JOYCE VERHART, ONE OF THE Woodlands' first residents in 1974, can almost feel the master planned community's earliest days in her bones, but not with the tug of a whole lot of nostalgia. Verhart needed a “four-wheel drive” vehicle just to get in and out of the Texas development and onto the highway to her downtown Houston job, which at the time was 27 miles to the south. And grocery shopping wasn't any easier—or closer, for that matter.

Now, 30 years later, development of the Woodlands' eighth and final village—Creekside Park—has begun in earnest. But it's hardly a swan song for one of the nation's most successful new towns.

“If it's the beginning of the end, it's going to be a long final chapter,” says Tim Welbes, senior vice president for residential at The Woodlands Operating Co. “What we have left to do—11,000 more home sales—still makes us the third largest master planned comunity in Houston.”

Title VII History buffs will remember The Woodlands as a pet project of oil and gas magnate George Mitchell, the Galveston-born son of a Greek goat herder who built the Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. into one of the energy industry's largest independent manufacturers of natural gas.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE: The Woodlands offers a range of products from affordable entry-level homes to decidedly upscale custom home neighborhoods. According to educator Ann Forsyth, who has been studying the Woodlands and two other hugely successful new towns, Columbia, Md., and Irvine, Calif., Mitchell was a self-made billionaire who became interested in urban development in part to diversify his holdings, but also because of a genuine concern with social and environmental problems of cities.

Mitchell, who began assembling land north of Houston in the early 1960s, applied for funding under the federal Title VII New Communities Program of the 1970 housing act. Ironically, considering the Woodlands long run, Mitchell was turned down by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But eventually, he was allowed to submit his project to the program.

The Woodlands opened in1974 in the midst of a recession. It “was not terrific timing,” wrote Forsyth in a recent issue of Planning, the official journal of the American Planning Association. Nevertheless, the infant new town at least survived, if not thrived.

The Woodlands remained in the New Communities Program until dropping out in 1983. To its credit, Forsyth points out, it was the only one of the 13 Title VII new towns that never filed for bankruptcy or failed to meet its financial obligations. But like many of the others, it has changed hands several times.

LONE STATE SUPERSTAR: The Woodlands, a best-selling master planned community, spans an incredible 27,000 acres. In 1997, Mitchell sold his pet project to Crescent Real Estate Equities, a real estate investment trust, and the Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund II. In 2003, Rouse Co., the developer of Columbia, purchased Crescent's interests. And last year, Chicago-based mall owner General Growth Properties bought Rouse for $7.2 billion in cash.

“In every one of these changes,” says Welbes, who has been at the Woodlands for 19 years, “we have kept working and doing our jobs. While the technical ownership has changed, most of the functionality has been carried out without a hitch.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Houston, TX.