The signature amenity at the 1,300-acre community of Harvest Green in Richmond, Texas, is a 12-acre farm, which is also home to four goats and a flock of chickens. At the first “agrihood” in the Houston area, the main entrance is marked by a trio of corrugated steel farm silos, streets have names like “Fresh Garden Way,” and backyards are screened from the road by wood fencing that sports classic X-braces. Residents can get deliveries of fresh produce from the farm, grow their own vegetables, and pick fruits and herbs from the community’s edible landscaping. This farm-style suburbia—which is adding another 630 acres—is clearly resonating with buyers.
“The tomatoes, watermelons, onions, and potatoes are a lot prettier than the commercial crops I grew up with,” says Larry Johnson, the head of Houston-based Johnson Development Corp., which created Harvest Green.
The community is the latest in a string of successes for Johnson, who is the 2021 recipient of the Legends Award, honoring those whose careers have been dedicated to the development of first-class planned communities. After leaving the family farm more than 60 years ago, Johnson has become one of Houston’s largest residential real estate developers, specializing in what are essentially small towns: planned communities of 2,000 to 3,000 acres. They are heavily amenitized, with town centers and lifestyle directors. Releasing an average of 4,000 lots a year, the company also has projects in Atlanta, Austin, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“He’s the king when it comes to large-scale community development in the Houston region and other markets he’s gotten involved in,” says Charlie Lusk, a close friend and occasional business partner of Johnson’s. “He has a knack for laying out stuff like this, how to divide it, how to market it—he’s a machine. And he’s got builders that basically follow him everywhere he goes.”
Johnson grew up with an intimate connection to the land, on the windy plains of the Texas Panhandle. His parents were tenant farmers, growing cotton and other commercial crops on a few hundred acres in the tiny town of Kress. He’d help out by feeding the animals, milking the cows, and gathering eggs. In high school, Johnson played quarterback for the Kress Kangaroos. He received a football scholarship to attend Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Although he didn’t want to go back to the family farm, he majored in agricultural economics. “I just didn’t know what else to major in, and I wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer or something like that,” he says, speaking with a characteristic Texan twang.
After graduating in 1961, Johnson decided to further his education, attending law school at the University of Texas at Austin. To put himself through school, he took a part-time job managing an apartment complex and also worked for a real estate company, selling small houses financed with sweat-equity FHA loans.
Realizing he could make good money in real estate, Johnson dropped out of law school after one year to pursue his newfound career in the summer of 1962. It was also the year NASA began to construct the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. Seeing an opportunity, Johnson moved to Houston and started working for a commercial real estate brokerage firm.
In 1967, a client partnered with him to create a development company, Johnson-Loggins. Their timing was good, and the company did well. A few years later, they sold the business to Florida–based First Realty Investment, a public company that wanted to expand into residential development and had access to financing. For the next five years, Johnson did deals to create subdivisions across the country. When his contract was up, he left to start his own company, launching Johnson Development Corp. in 1975.
Initially, he continued to develop subdivisions for FHA volume builders. But the deals got bigger over time. In the 1970s, Houston was expanding with large planned communities, most famously The Woodlands, which spanned more than 20,000 acres. Another Houston developer, Walter Mischer Sr., pioneered the use of municipal utility districts (MUDs) to privately fund infrastructure—streets, water, and sewer systems—for new developments in the city, known for having no zoning. Instead of waiting for services, a developer could move quickly and get reimbursed through bonds as the property was built out.
Johnson Development’s first planned community was Steeplechase, a 1,000-acre infill development on the northwest edge of Houston. Johnson acquired the property in 1979, set up a MUD, and developed it with a swimming pool, a clubhouse, and a trail network. In the late ’70s, Johnson was also hired by Georgia businessman J.B. Fuqua to manage a 10,500-acre former plantation south of Houston, now referred to as Sienna. Johnson set up a Levee Improvement District, similar to a MUD, raising $20 million to build a levee and manmade lake system that would protect Sienna from periodic flooding by the nearby Brazos River.
“He had a long vision and appreciation for land that few had,” says Lusk. “He could look at a piece of real estate and see the merits of it from a developmental perspective.”
A relative newcomer to Houston, Johnson became fast friends with his business connections. A convivial fellow, he’d invite his lenders on trips that were marginally about hunting, but mostly about camaraderie. Lusk recalls several in the late ’70s and mid-’80s with Johnson and a dozen other guys. “He’d take us to his lease [a rented ranch that allows hunting] in South Texas that was about a rough a place as you could ever go to,” he says. “At about 3 in the morning, you’d be asleep in your bedroll, and Larry would come and drag you off your bunk and yell, ‘Fire drill!’ so everyone would go out and carouse by the fire. He just wanted people to have a great time.”
Johnson also approached his business deals with the mentality of a host. “When you’re dealing with a lender, a lot of businesspeople will try to grind that rate as low as possible,” says Kirk Boswell, Johnson Development’s senior vice president of finance, who has been with the firm since 1985. “He looks at the big picture. And our deals are long-term deals—12, 15 years. Not that he’s profligate with the funds or anything, but he wants everyone to be happy and accept what they’re in it for. If somebody’s unhappy in the deal, there’s going to be some sort of problem down the road. He’s really fair like that.”
In 1986, right as Johnson and his partners completed a deal to purchase Sienna, the good times hit a major snag. Oil prices crashed, Houston’s economy cratered, and home development suffered accordingly. The savings-and-loan crisis of the ’80s also hit Texas particularly hard. Like other developers, Johnson lost several properties to foreclosure, including Sienna. But he maintained a positive attitude.
“Most borrowers would run away from you,” recalls Lusk, who worked for a mortgage company at the time. “But he didn’t. In every case, Larry stood there and said, ‘What can I do to help you?’ And that was an unusual attitude for a borrower, to try and help lenders out with their issues. Because of that, when the market started coming back, he was in a primary position to reacquire property, which he did.”
Dick Rogers, a former Houston real estate developer who has been a friend of Johnson’s since the late ’60s, admires his work ethic and resilience. “He’s overcome so many obstacles, especially in the financial markets that we’ve all been involved in. He is basically unafraid.”
By 1992, Johnson was back in the game, purchasing a 1,000-acre development in Pearland, a Houston suburb, from bankruptcy court. He changed the name of the development, which had a golf course and a lake, from Southwyck to Silverlake. It quickly became one of the top-selling communities in Houston.
In 1994, the company bought back the northern portion of Sienna to develop the first 6,500 acres with 8,000 homesites, along with commercial and multifamily lots, and has subsequently been commissioned to develop the southern half on behalf of the owner. Sienna is known for its multiple resort-style water parks—very alluring in an area that is famous for hot, humid summers. In 2012, the company bought Cross Creek Ranch in West Houston, the centerpiece of which is a restored creek and a 50-acre marsh that provides natural stormwater treatment and doubles as a community park.
“We’re constantly looking for new deals, but they’re hard to find,” says Johnson. “The market is so hot.”
For each community, the firm sets up a foundation that is funded by the resale of homes (about 1% of a home’s sale price) and managed by the homeowners association with an independent board. “It creates a source of money when the developer’s gone,” Johnson says. “They use it for different things to improve the schools or whatever the community needs. We think that’s a pretty neat deal.”
To date, the company has developed 100 projects on 43,000 acres. But Johnson has also embarked on a more intimate development in the small town of Hunt, located in picturesque Texas Hill Country. After fixing up a neglected property there to create a family retreat, he learned about plans for a trailer park nearby, on a 60-acre parcel along the Guadalupe River.
Knowing that the alluvial soil there would be good for farming, he purchased the property and found a local farmer to cultivate the land. He also upgraded the house with a commercial kitchen, and the farm has a restaurant as well as a vineyard. Johnson purchased an old stone building in the vicinity, which will become the winery for the vineyard’s 4,000 Montepulciano and Roussanne grapevines, planted in 2019.
The Hunt retreat, along with his ranch in Junction, Texas, is where Johnson likes to relax and spend time with family. He has five adult children and seven grandchildren, making it a full house when everyone gathers at Thanksgiving. But he has no plans to step down.
“I enjoy doing what I’m doing, and I can’t play golf,” he says. He also has no plans to do more golf-course developments. “Too many things can happen to a golf course that happen to farms—bugs, the grass dies, drought,” Johnson says, drawing upon his long and varied experience cultivating land.