Additional growth also means more cars and trucks using outdated county roads to get to the parkway.
HOUSTON (AP) Country Bumpkins Cafe is where northwest Harris County's rural past meets its suburban future. It's not unusual to see BMW luxury sedans and John Deere tractors in the gravel parking lot along Telge Road.
The crowd comes for pulled pork sandwiches and burgers covered with brisket. But it's also the product and proof of a rapidly changing landscape, one in which farmland and grazing pastures are giving way to subdivisions and strip malls.
The Houston Chronicle reported the pace has picked up in anticipation of the Grand Parkway, an outer beltway around greater Houston. With a 24-mi. (38.6 km) stretch between U.S. 290 and Interstate 45 that opened recently, developers, home buyers, retailers and local officials see the area as a new frontier, a place for new houses on big lots just down the toll road from big-city jobs.
There's no agreement on whether the pattern of growth on the suburban fringe is desirable or not. But Delores McAdoo, whose Country Bumpkins Cafe is about a half-mile south of the new highway and roughly 30 mi. (48.2 km) northwest of downtown Houston, said development was inevitable.
Talk of building the Grand Parkway began at about the time McAdoo and her husband bought two acres near the city of Tomball some 40 years ago. Their house is behind the seven-table restaurant, which the couple opened after she retired from banking.
“We came here because it was still mostly country, and I hate to see it go,” she said. “But the economy is going to bust loose, and a lot of people are going to benefit.”
The Texas Department of Transportation began the $1.1 billion extension of the Grand Parkway through northwest Harris County and south Montgomery County in July 2013. The remaining segment under construction — a 14-mi. (22.5 km) stretch from I-45 to U.S. 59 — is on pace to open by the end of March.
Once the work is done, people will be able to drive the parkway for 71 mi. (114.3 km), from Sugar Land to near Kingwood. And later this year, TxDOT is expected to select a builder for the next segments — 37 mi. (59.6 km) from U.S. 59 in Montgomery County to Interstate 10 east of Baytown.
Those promoting the outer beltway say it will improve mobility around the Houston region while opening up land on the far suburban edge for development. And indeed, when other legs of the roadway were completed, bulldozers followed.
The master-planned community Bridgeland, for example, is planting 21,000 homes on 11,400 acres of prairie south of U.S. 290. Nearby, FedEx Ground is constructing its largest distribution warehouse in Texas — a location picked because of its access to highways.
Memorial Hermann Cypress, meanwhile, is investing $168 million on a new campus near the Grand Parkway and U.S. 290, also known as the Northwest Freeway. Asked whether the project is risky, Scott Barbe, the hospital's CEO, does not hesitate.
“I think it's a pretty sure bet,” Barbe said. “There's no question when we build, we are comfortable with the decision.”
The confidence comes from knowing that the project is in greater Houston's fastest-growing ZIP code. That's also why it's being done in phases, starting with emergency care and medical offices and followed by a 160-bed hospital.
There's an immediate need, Barbe said, but also an expectation of more growth. It's a pattern that the Memorial Hermann Health System predicted, correctly, when it built a hospital where the Grand Parkway crosses I-10.
The pattern is repeating with the newest leg. Most notably, Exxon Mobil is settling into a sprawling new campus near where the Grand Parkway meets I-45, just south of The Woodlands. A master-planned community called Springwoods Village is sprouting around the oil giant's hub. The project, once finished, is to have 5,000 homes, as well as office buildings, hotels, stores and medical facilities on 1,800 acres.
From there, the Grand Parkway cuts a path through Harris County's northernmost suburbs, which are known for their leapfrog sprawl — rows of look-alike houses and fast-food joints beside industrial buildings and open fields. The road has developers looking to fill in those gaps, such as along Gosling Road, a formerly overlooked strip that now offers “wooded estates” and “lake lots,” starting in the $700,000s.
To the west, a scrubby field where the Grand Parkway meets Texas 249, also known as the Tomball Parkway, is set to become a large shopping center anchored by Sam's Club, a grocery store and sporting goods retailer.
Additional growth also means more cars and trucks using outdated county roads to get to the parkway. Officials expect to use some of the money from the $700 million bond measure approved by Harris County voters in November to improve those roads.
The Grand Parkway “is opening up what was known historically as the Far Northwest,” said Jim Gaines, an economist at Texas A&M University's Real Estate Center. “It has been rural and sparsely developed. Over the next couple of decades, it will build up.”
The transformation will be most striking west of Texas 249, where cattle ranches, organic farms and other agricultural ventures cover the landscape.
Some families already have sold acreage held for generations to developers. Others are thinking about doing the same.
The Hillegeist family, which has owned about 250 acres near Telge Road for 175 years, is among those thinking of selling its land. Cattle graze on the property, but it's now possible to hear trucks rumbling down the road and to see the lights of the parkway at night.
“It's changing, and I'm a little torn,” said Bruce Hillegeist, president of the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce. “It's the loss of a life I'm used to. Even before the Grand Parkway opens, you can see the potential.”
He doesn't need to look far to see it. Between the family house and the Grand Parkway, a new subdivision is under development with custom homes on large wooded lots, riding trails and an equestrian center. Prices range from the $700,000s to the millions.
With the opening of the new leg, it's likely that ground will be broken on as many as six large housing developments along the parkway — all more than 500 acres in size — in the next 18 months, said Jim Jenkins, vice president of master-planned communities for the home builder Toll Brothers.
“You always want to be on the roadway that fits the size of your project,” he said.
Tomball's population is projected to soar in the next 15 years, perhaps even to double. The century-old farm town has some 11,000 residents and about 350,000 people living in a 10-mi. (16 km) radius.
With homes come stores, and enough homes and stores draw offices.
“Tomball has history in farming and cattle, and that's pretty much gone,” Hillegeist said. “Our work is to make Tomball a place of choice.”
Tomball is the rare Houston suburb with a true Main Street, a tree-lined strip with shops that local folks own. The city hosts a farmers market on Saturdays and crowns a new Miss Tomball every November.
For 70 years, the city prohibited the sale of hard liquor within its original eight-block boundary without a club license. Voters repealed the law in 2014, allowing the historic district to compete “on a level playing field” with the chain restaurants in the newer parts of town.
It's the “hometown feel” that the city needs to keep as it grows, said McAdoo, who tries to promote the close-knit feeling within her small dining room at the Country Bumpkins Cafe, where customers often chat between tables as country music plays on the radio.
At the same time, the development rush has McAdoo thinking about growing her business. She is looking into extending the restaurant's hours and days of operation, adding seating and parking and opening a steak house on the property.
That's because some 1,200 houses are expected to be built between Telge and Texas 249, south of the parkway — in her front yard, essentially.
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