• Train cars pass in front of the Imperial Sugar site. Current plans involve preservation and mixed-use redevelopment of the iconic Imperial Char House. - photo by Shreya Radhika Patel, AIA

A company town no more, Sugar Land  establishes its identity as a city.

Our digital lives, in large part, have relieved us of the burden of discovery. But finding new roads, venturing into unknown communities, and meeting new people can take us out of a place of comfort and challenge us through new experiences. “This Is Us” is a series that explores the diverse communities that make up our vast state, sprawling across a land area that could challenge even the most intrepid explorer. Let’s set out to meet our neighbors and discover communities that inspire us to reconnect.

Nineteen miles southwest of Houston’s downtown, halfway between urban and rural, lies the example of the great American dream that is Sugar Land. Once home to the Karankawa and Akokisa Indigenous tribes, this lush floodplain of the Brazos River survived war, slavery, and colonialism to carry the crown of its most lucrative export: sugar. During the mid-1800s, a commercial sugar factory was established along the banks of Oyster Creek, solidifying a century and a half of sweet dominance. Sugar Land now hugs the U.S. 59/Interstate 69 freeway that runs from the Mexico–U.S. border in Laredo to the Lancaster–Tolstoi Border Crossing in Canada. More than a suburb, Sugar Land is a company town in its adolescence exploding with culture as it works to define itself. 

Since 2000, Sugar Land has seen a large increase in its Asian population, which is redefining the landscape of the emerging city. New residents are drawn by a sense of community; easy access to Houston’s Medical Center, Energy Corridor, and downtown; and lower housing costs. The term “Asian” is a category that, in reality, represents many diverse cultures, including Asian-Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino, among others. This mix lends a unique quality to the atmosphere of Sugar Land, one that aligns with the shared goals of its citizens. Architect Shreya Radhika Patel, AIA, grew up in Sugar Land after immigrating from the U.K. with her family at the age of 10. She is now a second-level architect at HarrisonKornberg Architects. For her, the cultural connection to Sugar Land is steeped in her family’s experience. Patel says: “I think the climate reminds us of India. Its sweaty hot. Of course, the material palette is different. India is about concrete, and here it’s about brick.”

Patel’s perspective has shifted in no small part due to her love of community and the growth of her young family. These days, she wants to be close to Indian grocery stores and her kids’ schools while working to create more beautiful neighborhoods. As is true for many, her memories are enveloped in the spices and flavors of cuisine. One of the many exciting changes brought on by Sugar Land’s growth in ethnic diversity has been an explosion of restaurants and grocery stores tucked into countless pink brick shopping centers. 

Chef Kiran Verma lived in Sugar Land before moving to Houston, where she now runs the delectable restaurant Kiran’s, on Richmond Avenue, with her daughter Puja. “Many years ago, when I lived in Sugar Land, I would often visit and entertain guests at Madras Pavilion,” says Verma. During her visits, she formed a friendship with the owners, husband and wife team Mahesh and Alpa Shah, and their business partner, Rajan Radhakrishnan. In 2020, Madras Pavilion, located on Kensington Drive, underwent a renovation and name change, becoming Indian Summer. The new name reflects the inclusion of North Indian as well as South Indian cuisine. While sharing an abundant feast of corn beet cutlets with spiced chickpeas called chhole and giant paper-thin masala dosas, we discuss what brought their business to Sugar Land. Mahesh is quick to respond: “It feels upscale, elegant, and safe, with a uniformity in architectural details of the buildings. There are no big billboards, and the City Council and mayor are responsive.” 

Senior urban planner Kareem Heshmat knows that reaching the goals for the city depends on staying connected to business owners like the Shahs and Radhakrishnan, as well as to residents like Patel. Heshmat previously worked with the city of Houston at the historic preservation office and consulted for a variety of Texas municipalities on land use regulation, transportation, and environmental sustainability. He describes Sugar Land as “a city that didn’t grow up around a downtown.” This is one of the reasons Sugar Land’s city council prioritized redevelopment of aging commercial centers and touches on a fundamental reality faced by the city. “Sugar Land is reaching maturity in terms of land build-out, so our community has to change the way we think about our transportation, employment, and housing,” Heshmat says. With less open area to build upon, there is more pressure to create density. Sugar Land as a community was designed around low-rise development and single-family housing. As a result, discussions of high-rise development and having more people in the same amount of space have been somewhat contentious.

Heshmat takes this in stride and is willing to have these discussions any way he can. During Oktoberfest, a vivacious public event at Town Square, he engaged directly with the public to explain the city’s “missing middle” initiative. The term, he explains, was coined by Daniel Parolek with Arthur Nelson in the 2010 book “Missing Middle Housing” and describes housing configurations that were common in pre-WWII America, like cottage courts, duplexes, and live-work units, which are missing from current housing stock and development patterns. Filling these gaps in housing typologies could create new pathways to homeownership for Sugar Land families and professionals, give older adults options for downsizing, and turn a company town into a place that is independent of service to one market.  

Part of the solution to the missing middle housing issue involves providing mixed-use development that can also function as public gathering space for the growing population. Town Square is one of Sugar Land’s activity centers, recently developed as a hub for locals and visitors. It ushers in a new era of shopping malls, with restaurants and retail anchored by the Town Hall, a Marriott hotel, and commercial offices, all connected by tree-lined outdoor sidewalks. It is impossible to ignore the regularity of brick and concrete, but it grounds the place, reflecting the community’s desire for permanence. Patel explains the architectural advantages of offering residents spaces like this: “Town Square has a dual purpose in one place. I like that it doesn’t have to be grand to be meaningful. It can be logical.” 

For all of Sugar Land’s growth and change, the natural environment remains its crowning feature. Behind Patel’s home in the New Territory development, a meandering neighborhood with a dense, mature tree canopy, she shares one of her favorite walking paths along a creek. Patel believes that tree coverage says a lot about the city’s priorities. “Sugar Land put a lot of effort into landscaping, which encourages people to walk around ‘co-habitating’ with wildlife along the waterways.” Suburbs may have lost their allure for many, but perhaps there is more to discover in a slower pace of life — especially in a neighborhood that was founded on cultural exchange, green spaces, and an engaged public. Late in the day, when twilight announces the earth’s procession to night, nature’s symphony comes to life in the creeks and man-made watersheds that coil through the city. This rich ecology holds the key to Sugar Land’s staying power for both past and future generations. 

Jes Deaver, AIA, is an architect and writer in Austin. 

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