The model dominates the center of the long table, giving a 3D glimpse in miniature at just how vast this world will be. No were not talking about the latest superhero multiverse or some other Hollywood creation. In some ways, this is even more ambitious than that.
For this is real. And coming to Houston.
“It truly is a remarkable opportunity,” Midway CEO Jonathan Brinsden says. “It’s rare you find this kind of site with attributes like Buffalo Bayou frontage within the urban core in the shadow of downtown.
“That’s just not unusual to Houston. That’s unusual to every large city in the country… This truly is a generational opportunity and that’s the lens we look at it through.”
The model on the table is of East River, a potential city-changing development East of downtown abutting the Buffalo Bayou. Midway’s the company behind CityCentre, the company that helped revitalize Levy Park, the company that proved College Station could have its own cool hotel just as hip as anything in Austin. But if everything goes right, East River will be its magnum opus.
It’s sheer size immediately places it on another scale entirely. We’re talking about 150 acres of former industrial land long closed off to Houstonians, a swath that’s the equivalent of 65 city blocks. It’s the largest site within the 610 Loop that is still open for redevelopment. In essence, Midway almost will be building a new mini city within the city. One that introduces a riverfront to Houston.
“It’s got a mile of frontage on the Buffalo Bayou,” Midway executive vice president David Hightower says. “And we’re on the river part of the Bayou. This is where it really turns into a river.”
To take advantage of that unique feature, expect to see restaurants with patios that run right down to the Bayou and even adventure outfitters offering kayaking and other water activities. East River will be a waterside development in very noticeable ways.
“I think it will be a very new and unique feel for Houston, which is exciting,” Brinsden says.
Midway gave PaperCity an unprecedented look at this new East River development, assembling its East River project team around a giant conference table (everyone was masked and well spaced out) to detail everything that is coming. With the heads of departments getting into everything they’re working on for East River, you get a real sense of the scope and complexity of the project. And everything that is coming.
It is A LOT. In the best sense.
In total, East River is projected to be a 20 year build, but it will roll out in phases with the construction of phase one beginning in early 2021. The first phase will include five or six restaurants, a mix of full service and more casual, grab-and-go type spots. A bike shop, an outdoor outfitter (picture kayaking and more), coffee shop, ice cream parlor, barbershop, blow dry bar and more are also in play as either strong possibilities or likelihoods.
The first apartment complex on the site is also part of the phase one plans. The Laura is a five-story, 360-unit complex that bring the first residents to the East River development. Office space — as much as 250,000 square feet of offices — will ensure that East River emerges as a play, live and work destination from the beginning. Every major building will have retail — shops, restaurants, etc… — on the ground floor.
East River’s first phase will be centered around a 13,543-square-foot green space. This mega lawn will be a place to hang out and congregate much like CityCentre’s smaller plaza lawn. Live music and events also will take place on the grand lawn, with the idea of creating an instant hub in the new community.
Midway also plans to set aside some smaller retail spots that are largely built out for local vendors from the 2nd and 5th Wards, the two Houston neighborhoods the project straddles. “We’ll have some spaces that are more approachable with a low cost of entry for local businesses,” says Lacee Jacobs, Midway’s vice president of strategic leasing and advisory.
Finding East River’s Groove
Plenty of research goes into determining the right mix for a development of this size. Midway’s design management team toured 27 projects in 17 states to build an accurate sense of what worked and what did not work in other cities. Pearl District in Portland, Industry City in Brooklyn, The High Line in Manhattan and South Lake Union, which transformed a rundown area of Seattle into a tech hub with a major Amazon campus, were just some of the more high-profile developments Midway studied.
“We don’t want a Disneyland back there,” Hightower says. “We want something that feels authentic.”
One of the challenges East River faces is that unlike with many of the studied projects, or even San Antonio’s Pearl District, there are no existing historic-type buildings on the site to repurpose. This was a fenced off industrial site originally owned by the old Brown & Root construction company that helped reshape Houston and grew into the largest construction firm in the United States. The structures on the East River site were the type of barebones metal buildings that do not work (or come close to meeting code) for restaurants or retail.
Everything will have to be built from scratch at East River. Which may make it a good fit for Midway. This is a development firm that has shown it is willing to take its time — and look to the future. While East River’s first phase is projected to open in 2023, the entire build out of the 150 acre site is not expected to be complete till around 2041.
“That’s one thing that’s a little different about us,” Brinsden says, smiling. “We take a long term approach.”
The models on the table, which show much more than phase one, display that in detailed miniature.
East River will have some nods to history. The Laura mid-rise is named after the first steamboat that took the Houston-founding Allen Brothers up the Buffalo Bayou. Houston’s Maritime Museum will also be reborn at the development in a nod to its waterfront perch. The museum will not be part of phase one, but the Bayou definitely will be.
“The whole development is meant to activate the waterfront,” Anna Deans, Midway’s vice president of investment & development, says.
Restaurant patios (some as large as 3,000 square feet) will spill right out towards the water. Trails will lead to the water. East River being connected to Buffalo Bayou’s hike and bike trails, more than 500 miles of trails in total, will helped connect it to the rest of the city in a much different way than purely car centric destinations. Of course, many of those trails will run along the water.
“CityCentre was developed pretty revolutionary in that you put the most value on the pedestrian orientated green space rather than the highly trafficked vehicular corridor,” Deans says. “Now, we’re putting some of our most valued space along the waterfront.”
“I never thought I’d be able to use waterfront in something I was leasing in Houston,” Jacobs laughs.
Midway’s Patio Power
The emphasis on the waterfront at East River will bring another early Midway staple into play. Long before restaurant patios become a must — and long, long before COVID-19 made them potential business savers — CityCentre built part of its vision around them.
“One of our favorite things was when we developed CityCentre, we maintained that every restaurant had to have a patio,” Brinsden says. “And you would have thought that was the most insane requirement ever. Like we were asking them to go to the moon or something.”
Much has changed in Houston dining — and the city in general — in the 15 years since then. But Midway is still focused on innovating.
Some of the surprising touches at East River include beehives and some familiar Houston trees. Midway turned to Alvéole, a social beekeeping company, to install several hives that are already producing honey at the site. One of the top tree movers in the country turned to them to help save about 300 of the beloved towering oaks that had to be removed as part of Post Oak Boulevard’s somewhat controversial transformation. Those trees are now planted in a nursery on the northern boundary of the site — and will be worked into the development, giving East River mature, shading oaks from day one.
Midway is also determined to achieve WELL Certification, which centers around things that directly affect people like air quality and the daylight a building allows in, and a high WiredScore along with the almost now expected LEED certification. Most Houstonians — even lifelong ones — have never been to this East River site before. It’s been closed off for generations.
Midway is doing what it can to change that even before phase one opens with things like showcasing a striking 60 foot by 40 foot mural made out of shipping containers from Houston artist David Maldonado. That mural occupies the corner of Jensen Drive and Clinton Drive, where East River’s first phase will rise. Midway’s successful Moonstruck Drive-In, which shows a mix of classics and new movies (including Wonder Woman 1984 starting Christmas Day), on the site brings more people in.
“Place making and creating experiences is a big part of what we do,” Midway marketing strategist Shelby Sekaly says.
With East River, Midway is essentially creating a vast new place in Houston. “A truly walkable urban community is something that people want,” Hightower says. “We’re going to build one from scratch.”
Midway’s already put in the research. This is a firm that uses advanced stats as effectively as a modern baseball general manager. But in the end, East River will have to rise above all the statistics that helped shape it to be successful.
“There are lots of fancy terms like dwell time,” Brinsden says. “But you want it to be that community place where when people have time, they want to go there to hang out. And if someone has a guest in town, this is the place they want to bring them to — the place they want to show them.
“Because they think it’s a special part of Houston.”
Brinsden is leaning forward in his chair, the East River model stretching out across the table in front of him. There it is. Now, it just needs to transform an oft-forgotten chunk of the city. No pressure.