Architect / Urban Designer Robert Heineman Celebrates 45-Plus Years with The Woodlands, Spanning a Lifelong Career
In June 1971, Robert Heineman worked as a summer intern for Mitchell Energy & Development before beginning his final year at Harvard University. Born in Lubbock, Texas, Heineman first pictured himself pursuing a career in math or science. During his senior year in high school, an award in physics which included a week-long trip to Bell Research Laboratories (now AT&T) outside of New York City, had an unexpected effect that caused him to dramatically change course to pursue architecture and urban design in college. Heineman holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Rice University and a Master of Architecture degree in Urban Design from Harvard University. During the first year after graduating from Rice University, he worked briefly for four architecture firms (his longest work span was three months!). Interested in the fabric of the city and how buildings relate in the overall environment, he then turned from architecture to pursue urban design at Harvard University. With this restless beginning, he never dreamed in 1972 that he would be embarking on a lifetime career in The Woodlands.
After graduation in June 1972, Heineman began work as a Design Coordinator in the Planning Department with the founder of The Woodlands, George Mitchell, at Mitchell Energy & Development which at the time was located in downtown Houston. The organization would eventually become The Woodlands Development Company, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Howard Hughes Corporation.
Today, Robert Heineman is Vice President of Planning and Design in The Woodlands. I sat down with Robert to discuss his journey.
The Woodlands: What interested you most about The Woodlands when it was in its infancy?
Heineman: The Woodlands was a truly visionary project that broke new ground in community planning. Planning The Woodlands was very complex and challenging. We studied all of the components that constitute a city and formulated new and updated concepts for each. These components included the preservation of the natural environment, mobility, infrastructure, and the institutional framework, to name a few. Then we synthesized these individual concepts into an overall vision or plan for the community. The unique vision and challenge posed by The Woodlands was the attraction for me and many others at The Woodlands.
The Woodlands: How did you formulate the design?
Heineman: The design of The Woodlands encompasses all of the elements that comprise a city. After establishing objectives for each element of the community, we developed the tools by which these objectives could be accomplished. For example, one objective was to maintain the natural environment through the development process. That objective was achieved in several ways: maintaining natural forest preserves along major roadways as opposed to the typical strip retail development, maintaining the natural stream beds, preserving at least 25% open space, establishing forest preserve setbacks and coverage limits for all parcels of land prior to sale, developing landscape standards for commercial and residential development, and developing the mechanism for enforcing these standards through recorded documents, development criteria, Development Standards, and design review committee(s).
The Woodlands: You mentioned one example you accomplished. Can you describe another goal and how it was achieved?
Heineman: Another goal was to maximize mobility throughout the community at build-out. We knew that Interstate 45 would serve as the primary vehicular gateway to The Woodlands for many years. One challenge was to maintain mobility to areas located at the western edge of The Woodlands eight miles east of I-45. The typical solution at that time would be to replicate eight miles of Westheimer from the Galleria at IH-610 past Beltway 8 to Dairy Ashford. This solution was unacceptable. Our solution consisted of a hierarchical roadway system where the major thoroughfares are designed as landscaped parkways through the forest, road rights-of-way dedicated to the County to accommodate ultimate development, commercial land use within villages organized as nodes in Village Centers as opposed to strip retail development, minimizing private driveways, and planning intersecting streets so that signals can be synchronized efficiently. The result is a roadway system that is much more efficient than the typical solution.
The Woodlands: Mr. Mitchell was known for his vision and perseverance. What comes to mind?
Heineman: Mr. Mitchell’s vision for The Woodlands called for a complete community with a major employment center or Town Center surrounded by residential villages, thereby allowing residents to live and work in the community. This required holding the land in the Town Center for many years until the surrounding residential development could support a true downtown. This demanded real foresight and commitment. Without it, there would be no Town Center today.
The Woodlands: You are credited with the infamous napkin sketch of The Woodlands Town Center. Tell me about this.
Heineman: Actually, I drew the 1972 sketch on a large index card, not a napkin. Back then, ideas were recorded on index cards during brain-storming sessions and pinned on a wall for discussion. Some were then photographed for later use in slide presentations (no Power Points back then!), and the original diagrams were discarded. The 1972 diagram depicts a mixed-use downtown with a transit corridor down the middle. This simple diagram evolved over time into the reality of The Woodlands Waterway and the Town Center of today.
The Woodlands: The Woodlands has had several owners since Mr. Mitchell sold the project in 1997. How has this affected the design of The Woodlands?
Heineman: While a change in ownership often results in changes in vision or plan, this has not been the case with The Woodlands. The original vision of George Mitchell has been maintained consistently over the years and continues with The Howard Hughes Corporation.
The Woodlands: One of the most recognized new developments is Hughes Landing on Lake Woodlands, developed by The Howard Hughes Corporation. Tell me about this mixed-use destination.
Heineman: Hughes Landing is an exciting 66-acre development within a walkable urban setting. Howard Hughes recognized this premium location on 200-acre Lake Woodlands supremely suited for a quality commercial /mixed-use development. The views of the lake and activities on the lake are really spectacular!
The Woodlands: What are you the proudest of during your 45-plus years in The Woodlands?
Heineman: It has been a privilege and an honor to have been part of the team that planned and developed The Woodlands into an international model for community development and to see the community grow from concept to reality.
In 2009, Heineman was advanced to Fellowship by the American Institute of Architects. In 2010, Heineman was the recipient of the prestigious George Mitchell Award in The Woodlands for "helping guide the vision for The Woodlands and lay the groundwork for the Town Center and development of The Woodlands Waterway”. The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce recognized Heineman as "Volunteer of the Year” in 1993 and "Citizen of the Year” in 2014.