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Dan Oko | Photo: Shannon O’Hara, Carl Mayfield/Barton Malow Company | January 24, 2013
Development blooms and biz booms as Sugar Land finds its sweet spot.
On a sunny Saturday, under bluebird skies in the shadow of the historic Imperial Sugar refinery, shoppers are out in full force at Sugar Land’s new farmers market. Couples enjoy brunch alfresco, while moms and dads pick up fresh produce. But it is the diversity of dry goods and fine crafts for sale that show how far this formerly sleepy suburb has come since its days in the national media spotlight during the heyday of formerly powerful congressman Tom “the Hammer” DeLay, who resigned under a cloud. The funky Farmers Market at Imperial (198 Kempner St., 281.677.7996) has a dazzling, sometimes daffy array of items for sale: hemp dog collars, handmade Texas-themed birdhouses, soy wax candles, hand-thrown pottery and crafty house wares—not to mention tasty artisan foods like local hot sauce, small-batch kettle corn and Texas Kobe beef.
It’s the sort of shopping selection you might expect in a college town, or maybe a hip and happening inner-Loop district like Montrose or the Heights. But it’s a pleasantly surreal surprise to find these funky crafts in Sugar Land, where the biggest news last year was the similarly surreal signing of embattled 50-year-old, former all-star MLB pitcher Roger “The Rocket” Clemens—who attended nearby Dulles High in the ’70s, and these days calls Houston home—to the newly minted minor league Sugar Land Skeeters, which had its inaugural season last year.
Still, just one look at the blueprint to turn the 715-acre industrial site beyond the farmers market, once owned by the Imperial Sugar Company, into a multiuse, pedestrian-friendly village and you can see that Sugar Land is enjoying, well, a sweet moment.
A Developing Story
Working with the City and Texas Land Office, Houston-based Johnson Development Corp. is behind the Imperial redevelopment, which will include blocks of office parks and single-family development meant to complement the mixed-use areas. Johnson is a leading force for regional, master-planned residential communities in Atlanta, San Antonio and Houston, including the Riverstone development, a 6,000-home project southwest of the Galleria. But whereas those other developments focused primarily on homes, this multiuse project evokes a new urban-suburban hybrid worthy of The Woodlands or the still-new and booming CityCentre near H-Town’s Energy Corridor.
Last year the Imperial redevelopment reached its first major milestone with the grand opening of Constellation Field (1 Stadium Dr., 281.240.4487), where the Skeeters play. More than 465,000 fans filled the stands throughout the course of the summer, enjoying amenities such as a picnic plaza, and climate-controlled luxury skyboxes. Notwithstanding a couple of stellar starts by Clemens, with a middling 64-76 win-loss record, the Skeeters still managed high attendance numbers. As the new season gets underway in April, the lesson is clear: Whether talking baseball or real estate—build it, and they will come.
The ambitious Imperial redevelopment marks the latest chapter in a success story more than a decade in the making. Now 10 years old, Sugar Land Town Square is rife with trendy restaurants and upscale boutiques including Houston’s own Em & Lee (16033 City Walk, 281.494.0391) and the chef magnet Sur La Table (2210 Lone Star Dr., 281.242.2230). Sidewalk cafés appear to have been beamed in straight from European capitals, complete with accented diners. Saks Fifth Avenue (2745 Town Center Blvd., 281.277.6700) and Nordstrom (2665 Town Center Blvd. N., 281.566.2000) opened stores in Sugar Land’s outlet mall last year.
Considering that Sugar Land boasts major employers such as beverage king Minute Maid and oilfield-tech powerhouse Schlumberger—not to mention the ongoing attention to quality-of-life issues across the Houston region—this transformation from bedroom community to haute spot makes sense. The Sugar Land Office of Economic Development is also moving forward with a state-of-the-art, 6,500-seat concert and performing arts venue near the local UH campus. Likewise, as part of a family-friendly lifestyle push, it is exploring sites for outdoor festival grounds, and aiming to improve public transit by the end of the decade.
Culturally, Sugar Land is rocking in other ways, as well. In 2009, the old Central State Prison Farm—made famous in the Lead Belly song “Midnight Special,” which was covered by classic rock gods Creedence Clearwater Revival—was reopened as the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land (13016 University Blvd., 281.313.2277), a satellite of the Hermann Park institution. This past fall, the annex even opened its own paleontology hall, taking advantage of the overflowing collection of fossils at the main facility. And a unique, full-dome digital theater in Sugar Land allows visitors to simulate space travel.
“I’m a little jealous,” says stylish Sugar Land Arts Foundation Director Amanda Rackliff of the increasing breadth of pastime options for locals; Rackliff works in Sugar Land but calls Pearland home. Last year, the foundation completed a $1.4 million renovation of its handsome Deco-era auditorium built in 1918. “The whole branding of the city has created a new feel and energy for Sugar Land. It’s not a sleepy little town anymore.”
Food for Thought
And the hits just keep on coming. Town Square was recognized in December by the Urban Land Institute for its excellence in design and marketing. In December, one of the most lauded restaurants in greater Houston, Aura Brasserie (15977 City Walk, 281.403.2872) from noted French chef Frédéric Perrier, relocated to the square. With 20-foot ceilings and a jazzy soundtrack, the bustling spot offers a creative amalgam of French and American cuisines, with a focus on seasonal cooking.
That’s not the only good news for local foodies. Houston bistro Ruggles Green (15903 City Walk, 281.565.1175) expanded into Sugar Land late last year. Near the square’s hip Texas Drive, the Latin-Asian fusion sensation Japaniero’s (2168 Texas Dr., 281.242.1121) specializes in sushi and tapas, and its popular new sibling, Guru Burgers and Crepes (2268 Texas Dr., 281.313.0026), opened in May.
Guru builds its burgers out of fresh-ground, grass-fed Akaushi beef, and offers a drink menu with local brews such as Karbach and Saint Arnold—not to mention crepes like the classic banana and Nutella combo. Nutella, as it happens, is also one of the cupcake flavors at nearby Sweet Boutique Bakery (2270 Lone Star Dr., 281.302.5374).
Those looking for nightlife hit Blu (2248 Texas Dr., 281.903.7324). After 10:30pm, the sleek neon-lit urban bistro with its Asian-influenced menu transforms into a PYT-friendly, Wash Ave-worthy lounge, complete with a glow-in-the-dark bar and dangling chandeliers. DJs spin R&B and house music during theme parties; think “Pretty in Pink.”
But the biggest news in town is Imperial of Johnson. Broad-shouldered, baldheaded Shay Shafie is the general manager. Shafie says he expects to break ground on the upscale residences this summer, with single-family homes prices starting at around $300,000. Shafie explains that the development will preserve the Imperial legacy—both the architecture and the sense of community the old company imbued locally. So, in addition to leaving some of the original Imperial headquarters and refinery buildings standing, the redevelopment will host a Sugar Land heritage museum celebrating town history. Other diversions will include a new Houston Children’s Museum outpost, and an entertainment district to complement the new ballpark.
“This is a different type of development for us,” says Shafie, noting that prior to its current embrace of multiuse concepts at Imperial, the company’s residential developments rarely incorporated commercial, retail or entertainment. But the changing regional landscape calls for a fresh approach. “What we’re seeing is that the city now has more of an employment base,” says Shafie. “People shop where they work and work where they live.”
For her part, Sugar Land Economic Development Director Regina Morales believes that Johnson is following a well-regarded development pattern, noting that master planning was in the town DNA since long before it was officially incorporated in 1959. Indeed, Imperial Sugar was constructed partially on the site of a plantation that had its origins prior to the Civil War, and by the onset of the 20th century, Imperial had built a company town with housing and churches to attract and appease workers.
Indeed, for Morales, it’s very much déjà vu all over again. “The leadership has always been forward-thinking,” she says. “In planning for the future, we focus not just on new development but on redevelopment.”