Houston’s New East River World Makes a Big Leap — a Unique Waterfront Starts Coming Into View With New Rooftop Bar, Early Adopters and Night Golf For All
When you’re changing the city, every beginning matters. The East River mega development — almost a city within the city that will essentially give Houston a new riverfront — is celebrating a big one with its official groundbreaking.
The festive affair brings out a large crowd of dignitaries (the mayor, city council members, community leaders), Midway development officials, architects, designers and even a beekeeper on this scorching Thursday morning. There is a mammoth tent, a shipping container transformed into a glass sided and cooled respite from the August heat and one giant CAT excavator out in an open field.
What many first timers visitors to this site (49 Bayou Street if you’re looking to Google Maps it) are most struck by though are the sweeping view of downtown and. . . well, the sheer vastness of the area.
“It’s an exciting time to be in the Fifth Ward,” Reverend Harry Clemons Jr., the founder of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, enthusiastically says into the microphone. “Some of you people have never been in the Fifth Ward.”
The 150-acre East River mixed-use development is located in the often overlooked (or driven right past on the freeway) Fifth Ward, right near its intersection with The Second Ward. This part of Houston has never seen a development like this (one from the mixed-use pioneers behind CITYCENTRE).
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner notes that these communities always “have been in the shadow of development” before. Now they’re getting the equivalent of 60 city blocks of new stores, restaurants, apartment buildings, office centers, outdoor recreation areas (think kayaking on the Buffalo Bayou) and green spaces.
“This is a project that can uplift The Fifth Ward, The Second Ward,” Turner says.
East River and The Long Vision
East River is being built for the long haul — with a projected overall 20 year build. In truth, this is a vision that already has been in the works for years and years in the planning stages. (To read PaperCity’s exclusive from December 2020, the first story to reveal the complete East River plan, click here). The new East River 9 par 3, stadium lighted golf course and its accompanying RiverHouse restaurant also already have been under construction.
Still, the official groundbreaking of phase one on this August day is more than symbolic. Even if there is the obligatory photo op and the moving of dirt with snazzy Midway branded shovels.
“It’s pretty surreal just because it’s the culmination of years of hard work,” Anna Deans, Midway Vice President of Investment and Development, tells PaperCity. “Yet at the same time it’s really just the beginning.
“We like to celebrate these big milestones. But we still have a lot of fun and important things ahead of us.”
That includes the new stores, restaurants and offices in phase one that will help set the tone for the entire East River development. The group behind The Astorian events venue will be opening up a new events venue and rooftop bar in East River. With the lease actually getting finalized during the groundbreaking ceremony.
As for office tenants, Method Architecture — the designers of the new M-K-T Heights mixed-use center — and TEAL, mechanical systems innovators who are moving their headquarters to East River, are the first two to sign on.
“That’s the hardest thing really — is finding those partners who see the vision (early) the same way that you do and believe in it,” Deans says. “And believe that through working together, you can actually make it reality. Without partners and early adopters like that, none of this happens.”
Everyday Houstonians will no doubt be more drawn to things such as the early waterfront activities and the new golf course, the type of unintimidating par 3 course that the game desperately needs more of . This will be anything but a country club. It’s a course you can play with your kids or your grandma. A course you can play with two or three clubs (a putter and a pitching wedge or other short iron).
The type of course that should introduce more people to the game of golf while introducing them to East River.
“It is a golf course of course, but more than anything it’s a green space,” Midway Vice President Clayton Freels tells PaperCity in a side moment amid the groundbreaking frenzy. “It’s an activation. It’s something that brings you here for the first time to discover the East End.”
In a Houston area that is woefully short of par 3 courses (the city operated, very muni conditions Melrose Golf Course is really the only one right now), East 9 represents something completely new. Especially with the stadium lighting that will bring night golf (a summertime savior) back to Houston. Not to mention a restaurant designed by Kelie Mayfield of MaRS, the fun artists behind such whimsical places as The George Hotel in College Station’s Century Square mixed-use center and The Victor high-rise in Dallas.
Your New Land?
Having both MaRS and Munoz + Albin Architecture heavily involved in the East River mega development is another indicator of Midway’s commitment. This should be a top of the line innovative mixed-use center, one that could change Houston much more than CITYCENTRE even has.
It’s already opening up a section of the city long completely closed off to everyday Houstonians. 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.
There is a lot of pressure to get this site right. After all, it is the largest undeveloped site left within the 610 Loop, one that will impact two historic neighborhoods — and really the entire region. And Midway seems to very aware of that responsibility.
“We’re so excited about the opportunity,” Midway president and COO Jamie Bryant says. “The opportunity to honor the past of this site, the past of this community. But also to embrace the community.”
Midway’s certainly put its research in. The company’s design management team toured 27 projects in 17 states to get a 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.
On this groundbreaking day, the site is still largely open grass and the dirt set in front of those shovels. The restaurants with patios that overlook the water, the giant lawns and the trails that will connect to the nearly 500 miles of existing trails and bike lanes in Houston, are still a ways away. East River’s first phase is projected to open in 2023. But the par 3 course will open next year (perhaps earlier than you think).
East River is full speed ahead from here on out.
“We’ve been working on this project for a long time,” Clayton Freels tells PaperCity. “It’s great to spin some dirt. . . Now it’s coming. It will really open up a new side of Houston.”
Standing there in the wide open field, wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a blue blazer, Clayton Freels looks at home. He and the Midway team hope that a lot more Houstonians start feeling that way about this patch of quickly-changing grass.