Massive Fifth Ward project takes shape, and may reshape the community

Just east of downtown stand 150 acres of grass. It stretches along a mile of waterfront on the north shore of Buffalo Bayou. From it, you can see Minute Maid Park, and behind it, a cluster of skyscrapers — a postcard view of Houston’s skyline from an angle not often featured on postcards.

In fact, that view of the skyline and stretch of the bayou have been experienced by relatively few — the property was an industrial site for nearly a century, inaccessible to the public. Midway, the Houston-based developer best known for developing west Houston’s CityCentre mixed-used shopping destination, has a $2.5 billion, 15- to 20-year plan to change that.

Newly released details on the first phase of the development, set to break ground within months, provide a clearer picture of how the Fifth Ward site will be transformed into Midway’s most ambitious mixed-use development to date. One million square feet of new construction — including apartments, office space, restaurants, retail shops and medical and entertainment buildings — will span the equivalent of 60 city blocks.

The project, dubbed East River, will be roughly four-and-a-half times the size of CityCentre, which redeveloped the old Town & Country Mall site at the Katy Freeway and Beltway 8. It is expected to have a transformative impact on the historically black neighborhood of Fifth Ward, a prospect that has raised both hopes of benefits for the community and fears of displacement.

“This will change the east side of Houston,” said David Hightower, Midway’s executive vice president of investment and development. “We’ve already seen a great deal of redevelopment in the area — in EaDo, there’s an awful lot going on just south of us on the other side of the bayou: restaurants and high-density townhouses, apartment projects. But it’s all one-offs. Nobody really has any really large piece of land where they can create a place. And this will create a place — it will create a core, a sense of gravity.”

Anticipation and concern has swirled around the change, coming to a head in December when the details of an agreement detailing what East River would do to benefit the community were finalized.

The price of housing was a key issue of contention. In the end, Midway promised — if financially feasible — to price 15 percent of units below market rate for at least 10 years, although it says its intention is for the units to remains affordable beyond that time frame. That means rents will be set at levels affordable for households making from 80 percent to 120 percent of the Houston area’s median income.

But some argue it’s not enough. Even with income of $63,050 for a family of four, which is 80 percent of the Houston region’s median incomefamilies would be earning more than double Fifth Ward’s median household income of roughly $30,000. As a result, people like Kendra London, who grew up in the neighborhood, are calling for East River to make units available at rates affordable to Fifth Ward’s median earner — around $750 a month, compared to the affordable units that will start at roughly $1,100 a month.

“To me, rents that are affordable to those living in the historic Fifth Ward would mean a great deal,” London said. “And not for 10 years — it should be available forever.”

Kathy Payton, who’s on the board of the local Fifth Ward Redevelopment Authority, which negotiated the agreement with East River, supported the developer’s inclusion of affordable units. She said she understood why it was difficult to price them lower. “When you look at the cost of building right now… it’s really difficult to respond to people below 80 percent of (the area’s median income) with new construction.”

The development will be split into four or five phases, with the first breaking ground within months. That section, covering the 26 acres closest to downtown, will begin with a five-story apartment complex named the Laura, after the steamboat that brought the Allen brothers up the bayou to found Houston in 1837.

The Laura will reference the industrial feel of a steamboat, according to its interior designers, and will feature a dog park, pool, outdoor yoga space and lawn games. Midway projects Phase One will be completed in 2023, by which time it expects commercial real estate in Houston will be largely recovered from the pandemic.

Every building in the project, including the parking garage, will have retail on the first floor. The commercial spaces will begin construction in the fall.

“One of the things that we’re really excited about is being able to bring jobs — whether office jobs or service, retail, hospitality,” Hightower said. “So people who are in the community and who have been here some time have an opportunity to get a job where they can bike to work… or even walk.” The community benefits agreement includes a commitment, to the extent financially feasible, to give three Fifth Ward retailers a 10 percent discount on rents to attract local businesses to the development.

The buildings in Phase One are loosely arranged around a 13,000 square-foot plaza, and industrial details, such as exposed brick and steel beams, nod to the site’s prior use. The phase will include 250,000 square feet of office space and 110,000 square feet of retail, with design elements connecting the commercial space to the outdoors. Offices will have balconies, stairwells will be placed on the exteriors of buildings to encourage their use and restaurants may use a portion of the plaza to grow vegetables.

Buildings will get progressively taller as they go east, so that much of the development will have views of the skyline. The tallest building in the first, westernmost, phase of the development will be five stories.

Public artwork will dot the development, including a mural by local artist David Maldonado. Painted on the side of several shipping containers, the mural references the site’s past life as the headquarters of engineering and construction firm Brown & Root, which helped build NASA Mission control.

Cyclists will be able to access East River via a trail stretching along the water and under the Jensen Bridge — an effort coordinated with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a nonprofit working on extending the Buffalo Bayou Park into the east side of Houston. Additional trails will stretch up to Clinton Drive, connecting Fifth Ward to the bayou.

Sandra Edwards, who lives in Fifth Ward, said she believed the affordability of new housing needs closer examination, but that she was looking forward to being able to walk along the bayou in her neighborhood.

She also welcomed the retail, “Because we have no food places out here hardly… You have to go to other communities to get those little things.”

The redevelopment authority is betting big on the benefits East River could provide. It has agreed to use 85 percent of the property taxes it collects from the development to reimburse Midway for building an estimated $133 million in park, sidewalk, utility, street and drainage improvements.

Midway has agreed to put at least $1.4 million over the next five years into a fund for community benefits. The fund will be overseen by a nine-person council that is not subject to open meeting requirements, leading some to ask to be included in the conversation on how the money is spent.

 

By R.A. Schuetz, Katherine Feser - Houston Chronicle