Real Life

Migraine Mills. All-consuming paths converge at Katy's megamall

Recipe for a headache:

1) Cover all surface area, including storefronts, walls and flooring with at least five bright, obnoxious colors.

2) Suspend large video screens from the ceiling that play a continual assortment of commercials, music videos and harmless, insignificant news segments at a moderate volume.

Quiet before the shopping storm: Katy Mills expects $320 million in annual sales.
Houston Press
Quiet before the shopping storm: Katy Mills expects $320 million in annual sales.

3) Add a bizarre mix of sounds, including the footfalls and giggles of scampering children, birds chirping, helicopters swooping and horses trotting on a cobblestone path.

4) Arrive in car no. 9,001 at a 9,000-car parking lot.

5) Add enough shoppers to rival a crowded New York City street, ensuring that each individual's personal space is violated at least every three minutes.

6) Stir, and

7) Serve on the day after Thanksgiving.

Let the shopping begin, Katy-Mills-Mall-style.


Of course, every mall during the holiday season transforms into traffic-jam central. But does every mall have families posing for pictures outside the entrances? Only at Katy Mills do stories-high "sculptures" in primary colors grace each entrance. There's the Dancing Ties Entry, the Kites Entry and three Pick-Up-Sticks entries. One family grins for the camera at the Juicer Entry, standing at the foot of a metal contortion that resembles a rocket more than a juicer. Who needs to visit a museum or natural wonder for Kodak moments when you've got the Mills?

Certainly not the visitors driving minivans adorned with Louisiana plates or the families parking Suburbans and Camrys. Not the senior citizens who arrive by the busload or the classes of mentally impaired children on field trips or any of the other estimated 18 million shoppers who will visit the Mills annually.

Build it, and they will come.

With the slogan "shop together. eat together. play together." the Mills Corporation wants you to do it all at the mall. And it's not trying to hide it. Definition no. six of "mill" in the American Heritage Dictionary reads: "A process, an agency, or an institution that operates in a routine way or turns out products in the manner of a factory." Its commercials promote shopping at the Mills as quality family time.

From a distance, the megamall looms as a lone compound on the mostly undeveloped prairie along Interstate 10. Katy Mills covers so much ground (1.3 million square feet -- enough to hold 3.5 Astrodomes) that even adults get lost in it. One security guard says he's tired of searching the one-mile path through the mall for missing spouses. "If you're not eight or ten, your ass ain't lost," he says. "When I hear '43-year-old male' over the radio, I'm not looking for you. You're an adult. You can find your own way home."

Signs hanging from the ceiling indicate which of the seven sections of the mall you're in. But the ones featuring the Katy Mills dancing star logo turned into pointy-headed kids with eyeballs, a mouth (no nose) and braids or a cap don't help much. "Hi mom!" or "Hi dad!" the star-kids say on the signs.

Equally odd is the carpet in some parts of the mall: Large amorphous blobs in light teal, police-line-tape yellow, peach and sea-green sprawl on a blue background peppered with gray swiggles. "It's like a kid mall," says Steven Munroz, who works at the Razzle Dazzle polish stand. "It's crazy."

The amusement park look is intentional: With the driving range at Bass Pro, the Rainforest Cafe's real parrots and fake mechanical crocodile, and the rock-climbing wall at Sun & Ski Sports, this mall aims to entertain. Designated parking spaces are available for scores of motorcoaches bearing tourists. You almost expect trams to pass by, announcing stops at stores. Katy Mills taps into the kid in you, the greedy one that whines, "I want that" and "mine, mine, mine."

The colors don't bother Brandon Newsome as much as the odd speaker sounds do. Newsome, who staffs the Body Wear cart, is baffled by the purpose of the phantom children he hears laughing and pitter-pattering during the day. "You hear 'em, and you turn around and think they're playing on the bear," he says, referring to the large Coca-Cola polar bear behind him. "But no one's there."

At Katy Mills, Coke is a corporate partner, along with four other monolithic companies. A winter scene of Coca-Cola bears decorates one wall near an entrance. The soda vending machines offer only Coke products.

"Always Coca-Cola."

When the doors slide open at the Katy Heritage Entrance, a recorded message greets you. "You are passing though Entrance Two into Neighborhood Two sponsored by Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital." ("Neighborhood" is what the Mills Corporation calls each section of the mall, each indistinguishable from the one before it -- like the actual neighborhoods of Katy.) While it's obvious what Coke gets out of a partnership with Katy Mills, with a hospital the motives are not as clear.

The city of Katy has always been connected to Houston only by the Katy Freeway work commute. The new circuslike megamall clashes with the small-town feel of Katy proper, north of I-10, where everyone attends high school football games and bumper stickers proclaim, "You'll love Katy!" Families have lived in the area for generations, celebrating their heritage with an annual rice harvest festival. Only six years ago the city was steeped in controversy over whether or not to allow a 90-foot sign for the new McDonald's (which was approved even though the billboard was more than twice the city's maximum allowed height).

But Katy has also been trying to revitalize and develop the town and surrounding areas. Katy Mills may be the answer. The mall is expected to generate more than $320 million a year in retail sales and to create over 3,000 jobs. Some of those are for participants in the MATCH program, which provides jobs for welfare recipients.

And the mall fits in fine with the other part of Katy, the suburban enclaves south of I-10, where new subdivisions materialize in a matter of months and families move to get away from Houston. They don't need Houston, save for employment. They've got two cars per family (public transportation doesn't reach the Mills), their own Ninfa's and their own Tinseltown movie megacomplex. Their brilliant blond children attend schools where the student paper is printed in color.

And now, they don't need Houston malls. Especially since Katy Mills seems better equipped to deal with the male contingent. One father and son stared up at Fiona Apple playing on one of the large video screens while waiting outside Ann Taylor Loft, the little boy's mouth agape.

Besides, where else can you purchase an RV at the mall? (Check out the selection at Entrance Four, dubbed the Parks and Recreation entry.) Or find a discount Bible (at the Bible Factory Outlet) or surgical scrubs (at the Life Uniform Outlet) or a ceramic apple pie scented vaguely like your grandma's bathroom (at the Potpourri Pie kiosk)?

And what other mall covers all age groups in its restroom vending machines? For 75 cents in the women's restroom you can have: 1) Xstreme Ice Drop sours; 2) an O.B. tampon; 3) Two Tylenol caplets, 500 milligrams each; 4) Two Motrin IB tablets, 500 millgrams each; and 5) Looney Tunes temporary tattoos.

Not only will Katy Mills create a headache, it will sell you the Tylenol for it, too.

E-mail Melissa Hung at melissa.hung@houstonpress.com.

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