The Woodlands Waterway houses an assortment of office, retail, and residential spaces in the "downtown district" of the master planned community.

Houstonians have always thought of The Woodlands as a great place to live—for a tree. As beautiful as the master-planned community’s heavily wooded streets were, the received wisdom was that the place was aswarm with chain restaurants and cookie-cutter homes. 

Forty years on, however, The Woodlands is the No.8 master-planned community in the nation in terms of home sales, which wouldn’t seem like much of a distinction if it weren’t for the amazing strides in livability that the development has taken since its inception. And while today the place is much bigger, boasting a walkable downtown—also a downtown, period—the crime rate has stayed low, and the traffic woes few, thanks to the Hardy Toll Road and several of The Woodlands’ own arteries—Lake Woodlands, Research Forest, Gosling—cluttered not with businesses but a forest canopy. 

Needless to say, the place has become catnip to big companies concerned about employees’ quality of life. Memorial Hermann is there, Texas Children’s is building a hospital, and Anadarko and Hewitt already have big presences, with the biggest still to come. In 2013, Exxon decided to abandon its longtime downtown Houston headquarters for a brand-new, 385-acre corporate campus just south of The Woodlands, and to bring 10,000 employees—some local, some from outposts in Virginia and Ohio—along for the ride. And just last December, the oil and gas giant announced further development plans for the town’s newest downtown property, Hughes Landing, where they plan to build two additional office buildings and a parking garage. Presumably, Exxon’s presence will complement a whole slate of businesses already planned for the property: a Whole Foods Market, new locations of popular Houston restaurants Escalante’s and Local Pour, and an outpost of Dallas-based Whiskey Cake Kitchen + Bar. Oh, and the whole development will overlook Mitchell Island and Lake Woodlands.

Mitchell Island? That’s a 22-acre atoll on which just 19 homes are slated to be built, all of them reachable by one single, controlled-access bridge. Although the homes and sites themselves have yet to be constructed—or even planned—that new bridge is already underway. When completed in several years, the island may well become one of the more spectacular enclaves in the greater Houston area. 

Needless to say, with changing attitudes about The Woodlands has come a full-throttle embrace by some of Houston’s wealthiest home buyers. As one reader recently commented on the real estate blog Swamplot, “The Woodlands has done an excellent job at luring away many a million-dollar home buyer from Houston.” It should come as no surprise, then, that the most expensive home on the market in the greater Houston area isn’t in River Oaks, Memorial Villages, or the Museum District.

The house in question is a $19 million manse located at 88 Grand Regency Circle in the exclusive gated community of Carlton Woods, itself tucked into Sterling Ridge—one of The Woodlands’ 10 villages, not coincidentally the farthest one from the roar of I-45. 

Nearby, there’s a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, part of the Club at Carlton Woods, where membership starts with a $110,000 initiation fee. The club also offers spa and dining options for members, but the mansion itself features more than enough entertainment options within its 30,000 square feet, including a wine-tasting room, a chef’s kitchen, multiple game rooms, a 1950s-style soda fountain, a fully equipped movie theater, a yacht-themed “gentleman’s room,” a pool, and even a private spa.

One wonders what the man who created The Woodlands in 1974, George P. Mitchell, would think of the place now—the 44 acres holding 35 percent more residents than in 2000, nearly 40 percent of them from out of state, and with a median household income of nearly $100,000 per family, more than twice that of Houston. And though the population itself has increased, the density has remained comfortably low—lower even than in sprawling Houston.

Of course, what’s drawing them to The Woodlands is the constancy of the place—not just the cookie-cutter homes but the ongoing fulfillment of Mitchell’s desire to create a community in harmony with its environment, and the strict development guidelines that go with it. No one in The Woodlands has to worry about a real estate developer constructing a monstrous pod of stucco townhomes next to their charming bungalow, or a Zone D’Erotica coming in next door to The Woodlands Mall.

Tim Welbes, co-president of The Woodlands Development Company, is a native Houstonian but talks about the town as though his family has lived there for generations. “It’s the perfect place to live, worship, and work,” he says, sitting in a conference room at The Woodlands Development Co. headquarters, which occupy a sleek building overlooking the calm Waterway—one of the town’s main attractions. It sports kayaks and canoes in warmer weather; on Fridays and weekends, water taxis glide across it, ferrying downtown visitors among restaurants, bars, and the Vegas-sized Waterway Marriott. 

All is far from perfect, of course. The Woodlands still lacks museums, galleries, and sports venues. And its association with Mitchell, also known as the father of fracking, is something of a mixed blessing. 

Then again, The Woodlands has clearly moved beyond its origins. Despite the level of control the Woodlands Development Co. continues to exert here, the town has taken on a life of its own, thriving on its ample resources, natural and un-. “No need to evacuate during hurricanes,” wrote that same Swamplot commenter, in another post defending The Woodlands. “Temps tend to be a touch cooler and the humidity a bit lower than inside the loop. You can see stars at night.” And finally: “Trees everywhere.” 

With all the changes, it seems, The Woodlands is still a great place to be a tree.

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