woodlands Hospital became the first hospital in the growing community. (Today the facility is known as the Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center and is one of the largest employers in the community with 3,030 employees.) Also in 1985, the 200-acre Lake Woodlands was filled with water, providing a recreational opportunity for residents and critical piece to honoring Mitchell’s original vision of a community in touch with nature.

1990: Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion opens.

As The Woodlands population soared past 30,000, The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, named for George Mitchell's wife, opened in April 1990 with performances by Frank Sinatra, The Houston Symphony and Alabama with Clint Black. The amphitheater has expanded to accommodate 16,500 people.

1993: Town Center is announced and improvement district forms.

The first major commercial and employment hub, The Woodlands Town Center, is announced. Although the 1,000-acre Town Center was always part of the original plan, Mitchell Energy and Development wanted to wait until the community had enough residents to support such a commercial development, said Jim Carman of Howard Hughes. It was designed to offer a walkable, mixed-use urban destination.

1994: Woodlands Mall opens.

As the community’s population surpassed 40,000 people, The Woodlands Mall opened in 1994, along with the village of Alden Bridge and Cochran’s Crossing Shopping Center.

1995-1996: High school, college campuses open.

Originally, Montgomery County College opened in a temporary space within the Pinehollow Shopping Center in Conroe in 1992. Three years later, Montgomery County College (now Lone Star College – Montgomery) moved into its permanent home in The Woodlands. A dedication ceremony was held August 14, 1995 for the new community college campus with then-Gov. George W. Bush in attendance. The following year, The Woodlands High School opened.

1997: Mitchell Energy and Development sells its stake in The Woodlands.

As The Woodlands grew into a profitable community, tensions mounted within Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. and its investors over whether the company could go on as a half energy, half real estate firm. Under mounting pressure from Wall Street, Mitchell agreed to sell The Woodlands to a partnership of Fort Worth-based Crescent Real Estate Equities and Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund II for $543 million. Later, parts of the development were sold to Rouse Co. in 2003 and to General Growth Properties in 2004.

1999: Construction of The Woodlands waterway begins. 

Back when Mitchell Energy and Development first created a plan for The Woodlands, one of the members of the original design team, Robert Heinenman, envisioned a concept for a manmade water he sketched on a dinner napkin and later created a diagram on a large index card. It wasn’t until 27 years later that construction began on The Woodlands Waterway, a 1.8-mile water amenity that was built out in phases until December 2017. In 2023, developer Howard Hughes gifted The Waterway to The Woodlands Township.

2003: Andarko Petroleum relocates headquarters to The Woodlands' first skyscraper. 

Oil and gas company Anadarko Peteroleum moved its headquarters from Greenspoint to a new 30-story tower in The Woodlands, instantly becoming a huge economic player and one of the biggest employers in The Woodlands. In 2014, the company added a 31-story tower. Five years later, Occidental Petroleum acquired Anadarko and sold the towers to developer Howard Hughes.

2007-2010: The modern township model is formed. 

In 2007, The Woodlands reached deals with the cities of Houston and Conroe to prevent annexation and maintain The Woodlands' independence. The same year, voters passed propositions expanding the jurisdiction of The Woodlands Town Center Improvement District to cover the entire community with a seven-member, elected board that can assess property taxes. The Town Center Improvement District was renamed The Woodlands Township. Then, the township merged with a range of community associations in 2010 to provide government-style services to residents.

2007-2010: Howard Hughes buys stake in The Woodlands. 

Real estate development firm Howard Hughes formed as a spinoff of General Growth Properties in 2010 and bought General Growth Properties' share of The Woodlands in January 2011. Then in July 2011, Howard Hughes bought Morgan Stanley’s interest in the community. Howard Hughes, which moved its headquarters to The Woodlands in 2020, is still a major landowner and influential force in the community.

2013: Hughes Landing opens. 

Hughes Landing opened first as a 66-acre mixed-use development overlooking Lake Woodlands, and later was expanded in 2018 to 79 acres. Today, Hughes Landing includes Whole Foods, Starbucks, apartments, hotels, entertainment, and a series of restaurants.

2021: Voters reject incorporation as a city.

Residents of The Woodlands struck down a pair of proposals to incorporate as a city, meaning it would remain a township. Advocates said becoming a city would give residents more control and could be accomplished without raising taxes, but opponents said they believed incorporation would be costly, causing the proposed city to raise taxes or cut services.

2024: The Woodlands turns 50.

Today, The Woodlands is one of the more in-demand communities within the Houston area was ranked as the No. 3 best city to live in, No. 2 for best city to raise a family and No.1 for best place to buy a home last year, according to a national ranking by (2024 rankings were not available at the time of publishing.) Over 50 years, The Woodlands has grown to encompass 36.3 million square feet of non-residential space plus nearly 49,000 residential units, according to Howard Hughes. Moving into 2024, The Woodlands will celebrate its 50th anniversary throughout the year with events culminating in October, including a gala extravaganza on Saturday, October 5, 2024, and a grand public celebration on Saturday, October 19, 2024, The Woodlands anniversary date.

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