Fort Bend County is not an area one generally associates with urban blight. Most folk’s exposure to the county is driving along the highways, which mostly pass through relatively affluent areas. While there are some pockets, of less valuable properties, it’s nothing compared with what you might see driving the highways of Houston. To most, it would seem that truly decrepit areas don’t exist within the boundaries of Fort Bend, but this is far from the truth. Today we’re taking a look at an attempt to go back and fix a long-ignored shopping center in Fort Bend, Houston. Let’s start off with some history. This portion of Fort Bend County was originally part of Stephen F. Austin’s Old 300 Grant. After the Civil War, the land and many other tracts in this area were purchased by the State of Texas Prison system to transform into prison work camps. However, by 1910, Texas’s convict leasing system was outlawed, and the land was considered surplus. Around this time, oil was discovered on the land, with the presence of a salt dome. Separate mining operations began for the oil and salt, and a new demand for jobs grew in the area. This call for employment began one of Houston’s earliest pulls toward the Southwest. By the 1950s, the salt mine had failed after a collapse (no one was hurt as it occurred on Christmas Eve), and oil mining operations had only increased in the area. By the 1960s, the dominance of oil mining in the area encouraged the prison system to sell the land North of the field to developers to construct homes. The prison would continue to lease out the oil field, slowly selling off the remaining portions to TV stations so they could construct broadcast masts during the 1970s. This brings us to the start of our shopping center.
The 1960s were a great time for Houston. Development along the new Southwest Freeway had created a nearly unbroken link of new homes, and businesses, all the way from Sharpstown to the Harris County Line. With a new alignment of the freeway running through the county’s middle, it was now Fort Bend turned to step up. Homes and businesses would sprout on the new freeway near the county line, but the lack of existing infrastructure made it necessary for developers to provide all essential services for these early neighborhoods, like Sugar Creek. These challenges helped to increase sales of homes in Southwest Houston, especially along the 90-A corridor. This network of homes could expand more quickly thanks to their connection with the existing city of Houston services. The growth was so fast-paced that the city of Houston even annexed portions of Fort Bend County in the 1970s as homes were being built. In this portion of Houston, emphasis was put on the availability of the homes in this area above the quality of the neighborhoods. While developers further up 90-A relied on the highway for business frontage, that wasn’t the case in Willow Ridge. The developers instead dropped their shopping center along what was an existing country road and a new arterial road leading into an unfinished neighborhood.
By late 1979, the new shopping center was first announced. It was to contain a Kroger Superstore, a Walgreens, a Weiner’s Department Store, and many smaller shops. In addition to this, a second large anchor space was left on the West End for an unannounced future tenant. At the opening, the shopping center was a meager 70% occupied, and it was on the edge of residential limits at the time. However, with continued development, it would soon be in the center of the new Willow Ridge neighborhood and would likely become a hub similar to shopping centers built in Alief around this same time. While the houses built weren’t exceptionally expensive, their value quickly dipped during a rough 1980s oil market. This, combined with the area’s already somewhat industrial image, led to a rise of issues in the 80s. Stores began closing with little to no explanation. Kroger was one of the first to pull out of the shopping center. The store had opened under the “Super Store” banner, but other than a floral department, which wasn’t exceptionally rare in newer stores, this Kroger had nothing special about it. Kroger would shut the store in June of 1987, auctioning off their lease a little over a year later. While the usual process was to auction a sublease to another grocer, Kroger was unable to find a tenant, and the former store would sit vacant for at least the next five years. Eventually, a church would inhabit the space for a few years before leaving it for a new facility around 1995. From this point on, the former Kroger would see no long-term use. Other stores in the shopping center saw a similar fate. Walgreens managed to make it to the mid-90s before subleasing their space to Family Dollar, who ran their lease until 2019. Weiner’s managed to hang around until 2000, making it the longest original tenant. Just as the chain was preparing to enter bankruptcy, the store was sold to the owners of the Label Warehouse chain, which operated the midtown Fire Sale stores. Label Warehouse would last until 2018, when the entire chain went under with no explanation.
The years have not been kind to this shopping center or the surrounding area truly. It has a subpar reputation, and this urban blight isn’t helping one bit. Many stores came and went so quickly that there’s no record of them, not just online but in print either. One interesting exception was a Kinney Shoe Store, which still stands and has been a “neighborhood grocery store” after Kinney’s departure in the early 90s. The rest of the shopping center sat mostly vacant. A McDonald’s across the street and a few fast food joints in the parking lot shut down only years after opening. With the exception of the long-filled Walgreens/Family Dollar space, there was no real chain presence in the area past the 1990s. The shopping center sat dormant for many years, and in 2019 plans were announced for the redevelopment of the former shopping center into a mixed-use district. Half of the property would be used for affordable housing, and the other half would become an arts center, with plans to try and lease some of the remaining shopping center spaces. Demolition of the Weiner’s and vacant anchor pad was started, the remaining tenants were evicted, and construction on the new apartments began. This portion of the complex, named Eddison Lofts, was completed and opened in late 2021. Work on the retail and entertainment portion of the center was initially slated to begin in 2021 but has since been pushed back to 2022, with plans to have the retail portions ready by the end of the year and the theater open in the former Kroger by 2023. We’ll see exactly what develops out of this, but with half of the project completed so far, it looks promising that we’ll see this complete within the next year or two.