KATY, Texas – (Realty News Report) – “Go west young man” is advice often credited to newspaperman Horace Greeley. It was counsel Woody Mann, Jr. took to heart more than three decades ago when the budding real estate developer bought land in far west Houston/Katy area that would eventually become the wildly successful LaCenterra at Cinco Ranch. Mann, President of Vista Equities Group, sat down with Realty News Report to talk about LaCenterra, his outlook for the city’s retail outlook, and the challenges such as mobility and the flooding problem that Houston faces.
Realty News Report: You were one of the retail pioneers of the Grand Parkway. What made you decide to build that far out? Was it because of the numerous MPC’s being built or under construction?
Woody Mann: A number of years ago, when we were developing a project in a rather under-developed area, one of our bankers told me – “you know what happens to pioneers – they get arrows in their back.” Fortunately, we have been blessed to avoid too many arrows. If you study the growth patterns of most cities and towns, for some inexplicable reason the majority of them tend to grow west and north – Houston is no exception to that phenomenon, so it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the far west Houston/Katy area was going to be area of substantial growth for a number of reasons – mainly the number of master planned communities on the horizon and the attraction of the nationally-acclaimed Katy Independent School District. In addition, when we really began to study the demographics of that particular sub-market, it was very obvious that there was a substantial amount of untapped purchasing power in the area, based on above-average annual household income, and a real void in specialty retail shopping options – in other words, the area was severely “under-stored.”
Realty News Report: Your legacy might be the wildly successful 34-acre LaCenterra at Cinco Ranch, which has become a regional town center. Is that what you originally intended – for LaCenterra to become a retail mecca and local gathering place?
Woody Mann: When we bought the original 18-acre tract in 2003, our initial plan was to do a grocery-anchored shopping center at that location. However, Ted Nelson, who was president of Newland Communities Texas division and who developed Cinco Ranch, convinced us to ‘think outside the box’ and create something that could be a magnet, not only for the entire Cinco Ranch community, but the other surrounding master-planned communities such as Grand Lakes and Seven Meadows as well. In turn, Marc Boucher and his team at Boucher Design Group, did an excellent job in designing a true mixed-use, Texas-themed project that has evolved into being a town center development for the entire Katy-area community.
Realty News Report: You have been involved with economic development in the region for decades. Why is that important?
Woody Mann: I’ve been fortunate to serve as the Chairman of the Board of the Katy Area Economic Development Council (KAEDC) for the last 14 years, and during that time, our organization has helped play an important part in the economic growth of the Katy area. The mission statement of the KAEDC is “to establish the Katy area as the premier location for families and businesses through planned economic growth and development,” and is led by Lance LaCour, who is our President and CEO, and supported by an active and involved Board of Governors. Our goal is to maximize opportunities that are critical to achieving a balanced and diversified economy and a broader tax base, while at the same time doing what we can to ensure that the Katy area will continue to be a quality place to work and live.
Realty News Report: What’s the retail situation like along the Grand Parkway? Under stored? Overbuilt?
Woody Mann: In terms of segments D & E — which comprise the western parts of the Grand Parkway between Hwy. 59 on the south and Hwy. 290 on the north — I think the retail situation is good. Obviously, the portion of the Grand Parkway between FM 1093 and I-10 has seen the most retail growth because it was the first section of that portion of the Grand Parkway to be completed. But with the completion of the Grand Parkway south of FM 1093 to Hwy. 59, and north of I-10 to Hwy. 290, retail projects have become more prevalent in those sections. Several major anchored retail centers have recently been, or are currently being completed, south of FM 1093 in master planned communities such as Long Meadow Farms and Aliana. North of I-10 along the Grand Parkway, major retail centers have been slower to develop due to a lack of major population centers, but with planned master communities such as Elyson and Bridgeland being developed, it’s safe to say that there will likely be some major retail developments in that section over the next three to five years.
Realty News Report: What are some of the hottest neighborhoods for retail now along the Grand Parkway?
Woody Mann: South of FM 1093 on the Grand Parkway, I would say some of the stronger neighborhoods for retail development include Longmeadow Farms, Aliana, and Harvest Green and along the Grand Parkway north of I-10, you would certainly have to include Elyson and Bridgeland as two of the strongest neighborhood retail development opportunities.
Realty News Report: How has the Grand Parkway changed the retail equation?
Woody Mann: There is no doubt the completion of the Grand Parkway has been a game-changer for the entire far west Houston/Katy area. When we bought the land in 2003 for the first phase of LaCenterra, the 24-hour traffic count at the Grand Parkway and Cinco Ranch Boulevard intersection was about 35,000 cars per day. At the time we did the last traffic count at that intersection in 2015, it was over 140,000 cars per day. With that kind of exposure, it’s easy to understand what attracts retailers to want to locate along the Grand Parkway.
Realty News Report: How is the Cinco Ranch area addressing growth and mobility issues?
Woody Mann: I don’t think the Cinco Ranch area is any different than any other part of Houston in facing the challenges that continued residential growth and more traffic bring to an area. We long ago passed the opportunity to develop an efficient mass transit system in the Houston area and, as a result, increasing mobility challenges continue to be a concern as more and more residential areas are developed, and our highway system can simply not keep up with the increasing traffic demands. On most weekday mornings, the average rush-hour commute on I-10 between the Grand Parkway and the Houston CBD is over an hour. When we had the existing right of way available, how nice would it have been for our elected leaders to have planned for a light-rail system in that corridor? That didn’t happen, so we continue to deal with the challenges of how to reduce traffic congestion and improve our quality of life.
Realty News Report: Hurricane Harvey had a great impact on the area. What are some of the lessons from Hurricane Harvey? What is being done to generate more awareness about preventive measures for the future?
Woody Mann: The Boy Scouts have a simple motto – “Be Prepared.” That’s the best lesson we can learn – especially after the Memorial Day and Tax Day floods and then Harvey. There are a number of groups and organizations that are now focused on the challenges we face. Ever since Harvey, groups such as the West Houston Association, the Katy Area EDC, and a number of stakeholders have coalesced into an organization called Houston Stronger, to promote public awareness and to help develop funding, at both the local, state, and federal levels to help solve the challenges facing us in the west Houston and Cypress Creek watersheds. That effort has culminated in Harris County Commissioners Court calling for a bond election, in the amount of $2.5 billion, on August 25th, the proceeds of which — if passed — would be used in purchasing lands, rights-of-way, structures, and for the construction of detention basins, and channel modifications for flood control, with the goal of reducing flooding risks throughout the county. Obviously, if passed, the next challenge will be holding those persons and departments responsible for executing the various flood control programs accountable, so that we are assured the bond proceeds are used as intended and not siphoned-off to other pet projects, as has been the case in the past.
Realty News Report: What about the Master Planned Communities? Some say development contributed to the flooding from Hurricane Harvey. What are your thoughts?
Woody Mann: I suspect there is enough blame to be shared by all without finger-pointing at any one segment of the real estate community and/or elected officials. Whether it’s due to a lack of zoning, a lack of development oversight by city planners and permitting agencies, or over-aggressive or irresponsible developers is really immaterial. The fact is, we have a challenge, and it’s up to us – all of us – to help address it and solve it as quickly as possible so that the future growth of our area is not negatively impacted by our inability to act in a reasonable manner.
Realty News Report: What do you predict for the retail sector for 2019?
Woody Mann: In terms of the metropolitan Houston area and surrounding counties, I believe that the retail sector will remain strong through 2019. Overall, the economy is good, unemployment is low, consumer confidence is strong, and new home development is good and, as we all know, new retail development follows house-tops. A lot of luster has come off the big-box market in the last year or so due to the bankruptcy and/or reorganization of some major retailers, plus the concerns over the impact of e-commerce on brick and mortar retail. However, retail is still a “hands-on” business where most consumers want to touch, see, feel, smell, and taste what they’re buying and/or eating, and when you consider the low percentage of total retail sales that take place over the internet, plus the impact of the recent Supreme Court ruling that allows states to start charging sales tax on internet sales, I believe that 2019 will be a good year for the retail sector.