An Exclusive Inside Look at East River 9 and Riverhouse Restaurant
The Front Door of the Bayou City’s New Mega Development Takes Shape With a September Opening Planned
Just pulling into the parking lot, passing by a long-vacant office building that channels the worst of 1970s design, you’re going where few Houstonians have ever gone before. Moments later, you’re walking into the distinctive shell of the new Riverhouse Houston restaurant and seeing the green of what figures to be the best par 3 golf course that Houston has ever had when it opens sometime in September.
This is part of Midway’s East River mega-development that will forever change this section of Houston. But not just a part. East River 9 and Riverhouse will be the first part of East River that many Houstonians will see.
Which makes it one of the most critical pieces of what will eventually grow into a 150-acre, 65-block city within the city.
“That was always part of the vision,” Midway vice president Clayton Freels tells PaperCity. “We didn’t take that lightly. We knew this would be the first part of the activation out here. So we wanted to do it right. We didn’t want to take any shortcuts. There are a number of different ways you can do a pitch and putt course.
“I think the quality of the course here is as nice as any public course in Houston. To be able to showcase that along the natural resources of the Buffalo Bayou and the canopy across the way — and the downtown skyline — we knew we had the backdrop to do something special.”
To make sure that happens, Freels — who is the visionary force behind East River 9 and Riverhouse along with veteran Texas restaurateur Don Cristopher — tapped Mike and Bobby Smelek to design one of the best par 3 courses in America. This father-and-son golf course architect team is used to designing Ryder Cup (Le Golf National Paris) and PGA Tour level courses (Trump National Doral Miami). Now, they are bringing that big-time golf expertise to the typically more humble par 3 world.
“It’s unique,” Mike Smelek says. “We haven’t done a lot of par 3 courses. What’s different from par threes, in general, is the location is phenomenal.”
That is evident from the first tee when you hit towards a sweeping view of downtown Houston, including Minute Maid Park, the Discovery Green hotels, and the skyline. This is a view that most Houstonians have not seen before.
This site was closed off to the public for more than 75 years with Brown & Root, the industrial services firm that controlled the land, even making Sherman tanks for World War II on some of the land East River 9 and Riverhouse now call home.
Needless to say, tourists weren’t exactly welcome.
Now they will be. To play a par 3 course that sees six of its nine holes play along the Buffalo Bayou. No. 2, when you’re walking right along the ridge of Bayou, is set to be particularly striking. And different from any other golf course in the nation’s fourth largest city.
“Mike and Bobby designed that first tee shot — teeing off into the downtown skyline with the Bayou behind the green,” Freels says, the enthusiasm almost pouring out. “It’s a very unique hole.”
Much More Than Golf
East River 9 and Riverhouse Houston aren’t really about golf. Not even the type of family-friendly golf that par 3 courses create (grandma and the grandkids alike will be able to comfortably play this course where the longest hole measures in at 150 yards). Not first and foremost at least.
The golf is more of a way to create an approachable outdoor land that will include an open-air restaurant (at least when Houston’s weather allows that), a patio bar, a grass bowl for kids to run up and down, a full driving range and six pickleball courts.
East River 9 isn’t about golf as much as it’s about being a family-friendly hangout spot that adults will actually enjoy too.
“In a city with no zoning, the fact that we have a single entity controlling that miles-long waterfront experience and really curating that experience is really significant and a responsibility that we take a lot of pride in,” Anna Deans, Midway vice president of Investment and Development, says. “We know it’s going to become a destination for not only Houstonians but people outside of the area as well.
“We hope to become a source of pride for the city.”
The first phase of East River is well underway, with construction almost complete on a number of things besides East River 9 and Riverhouse. What many don’t realize is that just the first phase of East River comes in at 26 acres, roughly the size of all of CITYCENTRE.
This is no small first step.
“I THINK THE QUALITY OF THE COURSE HERE IS AS NICE AS ANY PUBLIC COURSE IN HOUSTON. TO BE ABLE TO SHOWCASE THAT ALONG THE NATURAL RESOURCES OF THE BUFFALO BAYOU AND THE CANOPY ACROSS THE WAY — AND THE DOWNTOWN SKYLINE — WE KNEW WE HAD THE BACKDROP TO DO SOMETHING SPECIAL.” — CLAYTON FREELS
East River 9 Puts the Outdoors First
To make it memorable, Midway is pulling out all the stops. By deciding to salvage an old Brown & Root maintenance building and use its frame as the basis for the new Riverhouse Houston restaurant’s space, Midway’s created a spot that looks like it’s been there for a while. Because it has. The golf course designers even worked with the Houston Audubon Society to make sure the course used natural grasses and wildflowers that would attract migrating birds and help them thrive. Eight large oak trees — some 25-plus years old — rescued from other sites also have been replanted here to help create a more long-lasting feel.
This is very much an outdoor first place.
Even the Riverhouse restaurant will have two large overhead glass doors that can be completely rolled up and open on nice days. There is also a covered pergola that will serve as a live music stage.
Golfers putting out on the ninth hole will have an audience of all the diners and cocktail drinkers on the expansive patio. The Smeleks designed the ninth green almost like an amphitheater stage.
Still, this is not a golf course that will punish you. There are no forced carries on the course, playing into the theme that anyone can have fun golfing here. Even if they never lift their golf ball off the ground.
One surprise may come in how links-style East River 9 is. There are even 16 pot bunkers on the course — with seven of them on the seventh hole.
“Because we’re trying to do a links-style, I’d say we have some fun at times,” Mike Smelek tells PaperCity. “I’d say there’s whimsical contouring on the greens. Which I think will be very entertaining.”
East River 9 could become a regular entertainment source for visiting conventioneers and business execs. Its proximity to George R. Brown and Discovery Green makes afternoon or evening trips for convention goers an easy feat.
The full 300-yard driving range and the stadium lights — yes, the course will be completely lighted for night play — contributes to that. Freels suggests that the last tee times likely will be 8 pm Mondays through Thursdays and 9 pm Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays with Riverhouse Houston closing at 1o pm and 11 pm respectively.
As Clayton Freels, whose father Bradley Freels built Midway from a small firm to what it is today, shows this reporter around a site that few have seen, something quickly becomes apparent. In many ways, this is a completely different side of Houston.
A more real river side.
“It’s an absolute dream to see it all coming to life,” Clayton Freels says, looking down the long driving range as a very un-Houston-like wind whips up. “In the truest meaning of the word.
“The grass is starting to grow in. The building’s getting framed out. More than anything, we just want to showcase this side of Houston. That’s what we’re excited about.”
Just golf? Not by a long shot. Go ahead and think again. East River 9 is much more than that.