Editor’s Note: Today we begin Houston Historic Retail’s Month of Malls! Our 3 Wednesday posts will feature all new Mall content! Lets start off Part One with Northwestern Houston Resident Expert Anonymous in Houston! -Mike
Those who have visited the Willowbrook Mall area in Northwest Houston know that several words can be used to describe the territory, but ‘sleepy’ is probably not one of them in current times. However, prior to the official opening of Willowbrook Mall on September23, 1981 (though the original three anchors of Sears, Foley’s, and Montgomery Ward had all opened for business by September 2, 1981),‘sleepy’ was probably the perfect word to describe what is now known as the Willowbrook area. In fact, ‘sleepy’ could have been used to describe all of the Northwest Houston suburbs prior to the opening of the mall!
When the Homart Development Company division of Sears decided to place a mall at the southeast corner of the intersection of FM 149 & FM 1960 in the late 1970s as their second Houston-area mall after Baybrook Mall, even they probably could not imagine how much of an overnight success the mall would be and how much the area would grow and prosper in the subsequent 40 years. The development of neighborhoods in wooded Northwest Houston/Harris County in the 1970s, which led to the opening of the small North Oaks Mall at the corner of FM 1960 W & Veterans Memorial Dr./Stuebner Airline Rd. in 1976 (you can read about North Oaks Mall here, here, and here), probably gave Sears hope that a larger mall in Northwest Houston could be successful. Still, their expectations were surely exceeded almost immediately when the fortunes of the area boomed shortly after the mall opened due in part to technology industry activity that isolated the area from the economic malaise related to the oil bust that plagued the rest of the Houston area in the 1980s.
A quick glance at the Willowbrook area on a modern map shows that it sits at the corner of a freeway, SH 249, and a major road, FM 1960 West. Not far from the mall is the Beltway 8 freeway loop. When Willowbrook Mall opened, however, the Beltway 8 freeway did not yet exist, SH 249 was a fairly quiet non-freeway road named FM 149, and FM 1960 W was hardly the major artery that it is now. The fact that FM 149 even became a freeway as quickly as it did was surely boosted by the presence of the mall and related developments. FM 1960 W surely would not be the wide mega-road that it is with the underpass under SH 249 without the traffic caused by the mall and surrounding retail centers. Anyone who shopped at Willowbrook Mall in the 1980s or 1990s, as I did, surely remembers how horrifically bad traffic was near the mall before the modern roads were upgraded around the mall!
As mentioned earlier, the Northwest Houston suburbs, the Willowbrook area in particular, were isolated from the economic malaise that plagued the Houston area in the 1980s. The main reason for this is probably the explosive growth of the Compaq computer company that was formed in 1982. Compaq placed their sprawling global headquarters in a quiet part of FM 149 at Louetta Road in 1986. Compaq quickly ascended to become the leading manufacturer of PCs by the mid-1990s from their wooded offices just up FM 149 a few miles from Willowbrook Mall. With this, several educated and well-paid Compaq employees built homes in Northwest Houston/the Willowbrook area and this all helped boost sales for the retailers at Willowbrook Mall. The success of Compaq and Willowbrook Mall hastened the infrastructure improvements that led to rural FM 149 becoming SH 249, a major Houston freeway. Although Compaq’s 2002 merger with Hewlett-Packard did somewhat diminish the technology sector impact on the Willowbrook area, the area was had already become a huge growth area that continues even to this day with modern shopping and housing developments such as Vintage Park.
Willowbrook Mall was such a success that there were even rumors of the mall adding a second story in the 1990s, but that never materialized. Nonetheless, the mall continued to add anchors beyond the original group of major anchors that opened along with the mall in 1981. Being a Sears/Homart developed mall, Sears naturally had the prime anchor spot at the mall. On the other end of the barbell-shaped mall was Foley’s who used a store design that was later reused at West Oaks Mall a few years later. The anchors that operated off the main mall corridor were Montgomery Ward and Joske’s. Joske’s did not open their location at Willowbrook Mall until July 1983, nearly two years after the mall initially opened. The mall also had a movie theater near the center food court.
In 1984, Macy’s opened a three-story department store at Willowbrook Mall and that easily became the most upscale anchor at the mall. In 1992, the mall added JCPenney as an anchor after years of rumors about Penney’s opening at the mall and the mall was also renovated in 1992 to have the interior design that the mall is still using to this day. Prior to the 1992 renovation, the mall had an indoor forest/park design that relied heavily on earthtones like most malls of the 1970s and early 1980s. The 1992 renovation replaced the earthtones with a more bright white-colored design that was starting to become popular at that time and which still maintains popularity to this day. Even with the interior of the mall being around 30 years old at this point, I believe the mall’s décor still looks up-to-date.
In the mid-1990s, Macy’s closed their Willowbrook Mall location. Dillard’s, who had taken over Joske’s in 1987, was rumored to be interested in taking over the Macy’s building while also maintaining their existing location at the mall with a split men’s/women’s store arrangement like what took place for at least a short period at Baybrook Mall, but ultimately Dillard’s took over the Macy’s building and closed their existing location at the mall. Lord & Taylor eventually picked up the old Joske’s/Dillard’s location, but that was short-lived. When Lord & Taylor closed, that anchor building was demolished and left as an empty grassy anchor pad for several years until Nordstrom Rack opened their location at the mall in 2014.
After Montgomery Ward went out of business in 2001, Foley’s took over the Wards building and implemented the men’s/women’s store split that Dillard’s was considering some years prior with the men’s and furniture departments moving to the old Montgomery Ward. The two Foley’s stores then became Macy’s in 2006.
In recent developments, Dick’s Sporting Goods became the latest anchor at Willowbrook Mall, which is now operated by Brookfield Properties, in 2016 when their location was added to the side of the food court. The new food court restroom complex partially uses the area which used to be the long-defunct mall movie theater. In early 2020, Sears closed their Willowbrook Mall location. Thus, the most visible anchor building at the mall is now empty. If you’re interested in seeing what the Sears looked like inside while it was still open, I recommend reading this recent blog post at the Louisiana & Texas Retail Blog which contains photos taken inside the Willowbrook Sears in 2017-18. I can only guess that the old Sears building will be demolished at some point and turned into some kind of outdoor lifestyle center development at some point, but that has not happened yet. Even if a new anchor tenant is added to where the Sears is now, it’s hard to imagine it being a traditional retail department store.
I have read a lot of opinions about the current and future state of Willowbrook Mall. Depending on which websites you read, you might hear the mall defined as a thriving mall or a dying mall. I think the truth lies somewhere in between those claims, but it’s probably closer to being a thriving mall than a dying mall. Well, at least it’s a thriving mall as much as any suburban US indoor mall can be called here in the 2020s that does not have a significant outdoor lifestyle center component and/or exterior entrances for inline tenants. Willowbrook Mall still draws in a lot of shoppers and the mall is full of grade-A retail tenants. New tenants, like the In-N-Out Burger that is an outparcel at the mall, still bring a lot of excitement to the mall. The surrounding powercenters, such as The Commons which is across FM 1960 W from the mall, all still appear to be doing pretty well.
In my opinion, the loss of Montgomery Ward twenty years ago, the elimination of electronics from Dillard’s and Foley’s/Macy’s years ago, and the decline and closure of Sears has done a lot to turn Willowbrook Mall from a place that was very interesting to me into a place that really does not offer me very much. Sure, if I need work or formal attire, stores like Dillard’s and JCPenney are great options, but that type of shopping does not excite me very much. As sad as it is to say, I think the most interesting ‘retailer’ at Willowbrook Mall these days might be the Comcast/Xfinity store. Yikes! While it might not be realistic for stores like what Radio Shack used to be to start returning to Willowbrook Mall and other malls across the US, I do hope that retailers of some interest to me will open up at Willowbrook and other malls in the future. As such, there is not much reason for me to visit Willowbrook Mall regularly here in modern times.
With that said, Willowbrook Mall is still a major shopping destination in Northwest Houston. In fact, Willowbrook-area retail is probably still the shopping destination in Northwest Houston. As for the mall itself, the future of the mall, like so many other malls, is quite dependent on the health of the major anchor stores at the mall. If retailers like Macy’s and JCPenney can rebound and find relevance in the next decade, the future of Willowbrook Mall will probably be very bright. If those retailers fail in the next decade, which is certainly possible, Willowbrook Mall’s golden jubilee anniversary might not be so golden unless the mall can re-invent itself in a way that will likely not be centered on department stores and other traditional retailers.
Additional resources about the history of Willowbrook Mall:
Earlier in this post, I mentioned how quiet the FM 149 & FM 1960 W area was before the mall was built. To get a visual image of how quiet things were, I recommend viewing the image on page 252 of Erik Slotboom’s excellent 2003 book Houston Freeways. The image in question is an overhead construction photo of the Willowbrook Mall construction site that was taken in October 1980. Erik kindly provides his book as a free downloadable PDF on the Houston Freeways website. This book is a highly recommend read for topics even beyond Willowbrook Mall.
Finally, given how well Willowbrook Mall did early on and how much suburban Northwest Houston was growing, it is perhaps not a surprise that other mall developers hoped to build malls in Northwest Houston to compete with Willowbrook Mall. Je of the Louisiana & Texas Retail Blog wrote a blog post in 2014 about two of these proposed developments. One proposal had plans to build a mall called the Bluebonnet Mall along with a race track called Bluebonnet Downs at the corner of US 290 & FM 1960 W. Another proposal, which was pushed by the developers of the Mall of the Mainland, was to build a mall in Copperfield at the corner of FM 529 & Highway 6. The Copperfield Mall proposal was probably a serious one given that the same developers did actually build the Mall of the Mainland during the same general time period, but obviously neither it or the Bluebonnet Mall were ever built. Je’s blog post also mentions a couple of Houston malls Homart hoped to build in the 1980s or 1990s, but they did not get built. Homart was involved in the development of the Deerbrook Mall, which opened in 1984, and The Woodlands Mall that opened in 1994.
A Note About The Photos Used In This Post: Many thanks go to Mike of HHR and Je of the Louisiana & Texas Retail Blog for opening up their personal collection of photos of Willowbrook Mall. I am thankful for their collegiality and dedication to covering Houston retail. Mike’s photos were taken in mid-2021 and Je’s photos were taken in early 2020.