The Voice of Master-Planned Experience: Q&A with Ted Nelson, President of Newland Communities
HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Over the past several decades, West Houston has enjoyed phenomenal growth. But where is the area headed now? Realty News Report decided to talk to one of the individuals who was involved with the area from the beginning — Ted Nelson, President & Chief Operating Officer, Newland Communities. Nelson, according to the West Houston Association, “continues to be an indispensable presence in the development community.” As chairman of the West Houston Association, Ted brought the organization together to develop WHA’s Master Plan 2050, which has had a demonstrable influence on development and infrastructure planning in the region. A longtime resident of the Houston area, Ted began his career in the residential development division of the Woodlands Development Corporation. He then served in several capacities for American General Land Development, Terrabrook (predecessor to Newland) Houston operations where he was a key member of the team that was Instrumental In Planning and Developing Cinco Ranch and other communities such as Telfair, Seven Meadows, Greatwood And Summerwood. At Newland, Ted provides operational and senior leadership to the development of Newland Communities’ residential master-planned, commercial, retail, and urban mixed-use real estate projects across 12 states.
Realty News Report: How have master planned communities (MPCs) changed over the past 10 years? Are they being modified for Millennials?
Ted Nelson: The overall size of MPC’s has definitely grown smaller and with the build-out of The Woodlands and Cinco Ranch, the only really large community remaining on the west side is Bridgeland — 10,000 plus acres. Elyson is slightly more than 3,600 acres, but pales in size to the 8,400 acres of Cinco Ranch and the 27,000 acres of The Woodlands. Millennials are now a major segment of the buyers in our communities, representing approximately 35% of all homebuyers who are buying in our communities today. Candidly, the needs, wants and desires of the Millennial generation are not significantly any different than the Boomer generation was 35 years ago in that they are seeking the newest and best — the newest and best of a new world — so to that extent, what they want is physically and intellectually different in many ways than what the Boomers wanted. Millennials want the best in digital connectivity, they want to feel that they are part of their community and that they can have an impact, or not, i.e. it’s their choice to be involved or not and just like their parents, for their children they also want the best schools, the latest in amenities and knowing that they live in a safe and secure community. Of course, the rate of change today is certainly a challenge for the development community, but I know that we are keenly focused on trying to remain ahead of the needs and wants of our homebuyers.
Realty News Report: How are things going at your new Elyson MPC so far?
Ted Nelson: We are quite pleased with our early results at Elyson, especially since we opened Elyson on the back side of the most recent drop in energy prices. As of this month, 327 homes have been sold in Elyson. Due to the drop in energy prices, more than 80,000 jobs were lost in Houston from 2014 through 2016. The loss of these 80,000 plus jobs represented a loss of approximately $7 billion in payroll — yes, that’s right $7 billion, which has and is still having an impact on the overall elasticity of housing prices in Houston. We of course also experienced, along with the greater Houston area, the impacts from Hurricane Harvey. However, due to having the latest design in storm water management and stringent building criteria, no homes in Elyson experienced flooding during Hurricane Harvey.
Realty News Report: How has the Grand Parkway impacted the growth of Houston?
Ted Nelson: Now, that is a loaded question. Let me take a quick detour which I think will be of some help in answering this question. I recently had the opportunity to attend the spring meeting of the Urban Land Institute in Detroit, Michigan. Today, Detroit is one third the size of what it was in 1960 – two of every three residents who lived there in 1960 are gone and for many reasons, Detroit is a hollowed out city. Those that have left and those that remain have been impacted severely. I hope that this helps to understand that growth is a good thing and if done properly, it is a great thing. A key component of good growth is planning for and building the infrastructure needed to support growth. From a traffic planning point of view, loop roadway systems are a critical piece of transportation infrastructure. In Houston, the first loop was 610, then came the Sam Houston or Beltway 8 and now it is the Grand Parkway — all of which have helped Houston in coping with its growth. To some extent, these roadways have helped to promote growth. Being to be able to get from Point A to Point B in an efficient manner is never a bad thing. I want Houston to continue to be able to accommodate growth and I truly hope that I never live to see the day that Houston becomes a Detroit as there are no winners when cities cease growing and begin to contract.
Realty News Report: What if the road hadn’t been built? What would that have done?
Ted Nelson: Houston would have more congestion and growth would have to be accommodated even further out on the spokes — further out IH-10, IH-45, IH-69.
Realty News Report: What was the most important stretch of the Grand Parkway? The western part near Cinco Ranch?
Ted Nelson: The connection between IH-10 West and FM 1093 (Westheimer) through Cinco Ranch area was indeed the first segment constructed and an important element in the growth of the greater Katy area, but I believe that the segment that connects IH-69 South to IH-69 North (U S 59) is the most important segment as it provides a significant alternative for southbound traffic on IH-45 and IH-69 that previously had to come into and through the city to be able to continue their journey whether to the west or south without traveling through the city. It is also a critical link for the western and southwestern portions of city to be able to reach Bush Intercontinental without having to come into the city and also provides a critical evacuation route during natural disasters such as hurricanes.
Realty News Report: Did the Grand Parkway have any negative impact?
Ted Nelson: The answer to this question is very much dependent on who you ask. I believe that this should not be treated as a zero sum question but rather a question of whether the positives outweigh the negatives. In my opinion, the positives clearly out-weigh the negatives. Anytime we plan ahead and install infrastructure that will ultimately improve our quality of life, I believe it to be a good thing.
Realty News Report: What about the complaints that it contributed to urban sprawl?
Ted Nelson: What is urban sprawl? Almost all cities that developed “post automobile” are very, very similar in terms of density and that means a density of residential that is typically between 2,000 and 3,000 people per square mile. Were the neighborhoods inside loop 610 any different in terms of density when they were built substantially different than the density of Cinco Ranch? In reality, no. The great thing about Houston is that we have found a way to accommodate a wide range of lifestyles and because of this, we see a healthy inner city as well as a growing suburbia. Living inside the city meets the needs of many but living in the ‘burbs meets the needs of many more and without transportation infrastructure, Houston cannot continue to provide those options. A wide range of housing options and attainability is a critical component that makes Houston the great and welcoming city that it is so well known for.
Realty News Report: You’ve created a number of master planned communities where tens of thousands of Houstonians now live. How does that make you feel when you think about your work’s impact on so many families?
Ted Nelson: Humbled and grateful. A very dear friend of mine who has passed told me something 30 or more years ago that I didn’t understand at the time. He simply said, “you don’t really understand the impact that you are having on so many families and individuals.” It honestly took me several years to better understand what he was saying. It is my sincere hope that I have helped to make Houston a better place and that those many families and individuals who live in the communities on which I worked have enjoyed a life that is bit better because I, along with many, many colleagues through the years worked diligently to do things a little bit better.