It hasn’t even been two years since East River, a 150-acre mixed-use development positioned along the banks of the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, broke ground on construction. As far as timelines go, it’s a blip on the project’s decades-long development horizon. But East River is already generating buzz. The development, the largest in Houston’s urban core, has already landed major office and retail tenants, including Suderman & Young Towing Co., a tugboat operator that just leased 6,000 square feet of space for their company headquarters. The leased buildings are slated to open this fall as the next phases of construction are carried out, but even with a twenty-year timeline to completion, the hype surrounding the East River complex is no surprise to anyone familiar with the area.
Buffalo Bayou has been a bit of an eyesore for years now. As Houston expanded, Buffalo Bayou became less important as a shipping route, and many of the factories and warehouses along its banks fell into disrepair. The neglect of these industrial sites, coupled with the lack of investment in the infrastructure around the bayou, led to a deterioration of the area. At first glance, murky and mosquito-laden Buffalo Bayou isn’t exactly prime real estate, but after the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to spend more time at home, many have come to appreciate the value of outdoor space, particularly when it comes to waterway properties.
Building along waterways has always been an attractive option for developers, with the promise of beautiful views, convenient transportation options, and potential for commercial and recreational activities all pointing towards premium commercial property prices and higher rents. Not everyone wants to live next to the water but there is ample scientific evidence that the sight and sounds of water have a universally calming effect, which is why waterway properties are often sought after with vacation destinations. A recent study not only outlined why water is physiologically relaxing, it highlighted how proximity to water encourages a sense of focus, which is huge for office developers. “Compared with urban landscapes,” the researchers wrote, “water landscapes were associated with increased neural activation in the attention area of the brain, which suggested that viewing water landscapes may stimulate the rest of the attention system.” No wonder so many office tenants are lining up to lease space in East River.
Another advantage of building along waterways is access to water transportation. Waterways offer a cost-effective and efficient mode of transportation, making it an attractive option for commercial activities, which is probably why the East River project is planning to introduce a water taxi in later phases of construction. Though the water taxi is still in the planning stages, it’s going to be interesting to see how this mode of transportation will impact an area as car-dependent as southeast Texas.
Bodies of water also provide a habitat for a wide variety of flora and fauna, which can be an advantage for developers who want to create eco-friendly and sustainable developments. Conservation and preservation of the natural environment can be a selling point for commercial properties as more people become environmentally conscious, and that’s especially true for the East River development. Midway, the developers behind the East River project, already implemented a strategy to get the local community excited before construction ever reached completion. Back in 2021, Midway started a number of neighborhood and environmental projects, including wildflower planting and establishing a tree nursery, open to the public to connect with neighbors. Anna Deans, Midway’s Vice President of Investment & Development, told reporters that engaging the community with the natural environment was pivotal for East River’s success. “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,” she said.
The red tape of water
Building along waterways also comes with its own set of challenges though, including environmental concerns, regulatory restrictions, and higher construction costs. Environmental concerns such as flooding and water pollution are some of the most significant challenges facing developers looking to build along waterways. Because of this, a lot of architectural gymnastics and diplomatic deal-making are involved.
Water bodies are known to be prone to flooding, which can cause significant damage to properties and infrastructure. Developers must take into consideration the risk of flooding when building along waterways, and take steps to mitigate the risk through measures such as elevating the property. In the case of the East River development, all buildings had to be designed to sit above the floodplain, which will reduce the risk of flooding damaging the buildings and allow them to remain functional during and after flooding events. Plus, the development had the added burden of needing to include flood gates at critical points to prevent water from entering the site during a flood event.
Water pollution is another concern for properties built along waterways, especially as properties located in areas with high water pollution may be seen as less desirable by investors and buyers, resulting in lower values. As a major sewage outlet, the water within Buffalo Bayou is notoriously filthy, so much so that it’s been regarded as a historical cesspool. Since the waterway is the cornerstone of the East River development, cleaning up the water is a necessary, if not expensive, undertaking.
Buffalo Bayou’s pollution problem underscores why public/private partnerships are especially crucial for waterway developments. Since waterway developments often have significant public benefits, public/private partnerships can ensure that the developer’s efforts will provide maximum return on investment for everyone involved. In the case of East River, Midway is strategically working with the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership, an organization dedicated to the bayou’s environmental restoration and other initiatives to enhance public access and recreation opportunities along Buffalo Bayou. The Partnership has been involved in the East River project from its inception, providing input and guidance on the design and implementation of the public spaces and amenities along the Buffalo Bayou waterfront.
Houston’s East River development serves as a prime example of the challenges and benefits of waterway construction for commercial developments. While the project promises to bring in significant economic benefits and transform an underutilized area of the city, it also faces numerous challenges such as potential flooding and environmental concerns. However, by taking into account these challenges and utilizing innovative design solutions, such as raising the ground level of the development and incorporating green spaces, the project is able to leverage the benefits of its waterway location while mitigating potential risks. Ultimately, the success of East River will serve as a model for future waterway developments, demonstrating the potential for transformative economic growth while prioritizing sustainability and resilience.