Howdy, folks, and welcome back to Houston Historic Retail. Today we’re returning to West Oaks Mall, a location that holds a space near and dear in my heart as “my mall” during my teenage years. Anyone living in Houston for more than a bit knows that West Oaks is a riches to rags story. Starting off as an ambitious high-end shopping mall, serving a predicted luxury clientele that never really developed in this part of Houston. The mall was able to reinvent itself multiple times, adjusting to fit the changes this side of Houston felt. West Oaks has seemingly hit a point of no return. In a time of desperate need for change, there’s little to be had at this unarguably dying mall. It’s a sad situation and one that only really developed within the past few years. The shrinking tenancy has always been a problem at West Oaks Mall, but its scale in 2022 is somewhat shocking to see. As well, deferred maintenance is catching up with the aging structure, which is nearly 40 years old as of this post. Many Houstonians have been watching the downfall of this beloved mall icon for many years via this blog and many other social media outlets. While this mall was shrinking for years, it really didn’t start dying until about two years ago. Before we talk about the end, let’s start with the beginning of the end.
There are multiple directions to point your finger at as to why West Oaks failed as a luxury mall. While it’s evident that the demographics around the mall could never support a Galleria-type outlet as there’s not nearly as much density, you have to wonder why this middle-upper-class population never thrived here. By the early 1970s, this portion of Houston was already starting to flesh out. In the early 60s, FM 1960 was finding its way South from 290 by absorbing Jackrabbit Road to the North of I-10, with plans to do the same to the South with Addicks road. Some would see this new high-capacity four-lane highway as a potential second loop around Houston, which had been proposed since the 1960s. Westheimer was already established as a major East-West thoroughfare by replacing an abandoned railroad in the early 1900s. It provided a vital and direct link between the farms and ranches that produced our food supply and Houston, but after the construction of the Barker Reservoir dam in the 1940s, agricultural use East of the dam was repurposed as residential—dividing the plots up into 40-acre tracts, sold as “homesteads.” Even by the 60s, development was beginning to creep this way, with neighborhoods growing as extensions off Memorial Drive.
The Lifestyle Entrance and Food Court Wing
Heading towards Dillards
This new intersection is likely part of what attracted Federated’s mall development team to the area. It was a reasonable bet, too, with housing developers even referring to this new road as the “1960 Loop“. Unfortunately, the new loop wouldn’t come to pass, with the portion of FM 1960 south of 290 being redesigned as Highway 6 in the early 70s and the development of Houston’s second loop instead falling to a joint state and county project, Beltway 8. While the never-built freeway would mean that traffic to this mall would always be limited, it wasn’t the cause of the downfall of the area. Instead, this would be an overbuilding of homes during the early 1980s, just as the oil economy began to falter. While not everyone living in this area was working in the oil industry, many were. With many major oil companies establishing new offices in the area, Shell even built their Houston HQ diagonally across from the future mall. As well, even if you weren’t directly involved with petrochemicals, Houston’s economy was so tied to it that many were forced to move from the Westside to seek cheaper areas. In neighborhoods like Mission Bend, which were still being developed at the time, homes were often temporarily rented at discounted rates to help encourage prospective buyers. In a short number of years, the demographics of this part of Houston changed from mostly upper-middle-class to a block-by-block patchwork of different families from different backgrounds. Thankfully, West Oaks was able to pivot in a relatively quick time frame.
The corridor to Dillards
The Park Court
Anchors like Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue were replaced with Sears and JCPenney. The interior shops were also continually updated, with national chains taking the majority, but a few local shops always seemed to be in the mix. From the 1980s to the mid-90s, the mall was essentially the only option for those on the West Side. If you didn’t want to shop at West Oaks, your options were somewhat limited. Close by, you had Westwood or Sharpstown, but those malls both had less than stellar reputations as being somewhat rundown and out of touch. You could make the drive up to Willowbrook for a nice mall experience, but if you were planning on spending that much time on the road, it was probably easier to just drive straight in for the Galleria. West Oaks was the primary shopping destination for almost anyone who wanted to visit a mall in Fort Bend County, and it was apparent. While a hypothetical “Sugar Land Mall” had been pitched since the 70s, no genuine interest in the project had grown until the early 90s. At this point, First Colony began to court developers to finish out a large tract left between the neighborhood and Highway 59. (Also worth noting that the developer’s involvement is why it’s called First Colony Mall and not the proposed Sugar Land Mall name).
The way to Sears
The former Sears
First Colony mall would finally open in 1996. This new shopping destination would feature a similar lineup of tenants to the existing West Oaks, located on Highway 59, and would eat up most of the traffic coming into West Oaks from Southern areas of Fort Bend County. Although it was seen as competition, it was unlikely that a single mall would be able to kill off the force that was West Oaks. To help offset this opening, management at West Oaks spent lots of time and money renovating the mall. The original “Mission Style” paint scheme, tiles, and wall coverings were all removed and updated with a more modern, and streamlined look. While the mall’s look was updated, this wasn’t a massive update, and most structural components were left in place, with one exception being the second-story smokers level in the food court. This suspended level was removed, as the mall was made non-smoking in a bid to help attract families and also fell in line with many other retailers of that time. This fresh coat of paint was barely dry by the time plans for Katy Mills Mall were announced in the late 90s. While Katy Mills was pitched as an “indoor outlet mall,” its mix of traditional retailers would pull another large number of customers from West Oaks. Around the turn of the century, renovation plans for West Oaks were once again on the table. This time, to combat the recently opened Katy Mills mall, the renovations would be much more intense and even include some structural changes.
Heading towards the former Foley’s/Macy’s
An Outdated Directory
Crazy Boss, former Palais Royal
In the early 2000s, the “Ranch Remodel” was meant to bank on the land’s history as a ranch. The land the mall sits on was the Southeastern corner of the Barker/LH7 Ranch, which was the largest ranch in Harris County. While ranching operations had ceased in the 1940s on this side of the dam, the interior of the Barker Reservoir was leased back to the ranchers up until the family mostly dismantled the business in the 1970s. The theme was a bit lost, and this is coming from someone who visited the mall during renovations; I didn’t fully get it until a few months in. Although, it should be noted that this retheming was well done, to say the least. Remaining Mission Style elements, like round windows, colorful tiles, and bits of faux adobe, were all removed or covered. Stone and Wood were the preferred trims for the interior of the mall. This new theming would replace the neutral colors of the 90s, returning to deeper earth tones. Along with a heavy reliance on maroon to balance things out. The renovations would also bring exclusivity to the mall with the opening of Houston’s first Alamo Drafthouse. The mall once again looked good enough that it could have been plopped down into Cinco Ranch and not have been out of place. The updates were well received, and the 2000s continued to be quite a good time for West Oaks Mall.
Heading back to the food court
Despite success on the outside, the late 2000s were when the trouble really began for the mall. In this decade, the property would be sold three times, all in relatively quick succession. Each time, the mall value would drop. Going from hundreds of millions of dollars to the teens within less than ten years. It seems that each new owner discovered that despite the renovation, and steady foot traffic, this mall was essentially forever limited. Houstonians wouldn’t make this a destination mall without a freeway leading to it, and developers realized that expansion potential was limited. During this time, tenancy problems would also begin to develop. With JC Penney and Mervyn’s both closing their stores as part of larger chain-wide restructurings, West Oaks came up short in finding new long-term tenants for either spot. As well many chain retailers would end up moving their storefronts to the de-outleting Katy Mills, with some spots having trouble finding new tenants. While foot traffic in the mall declined a bit towards the end of the 2000s, the mall was still in okay shape, and the new owners had a new plan.
The rest of the food court
Around 2011, a “Lifestyle Center” for West Oaks Mall would be announced. This new center would consist of an Edwards Multiplex Theater in place of the former Mervyn’s, which was briefly replaced by Steve & Barry’s before sitting vacant. The largely vacant hallway leading to Mervyn’s would also be partially demolished, moving the remaining tenants to fill other vacant storefronts in the mall. Work would start on the plans later that year, with Edwards opening their theater and Alamo Drafthouse closing in tandem. During this time, Dillards would also announce that their store would be downgraded to a Clearance Center, closing off the second floor. Despite all this, Sears, Foley’s, and the new Edwards Theater all seemed promising enough. However, as with most great plans, not everything panned out. While the movie theater was built and opened as part of the Lifestyle Center, not much else ever did. As of 2022, in the spaces built for the Lifestyle Center, no tenant has yet to permanently move in. A portion of the mall was converted to have an exterior entrance and opened as a Fro-Yo shop that closed last year. The dead lifestyle center would quickly prove to be poison to the mall, especially to the food court area. Shops still hung around between the food court and Macy’s, but food options were dwindling, and nothing had replaced the former Alamo Drafthouse. There have been a few attempts at reusing the space, such as the very short-lived Toby Keith’s I love this Bar and Grill. Which only lasted a few months, not all at once either. Signs for a concept named Electric Cowboy have gone up, but nothing else has developed yet.
In 2017, Macy’s quietly put this location up for sale. The mall itself had already been on the market for many years, but the closing of Macy’s really was the start of what looks like the last chapter for West Oaks Mall. About a year after Macy’s closed, interior tenancy really shrank. While the store did get a slight boost from the closing of Northwest Mall, it wasn’t anything major. A year later, Sears would announce that they were also selling their property and closing their West Oaks location. The property, now combined as one large piece, was sold to a company named Mehta Investments in 2018. Mr. Mehta is a property developer who had previously owned multiple mall-based bridal chains, including a prominent bridal shop on Highway 6 is represented as part of the offerings at “The Outlet” in the former Foley’s/Macy’s building. The plan was for the mall to shift strategies again, this time aiming for lower-end chains and independents who would be willing to work with the mall to bring in customers. Over the next few years, very little would be done or said about the mall. It turns out that behind the scenes, Mehta was involved in a lawsuit over the mall and a former business partner. After losing the suit in 2020, it seems that the mall’s chances for any sort of real update have evaporated before our very eyes. There are still some stores operating out of West Oaks, but it’s nothing like it was even five years ago. Unless this mall gets some new tenants stat, it will likely end up redeveloped really soon.