Happy Birthday First Colony Mall, sorry we sorta forgot!

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post, written by my favorite scincidae, billytheskink, is part two in our Month of Malls! Be sure to check out Part One! -Mike

March 2021 came and went, and we failed to wish First Colony Mall well on its 25th birthday!  Sincere apologies for this egregious oversight.  Hopefully this belated happy birthday post full of photos and reminiscence (and also more photos!) from a Fort Bend County kid can in some small way help make up for this terrible mistake.

A (kind of) Brief History Of The Mall

While the mall itself opened on March 14, 1996, the history of First Colony Mall begins about a decade prior.  Gerald D. Hines Interests, famed developers of Houston’s Galleria, had founded Sugarland Properties (now morphed into Planned Community Developers) in the mid-1970s to develop the master-planned community of First Colony on roughly 10,000 acres then-adjacent to the town of Sugar Land (two words, unlike the development company, or the small mall in the Texas Panhandle town of Hereford).  By the mid-1980s, development in First Colony and other communities in north and central Fort Bend County had progressed to the point that Sugarland Properties and Hines proposed a regional mall to be built on First Colony property at the southeast corner of SH6 and US 59, just about 10 miles from then-successful Sharpstown Center and West Oaks Mall and even less than that from Westwood Mall.  Reports of the planned mall (then called the “Town Center”) surfaced as early as 1987, calling for three anchors and over 1 million square feet of space, about 300,000 sf to be made available for inline tenants.  A potential second phase was also proposed, adding a fourth anchor and another 150,000 sf of inline tenant space.  An ice skating rink overlooked by the mall’s food court was also proposed (I wonder where Hines got that idea…) and the developers expected to court affluent shoppers with upscale stores like Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Foley’s, Marshall Field, and Neiman Marcus all mentioned as potential anchors for the mall.  Later plans for the mall’s proposed second phase reduced inline tenant space to 100,000 sf but also called for a move from one to three additional anchors.

The proposed First Colony “Town Center” mall was originally slated to begin construction in 1990 or 1991, but immediately faced delays.  Economic growth in the Houston region sputtered during much of the late 80s and early 90s and Hines also had to deal with Lexington Development’s similarly-timed proposal of a mall at the northeast corner of US 59 and the Grand Parkway (then a short and bumpy northern extension of Crabb River Road).  Lexington’s proposed mall was planned to be part of their New Territory subdivision then being built just north of the Brazos River, but the plan evaporated in the early 90s and the site was later developed as the River Park subdivision (including a sizable retail component).  Above all, the First Colony Mall project struggled for several years to sign up the anchor tenants needed to make the mall a reality.  Most of the upscale anchors that the mall initially targeted seemed uninterested in expanding at all in the region while other potential anchors may have been concerned about stores at First Colony cannibalizing sales from their locations at Sharpstown, Westwood, and West Oaks (all of which heavily courted Fort Bend County shoppers in the 80s and early 90s).  However, with the 1990 Census showing that nearly one-quarter of the Houston region’s population growth over the previous decade had occurred in Fort Bend County and that this growth consisted heavily of the affluent, white collar commuters that malls of the time catered to, anchors began to sign up and construction of the mall became inevitable.

Hines Interests and Sugarland Properties finally announced plans for what they now officially called First Colony Mall in October of 1994, with Foley’s as its signature anchor and with construction set to start around the end of that year.  The project was financed by Connecticut General Life Insurance (now better known as Cigna) and designed by RTKL Associates of Dallas (now CallisonRTKL) with Hines, Sugarland Properties, and Cigna all taking a stake in the mall’s operating company, The First Colony Mall Joint Venture (not to be confused with the First Colony Venture).  The mall would finally open in March 1996, just as First Colony’s main residential sections were nearing build out.  The completed mall was quite similar to the proposal that first surfaced in 1987, including about 300,000 sf of inline tenant space and over 1 million sf of retail in total, though it had four anchors instead of the originally proposed three and the proposed ice rink became superfluous when the Aerodrome (now the Sugar Land Ice & Sports Center) opened quite literally across the street from the mall site in 1994.  Anchored by Foley’s, Dillard’s, JCPenney, and Mervyn’s (under the Mervyn’s California branding), the mall was notable at the time of its opening for its lack of a Sears store (interestingly, one of the last storefronts in the Houston area to bear the Sears name is located less than a mile from the mall).

In its 25 years, First Colony Mall has survived and often thrived through seismic demographic changes, multiple economic recessions and downturns, the decimation of West Oaks and Sharpstown and closure of Westwood (all of which First Colony arguably had a hand in), the rise of online shopping, the retail trend shift to outdoor power center and outlet mall concepts, COVID-19, and perhaps most famously, a 1998 tornado that struck and damaged the mall.  The First Colony Mall Joint Venture sold the mall to General Growth Properties in 2002, which was in turn swallowed by Brookfield Properties in 2018.  First Colony Mall presently stands as the last traditional department store-anchored mall to have opened in the Houston area, with 1999’s Katy Mills and several subsequently-built outlet malls opening with a much less traditional mall retail tenant mix.

Let’s Go Inside

Now, won’t you all join me for a journey through what my wife, without fail, calls “The Fort Bend Mall” just as it was “waking up” on a late summer Saturday morning in 2021.  It will be fun and air-conditioned, I promise.

The Food Court

Out tour begins in the Food Court, which was probably the most visually distinct part of the mall when it opened in 1996 and, I would argue, remains so today.  Though none of its tenants have ever really served up diner fare as far as I can recall, the food court was branded as “Sugar Land Cafes” and plastered with décor meant to evoke a 1950s-era American roadside diner.  This branding and even much of the original décor remains in place to this day, making the food court the part of the mall that looks the most like it did in 1996.

A Tour Of The Mall

Now that we have thoroughly examined the food court, let’s go take a look at the rest of the mall.  It appears to have a pretty high and healthy occupancy and a solid level of traffic for a mall in this day and age.  While some of the mall’s interior has been replaced or updated since its opening, much of it does not look appreciably different than it did in 1996, though it all appears to be pretty well-maintained and little of the mall looks especially worn or out-of-date.  Over the years, the mall has seen two additions to and no real subtractions from its original structure and layout.  I will briefly cover those additions, but will not explore them as much as the rest of the mall.  Maybe I can revisit them when they turn 25 years old.

Anchors

Three of First Colony Mall’s four original anchor spaces have been continuously occupied since the mall opened, a fairly impressive feat for a Houston-area mall (though one aided greatly by the fact that the mall has never had a Sears or Montgomery Ward location).  Both Dillard’s and JCPenney remain where they were in 1996 while Foley’s took on the Macy’s name in 2006 without interrupting operations.  The fourth anchor, Mervyn’s (sans “California” at this point), left the mall in January 2006.  The space did not see a long-term occupant again until 2009 when Dillard’s moved its men’s and home departments to the former Mervyn’s, expanding the women’s and children’s departments in its original space.  A fifth anchor, Dick’s Sporting Goods, was built on a parking lot between the Mervyn’s and the mall’s food court entrance and opened in October 2016.  One might also consider the Barnes & Noble, which opened in 2006 in the mall’s outdoor wing, as a sixth anchor.

The 25 Club! – Charter Tenants

The two (or three, depending on your opinion of the Foley’s-Macy’s transition) charter anchors aren’t the only original tenants still operating at First Colony Mall.  While the mall’s opening day directory included a who’s who of long-gone retailers that mallgoers of a certain age will remember well, from 9 West and Bag’N Baggage to Ritz Camera and Y’all’s Texas Store (and a Buiyahkah on top of that), there are several stores in the mall today whose names have never left the directory.  From what I was able to determine, a remarkable 20 inline tenants at First Colony Mall have been operating there since the spring of 1996 (if anyone knows of any original tenants that I missed, please let me know in the comments).  Most of these stores are operating out of the same spaces they originally did, but a few have moved around the mall over the years.  Congratulations and kudos to these stores for surviving the tumultuous tenant turnover that affects even the most successful of malls.

Misc-mall-aneous Memories

Charter tenants aren’t the only thing interesting lying along the mall’s concourse.  As someone who has been going to First Colony Mall since it opened and was a teenager during much of its early life, here are a few other things that I though merited a mention.

3 comments

  1. A true treasure of a mall, and a true treasure of a post! It’s crazy to see your “childhood mall” done up, but this is a great record of First Colony Mall. I had actually forgotten about Gadzooks until you mentioned the Beetle!

  2. Great work, billytheskink, I enjoyed reading this post! Your wife may call this the Fort Bend Mall, but I usually call it the Sugar Land Mall! But, hey, at least I don’t call it the Sugarland Mall, right? Lol, that little Sugarland mall in Hereford looks pretty neat. Maybe Je will be able to visit it one day on one of his small Texas mall adventures!

    In some ways, it’s harder to believe that First Colony Mall is 25 years old than it is to believe that Willowbrook Mall is 40 years old. As you say, First Colony is the oldest department store-anchored mall in the Houston area and it really does not feel like it is a quarter of a century old, but it most certainly is. I suppose it’s now old enough that those around in the mall’s earliest days have to dust off the memory vault before opening it, lol.

    I must admit that of all the Houston malls, First Colony is one that I probably know the least about. I think I only visited the mall once and that was when the mall was new. I don’t spend much time on the SW side so that’s a big part of it. I must admit that I was biased against this mall for many years. In my mind, a great mall was a mall that had a Sears and a Montgomery Ward. A merely passable mall had one or the other. I made exceptions for Almeda and Northwest Malls due to their age, but First Colony Mall always seemed lacking to me since it didn’t have either Sears or Wards! Now that both are gone from Houston, I suppose that’s not as big of a deal now.

    Why Sears was not at this mall is one of the biggest Houston mall mysteries around. The two prevailing thoughts are that either 1) Sears decided to stick with their Westwood and West Oaks locations and skipped on building a location at First Colony or 2) Hines did not want a store like Sears at First Colony Mall in order to maintain an upscale image not unlike what Hines did at The Galleria.

    The problem with explanation 1 is that surely Sears knew that Westwood and even West Oaks didn’t have a chance against First Colony. Sugar Land had already become such a prestigious area by the time First Colony was being planned and the areas around Westwood and West Oaks had already begun to suffer from image problems. The problem with explanation 2 is that if Hines was so interested in prestige, why did they allow JCPenney and Mervyn’s?

    I tend to lean towards explanation 2. I think JCPenney and Mervyn’s were probably allowed due to them being fashion stores. Although Sears was trying to turn around their image during those days, they were still more associated with tools, tires, car batteries, and stuff like that than fashions.

    There is also the mystery of Foley’s announcing they were moving their Sharpstown location to Westwood after the First Colony store opened, but then that move never happened. Why it was even announced is about as big of a mystery as the lack of Sears at First Colony!

    One final note, those ads in the food court remind me of the fake storefronts the Mall of the Mainland had. At least if First Colony had a fake postcard about how there’s so much to do at the mall, it would seem a lot more credible than the fake postcard that was actually painted on the walls at the Mall of the Mainland!

  3. Very well written post, and a great addition to the Month of Malls! Happy belated 25th to First Colony Mall! Tons of fun photos and history here.

    Wolfchase Galleria in Memphis has very similar billboards overlooking its food court, and they too were sold off to advertisers at one point. Last time I was there, though, they were back to the old generic posters, if I remember correctly. The computer puns seen at this mall are cool.

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