Houston’s New Natural Wonderland — Be Among the First to Discover East River

A giant painted astronaut welcomes visitors to the corner of Jensen Drive and Clinton Drive near the banks of Buffalo Bayou. For this monumental mural commissioned by Midway, the ever-innovative real estate development and investment company, artist David Maldonado spray painted six shipping containers with a vision of Houston that interweaves the past, present and future.

The intrepid astronaut’s face shield reflects the current downtown Houston skyline, while he or she floats amid an earthly terrain of sunflowers, Spanish tiles, bridges and bayous.

It is a fitting welcoming call. For this is East River.

One hundred and fifty acres along the bayou that bridges the historic Second and Fifth Wards, a home to art, fields of trees, bees and wildflowers. But this is also Midway’s canvas for creating a groundbreaking mixed-use development, an active green space on the water, essentially a future city within the city.

Looking around now, visitors and neighbors can almost see the future like a vision of what’s to come: the thriving mixed use spaces filled with light; apartment homes, offices, local shops, restaurants and coffeehouses bordered by trees and green spaces. Most of all it’s easy to imagine people living, working and playing in connection with Buffalo Bayou and these historic communities.

Including people kayaking on the river.

Into the Present

This will be East River in just a few years. But you don’t have to wait patiently for Phase One of the build to unfold to enjoy the present. Midway has already begun a series of nature and community initiatives to activate the area. From sunflower and wildflower planting to establishing a tree nursery to creating a drive-in movie experience, East River is already open for Houstonians to discover this unique landscape.

This huge swath of land right on the water in Houston has been closed off for generations — and Midway is not waiting for its first building to go up to reopen it to everyone.

Why activate the site for the community before construction even begins? Anna Deans, Midway’s vice president of investment and development, says it’s all about the ties that bind neighbors.

“We want the project to be shaped by the community,” Deans notes. “It is important to get the community engaged as early as possible to allow the opportunity for the built environment to be adapted to specific users and needs — and reflective of the rich culture that already exists in this area.”

Some of that engagement means working to enhance the property before the first building ever goes up. The East River team is planting rows of sunflowers along the Clinton Street side of the property. At any one time the fields serve as a nursery for more than 300 trees, some the famous old oaks from the Post Oak Boulevard revamp. They’ll eventually find a forever home in the coming years throughout the East River development and other sites.

Near the Tree farm, also along Clinton Drive, the team has planted wildflowers that have bloomed this spring.

Good Neighbors

“Our hope is to instill a sense of pride and ownership of the project and the site,” Deans says. “This site has been inaccessible for so long and these temporary activations signal to the community that will not longer be the case and we want them to engage with this place now and in the future.”

This is a chance to be among the first to discover this long closed off, natural wonderland in Houston. It’s already Instagram friendly with flowers, a striking mural, downtown skyline views and more waiting to be experienced.

And even though those live, work and play spaces are still a few years away, some very busy characters have already moved in. Midway partnered with urban beekeeping company, Alvéole to set up two hives on the property. They’ve already harvested their own private label honey, and have heard reports from nearby homeowners with gardens that these buzziest neighbors have been pollinating throughout the community.

And even though those live, work and play spaces are still a few years away, some very busy characters have already moved in. Midway partnered with urban beekeeping company, Alvéole to set up two hives on the property. They’ve already harvested their own private label honey, and have heard reports from nearby homeowners with gardens that these buzziest neighbors have been pollinating throughout the community.

The Tree Farm, Bee Haven, wildflower fields and welcoming sunflowers are just the natural beginning of the East River project with much more to come including many nature and sustainability focused activations.

Midway’s team continues to look to the future while nurturing the community relationship potentials in the present.

“To date, the connection with the community has been more focused on relationship building between Midway and local neighborhood groups and residents,” Deans says. “It will be exciting to see the partnerships we have established come to fruition through the creation of a physical place where people can create new memories and connections.”

Midway will also work closely with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership as the organization continues with its massive Buffalo Bayou East SectorPlan of new parks, trails and waterfront projects. But even now a quick walk south from East River’s mural across the Jensen Bridge brings pedestrians and hikers onto the Buffalo Bayou’s lesser known east trail. An easy hike along the trail becomes a discovery trip into Houston’s past filled with industrial landmarks like the East End Gravel Silos and the brick smokestack remnants of the City of Houston’s industrial past.

Starstruck at East River

From the trail, a look back across the Bayou presents a view of East River’s own unique architectural historical remnants, the cluster of buildings on what was the Brown & Root construction company campus and later KBR, from 1920s into the 1980s. Here Midway has found a distinctive way of weaving the past and present, all the while giving Houstonians a much needed art and entertainment outlet during the pandemic.

Where someone might see an unusable industrial office site, the East River team saw the perfect setting for bringing Houstonians back together for a different kind of stargazing. Here, they partnered with Moonstruck to create the Moonstruck Drive-In Cinema, turning an empty lot into an asset.

As entertainment went outdoors and became socially distanced during this past year, Midway found a new way to give people a much needed break and showcase a side of Houston they might have never seen. Showing first-run and classic films, Moonstruck was also one of three Texas venues to screen world premiere films as part of the Sundance Film Festival.

“A lot of people have never experienced this section of the bayou. We’ve been excited just to have people out here,” says Shelby Sekaly, senior marketing strategist on the project.

Beyond the chance to get away for a night of cinema under the stars, the Moonstruck Drive-In has also proven the ideal space for outdoor parties and fundraising events. Moonstruck has hosted some of Houston’s more notable happenings, including Urban Harvest’s annual Sunday Supper and the Encore luncheon for the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Art, nature, community, these ideas have already become some of the foundation of the East River project before the building foundations have been laid. And Deans sees these concepts as fundamentals for the creation of healthy communities.

“The early initiatives are a demonstration of our intent to connect with the community by recognizing the rich history and culture that already exists here,” Deans says. “We have incorporated art, film, events and programming that are reflective of not only what great things already exist, but what future potential this area holds.”

By Tarra Gaines - Paper City