Excerpted from the Houston Chronicle
Robert Heineman, Texas Tech ’67, is one of the original planners and architects of The Woodlands, Texas. He recently retired from the Howard Hughes Corp. after 48 years spent intimately crafting almost every aspect of what is considered one of the top master-planned communities in the nation.
Heineman learned of the idea of The Woodlands when his parents mailed him a newspaper clipping describing George Mitchell’s futuristic vision for a community north of urban Houston that mixed rural life with a city center — a place Mitchell said was to, “live, work, pray and play.”
At the time, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Heineman mailed Mitchell a letter asking if he could intern on the project.
Heineman was accepted in the summer of 1971, working under famed urban planner Ian McHarg before returning to his final year at Harvard. His thesis was on public transportation within newly created master-planned communities, ideas he culled from his internship in the community.
After nearly five-decade career, he played a role in almost every single aspect of The Woodlands, from Creekside Park to Grogan’s Mill, the Town Center and The Woodlands Waterway and everywhere in between.
A native of Lubbock, and child of a math professor father and artistic clothing and textiles designer mother, Heineman bopped around the country studying at several different institutions, including Texas Tech, before he earned an undergraduate degree in architecture from Rice University. He had as a child loved physics but soured on the science after a week- long field trip to Bell Labs in New York City.
He then obtained a Master of Architecture degree in Urban Design from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, during which time he became involved in The Woodlands in 1971 as a college intern. When he retired, he held the position of vice president of planning for The Woodlands Development Company, a subsidiary of the Howard Hughes Corp.
While in Los Angeles, he sold encyclopedias door-to-door in the year after the Watts riots, living in an empty Phi Delta Theta fraternity house on the campus of the University of Southern California. He spent a summer at Georgetown University, sharing a house with four fellow Rice students and a humble undergraduate student from Arkansas (former president Bill Clinton).
He returned to work in a full-time position for community founder George Mitchell in the development stages of the community in 1972. At the time, the planning of The Woodlands was being led by renowned urban planner and landscape architect Ian McHarg, a former World War II British paratrooper who is also considered one of the founders of GIS overlay mapping — also known as Geographical Information Systems.
Among the young design team in the early years of The Woodlands, which was officially founded and opened in 1974, were Heineman said many of his best friends and colleagues such as Alex Sutton, Roger Galatas, Michael Richmond, Dan Kolkhorst, Joel Derechin, Jeff Harris, Coulson Tough and Tim Welbes.
The Woodlands Waterway was, he added, the culmination of decades of his life’s work: it was born on the index card sketch in 1972 but construction on the project did not begin until 1999, 27 years later. Finally completed in 2018, the popular flowing waterway that snakes west from The Woodlands Mall area to Lake Woodlands today hosts scores of kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders, joggers, and other users every day of the week.
Although Heineman is stepping away from his job with The Howard Hughes Corp., Heineman said he will remain involved in the community as an active member of the township’s development standards committee, in The Woodlands Arts Council’s Art Benches program, and also as consultant.