An Interview with George Mitchell from 2008
In 2008 the Urban Land Institute interviewed George Mitchell, developer of The Woodlands. The interview was conducted by Zane Segal. Photography and editing were done by Herb Hochman. Below is the video of the interview, along with a full transcript of George Mitchell's remarks.
A lot of people ask me, you know, your background with petroleum engineering and geology, “How did you get involved with something like The Woodlands?”
In the 1960’s, I was involved with a group call The Young Presidents Organization of the United States. A great group of people, about a hundred talented young people that were head of their company before they were forty, and the company had at least 3 billion a year in gross revenue. And we qualified, so we joined the group. What was interesting is they would have meetings around the world. And wonderful meetings, and we had great people that would lecture to us about urbanization and things like that in other parts of the world.
We’d done a little real estate projects here in Houston and down in Galveston: beach projects, resort projects. So we had a little experience, but we were looking forward to doing a bigger project; something that would really have an impact on urbanization.
Developing the Plan
To do that I figured we would need at least 100,000 people that would be in the place and it would take 25,000 or more acres to do it. So we proceeded to put the block together. Now putting a block of 300 different parties together over a five year period, now that’s a tough situation.
We had a great group of people. We hired a bunch of people from Columbia [Maryland] as Jim Rouse had done an earlier project that we used as a model to look at. We went to Columbia to look at things they did. We went to Rancho Bernardo and Irvine to see what they did. I went to Europe and looked at all the major new towns in Europe, in England and France. I sent people to Tapiola [Finland] and also to Sweden to get all the data we could put together.
Congress had approved the Community Act. And you could get a loan, guaranteed loan, not a gift, a loan, up to fifty million dollars. And we said we are going to apply for it to see if we couldn’t do a project around Houston. After the HUD guarantee, we were one of 13 companies that got that guarantee. We got the largest grant and that was fifty million. And unfortunately, none of them really survived except ours. After ten years, all the others had gone under. Poor planning, poor location, didn’t have all the resources needed to do it right, and I really think the people putting it together didn’t have the back-up wanting to help them even though they had federal money available. We know that Houston’s dynamics and 25 miles north of Houston, where the airport was close by, where the freeway to Dallas was right there, had tremendous potential, and we needed all those things to make it work. It is a very tough project.
And then when the big freeway going up to Conroe, the Nonna Dallas’ big build, we knew the best place for it to be would be in the wooded area, north of Houston. And so we selected an area 25 miles from downtown Houston, to start putting the block together. And it took us 2 or 3 years, we started that in 65’-66’, putting the block together. And then we started to say, “Alright how are we going to get the proper planning on this?” And we decided at that time that we wanted an important environmental planner, so we hired Ian McHarg, a noted environmentalist, to do the design on the planning for the environmental area. Then we hired the person that did all the structures and architecture, from California that did Irvine and Rancho Bernardo, some of those.
McHarg did wonderful work studying the environmental issues on the whole 25,000 acres. We did such a good job that HUD then used the plan that we had as an example for other projects in the country. The concept would be 7 villages, totaling 125,000 people.
We broke ground in 72’ and opened in 74.’
It was tough but we figured out how to make it. It was a very difficult job to do. And we worked at it, but we had to work our way through because of the resources that we had and the energy company to help out. The concept I had was that if we did do a good job, that if we had 125,000 people, than someday Houston will annex us.
We worked to get the Texas Legislature to help us, give us ten years moratorium, and if nothing happened between us, we could go ahead and continue to operate. And then figure out how we could work out a plan where this part of Houston’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, and then they got the big tax space that they wanted, but they do all the big projects like bringing water from the Sabine, a 2 billion dollar project, the airport which is now up to a 7 billion dollar project, which The Woodlands couldn’t do. And that’s why we worked with Houston to be part of Houston’s efforts.
And I actually took the risk of clearing out 40 acres for our town center, thinking we were going to win the big mall, which we finally won.
Naming The Woodlands
If we did make this a town, what would the name be? So we had about three or four of these people trying to figure out names. And my wife said “I’ll tell you what.” We had a place up in Montgomery County that we had, our own personal place, beautiful place. And she said, “I’ll let you take the name we have of that one,” which was called The Woodlands. And I put another name on the one that we personally have. So she named The Woodlands by giving up her name that she had. So that was a very important thing. And it is a great name for it.
The Woodlands Waterway and Town Center
The drainage that came out of The Woodlands, right in the middle there of Town Center, there was a little gully there that went from here to Oak Ridge North. And we said alright, why don’t we excavate that and make it an area where we could have traffic on the water, within the town core. And then start developing around that, whether you have, not only action on the concentration of small boats plowing this three miles of area we had inside, make it a really useful thing. But then would we have trolleys and pedestrians, you have all three. If you are going by the boats, it is not enough. You have got to have more than that. And that has been very successful.
If you look the Town Center now is doing very well, and beautifully done. And we won on the mall. We have one of the best malls in the Houston region.
We built a great educational system. We built the private school that competes with the Conroe Independent School District.
Now we have about 38 churches in The Woodlands, all run by the ecumenical council that do projects that help each other, and help the citizens.
What is interesting is that we did the first project in this part of the country that had transportation helped by the Department of Transportation.
We now have four park and ride garages around The Woodlands. About 4,000 people are going into town, into the medical center.
We have the best park and ride in this part of the country and probably the best in the country as far as I can tell. So that is a good innovative thing, particularly when you talk about gas mileage now.
The Woodlands as a Master Planning Model
Urban Land Institute got interested in what we were doing about midway and then they began to talk to us and see how things were going and how they could suggest some things that might be helpful to us. So we worked with them.
What we did and what really sold The Woodlands, I knew on the west side of town what was happening to Houston because I lived there for a while.
You ask the people of The Woodlands what they like best -- you like the education, you like the traffic, you like this or that. Every year for the last 30 years they keep saying, “We like the trees.” That’s what they always say. Their top priority is to try and save the trees, which we did.
So far apparently, they are doing well. They are still selling pretty well in the $400,000s right now and surprisingly selling well over one million. That surprised me. And they are doing, if you look around Houston at all the midrise apartments all within 20-30 blocks of Houston, The Woodlands is building them to begin with. The Condos and apartments, right in the major, major center, right where the water taxi goes and the other things. And they are trying hard to preserve the trees. The bigger they get, the tougher it gets, but so far they are doing a good job. But it’s a great project and I think that everyone that worked on it were happy to be part of it.