Abandoned building lights up with messages, new future for property

HOUSTON — Just east of downtown, Houston’s concrete jungle is blossoming into a real one.

“There is a lot of nature,” says David Hightower, executive president of the investment development group for Midway Companies. “We have coyotes up here. We have deer on here.”

The parking lot now split by weeds served the KBR and Halliburton compound until about 10 years ago. Since then, it’s been empty, abandoned and overgrown.

“I think it has huge potential,” Hightower says.

That potential is opening up a single window at a time, thanks to Midway. The company partnered with an investor to buy the property in 2016, not long before Super Bowl LI.

“There was a tremendous amount of energy and activity and a lot of national media at Discovery Green,” Hightower says. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could light the building up in some way?’”

Jake Nolan, an associate in the investment development group, thought it was definitely possible. He looked at an old photo of the building, counted the windows and drew up a quick diagram in Microsoft Excel.

“You just have to think of it as a big sheet of grid paper. You’re just coloring in squares to make letters,” explains Nolan.

When he brought his design into Hightower’s office a few hours later, Hightower says he was impressed, but doubtful it could be done. As Nolan explains, the execution is simple, though a little tedious.

“It’s just going floor by floor, north to south end, counting out windows and opening and closing blinds,” he says.

Two days later, Nolan presented Hightower a photo of the building all lit up with “HTX.” Since then, Nolan’s also spelled out “AMZN,” for Amazon, and “STROS,” celebrating the Astros World Series victory.

“I had no idea what they were going to do there,” says Paul Redmond, owner of The New Potato, a bar located just across the street from the property.

He’s kept an eye on the 150-acre parcel, knowing what happens there has a big impact on his business.

“Anybody and everybody who lives in this neighborhood all wonder what’s going on there,” Redmond says.

Just like the windows, a project like this, called East River, takes time to plan.

“This is a rare piece of property,” Hightower stresses. “There are other large parcels, but nothing of this size within this proximity to downtown.”

For some perspective, the 65-block chunk that encompasses East River is more than four times larger than what might be Midway’s best-known development: CityCentre.

“It basically is going to be a town, but it’s going to be a town that was conceived and developed and executed intentionally to be a pedestrian-oriented walkable community,” says Hightower.

Even as Midway beats back the jungle, it’s planting a forest. The property is now home to roughly 300 trees, which were uprooted by construction along Post Oak Blvd.

“These are trees that we will then transplant throughout the project as we develop,” Hightower explains. “We’ll use them for street trees and park trees.”

They’re now taking root in a new part of HTX, just like Midway is.

“We think we’ve got a tremendous opportunity here,” smiles Hightower.

By Brandi Smith - KHOU11