THE WOODLANDS, Texas–The project that proved to be the measuring stick for huge master-planned communities has now hit the ripe old age of 30.

This 27,000-acre development 27 miles north of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, has been selling homes since 1974 and has led the surrounding area in new-home sales since 1990.

Designed by oilman and entrepreneur George Mitchell along with visionary partners Richard Browne and developer Jim Rouse as an alternative to cities that “splatter people and projects in a thin veneer across the landscape,” The Woodlands has provided a setting where a variety of people live, work, play – even age – in place.  

“We have homes and services here for seniors in spades,” said Tom D’Alesandro, the current president and chief executive officer of The Woodlands Operating Co. L.P. “Our older buyers can choose to live with people their own age in an age-restricted community or they can join families of all ages in another one of our villages. Our hospitals are first-rate and there are constantly programs and services available at nearly all times of the day.”

Empty nesters have flocked to the impressive choices of educational opportunities. Montgomery College is part of the community college system and The University Center offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs from six major Texas universities. 

And, when they’re not in school, there are six championship golf courses, 95 parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, skateboard facilities, basketball and tennis courts. Lake Woodlands, a 200-acre lake (approximately the size of Seattle’s Green Lake) offers sailing, rowing and fishing.

Paul Lazzaro, 70, said there are “incredible” services for people over 50, starting with Interfaith (a consortium of religious congregations) and The Friendship Center, a non-profit organization. The community also operates a community center for senior citizens.

“I believe because of George Mitchell’s paternalistic handling of The Woodlands since its inception it has been a haven for seniors because they get the respect they deserve from the community, as well as the services,” Lazzaro said.

Browne recently recalled one of the first key development meetings held more than 35 years ago. The stated mission was to build a city that better served the needs and desires of diverse people. Present were surveyors, building engineers, transportation consultants, accountants, marketing specialists and architects.

“I looked around the room and asked who was the expert on people,” Browne said. “It dawned on everyone that we were building environments for people but there was rarely anyone on a development team that had any in-depth knowledge about people.”

Browne’s search for a people expert led him to Rome and cultural anthropologist Robert Andrey. Over the next few years, the two men crafted a study on how to adapt human wants and behavior into a new community’s “fifth dimension of design.”

The Woodlands’ most consistent draw and attractive amenity has been its trees. More than 3 million mature trees of a one-time pine forest not only shade homes and highlight the 135 miles of walking and biking trails but they also serve as a terrific buffer for streets, seven residential villages, hospitals and health care facilities, waterways and 6,700 apartment units.

While there are plenty of families still seeking the four-bedroom home surrounded by trees and walking distance to an elementary school and neighborhood park, The Woodlands is now increasing the number of lofts and townhomes and brownstones underway in Town Center, a 1,000-acre destination for shopping, dining and entertainment.

More than 1,100 businesses and corporations now call The Woodlands home, including Huntsman, a $9 billion privately held chemical company. Nearly 21 million square feet of commercial, industrial and institutional development are located in this community, providing jobs for more than 30,000 people.

There are now 27,017 occupied dwellings in The Woodlands with 74,358 residents. The median household income is $98,580 and 43 percent of the 55,632 adults are 45-64 years of age.

In the past eight years, the median-size new home has remained about the same (2,608 square feet in 1996; 2,596 square feet in 2003), while new-home sales prices have edged up to $215,378 from $187,489.

Tom Kelly’s new book “How a Second Home Can Be Your Best Investment” (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) was co-written with John Tuccillo, former chief economist for the National Association of Realtors and is now available in local bookstores. Tom can be reached at news@tomkelly.com.

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