Real Estate / Neighborhoods

Tomorrow Worlds — Midway CEO Jonathan Brinsden Sees the Innovative Mixed-Use Experts Expanding Into Other Major Markets

How the Long View, an Appreciation for Design and Obsessing Over the Little Details Fuels Difference Making Development

BY // 02.12.21

Sitting in the reimagined lobby of a GreenStreet office building, Midway CEO Jonathan Brinsden is in his element. This is what the real estate development company prides itself on. Making things better.

“It was a pretty awful lobby and now it’s a pretty fantastic lobby,” Brinsden says, looking over the dramatic staircase, towering ceiling and actually comfortable lounge chairs.

Midway is behind many of the developments that have changed how people live in Houston, including CITYCENTRE, Kirby Grove (and its impact in helping to create Levy Park), Memorial Green and the upcoming East River mega project. But it also acquires mixed-use centers that maybe did not soar as hoped in their initial launches like GreenStreet, which was formerly Houston Pavilions.

Setting the pace is Brinsden, a CEO who does not talk or dress like a corporate suit. Brinsden has led Midway’s growth and the creation of $2 billion in mixed-use assets, but this is someone who rarely talks of profits first. Now, coming off a 2020 Coronavirus year that challenged companies of all sizes like never before, he’s focused on pushing Midway forward into the future.

“It’s been in place for a couple of years, but I’d say our overall big, strategic priorities are geographic diversification outside of Houston,” Brinsden says. “One of the sort of downsides of having projects at the scale we have, you almost run out of places to put them without competing with ourselves.

“We’re focused on the other big Texas markets — Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.”

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The guy who started out as a mechanical engineering major at Texas A&M University, with the intent of going into automotive design school, is thinking big. As usual. Brinsden grew up with pictures of dream cars dominating his childhood bedroom walls. But even then, he always found himself as interested in the design of the cars as much as the roar of the engines and 0 to 60 times.

“For whatever reason, I loved cars and I loved buildings,” Brinsden says. “And I think both of those things probably had something to do with design. My father worked for Shell in (One) Shell Plaza. I remember always visiting him and thinking that’s just a beautiful building.”

Later, when Brinsden had the chance to meet with Gerald D. Hines, he told the iconic developer, “I always blame you for being in this business.” Hines, of course, developed One Shell Plaza, the building that first moved Brinsden’s imagination.

Now, Brinsden leads the teams that develop beautiful buildings — and entire destinations — for Midway. And with Brinsden, it truly matters that it’s a team effort. This is the only CEO I’ve met in years of profiling them who brought all the key figures of his entire team with him to our first interview meeting. This is not someone who seeks out the spotlight for himself.

For the Midway CEO, the real thrill seems to come in creating “great places” with the team. Some of that even plays into the push to further expand Midway into other Texas markets.

“I think it’s exciting to expand into these other markets,” Brinsden says. “As we grow and broaden our horizons, it’s just the opportunity for additional impacts. And that’s exciting to me. And at the same time, I think organizations have to be inherently growing to create opportunities for their team members.”

“And I think as much as anything that my job is to work myself out of a job and create opportunities for other people. That geographic growth along with overall growth is important. And it’s healthy for our team.”

Midway’s success with projects like CITYCENTRE, which transformed West Houston in many ways, and Century Square in College Station set it up for this push into other major Texas markets.

“We’re known for having a unique skill set for delivering these high quality mixed use environments, and I think post COVID a lot of people realize how important a lot of these underlying ideas in these projects are,” Brinsden says. “In terms of providing health and wellness and green space — especially as employers think about bringing employees back to work.

“If you’re going to get them back, your office has to be compelling and have amenities. Be a place where people want to come back to work.”

Midway strives to take a longterm view, typically holding onto its developments for 10 years or more. The sheer scale of the new East River development — 150 acres of former industrial land, a swath that’s the equivalent of 65 city blocks abutting the Buffalo Bayou — makes it a 20-year build.

East River site
East River provides views to downtown Houston that many longtime Houstonians have never even seen before.

Every company talks about looking ahead. Midway lives it every day.

“On the macro level, you’re always trying to figure out — the Wayne Gretzky saying is ‘How do we skate where the puck is going,’ ” Brinsden says.

Jonathan Brinsden: Student of Development

When looking ahead, truly understanding the past is indispensable. Jonathan Brinsden always seemed to grasp this. He used to go to the library as a grad student to pour over Urban Land Institute (ULI) case studies of real estate projects. Some guys devour the sports section. Jonathan Brinsden studied development projects as a 21-year-old.

“A lot of the classroom case studies tended to focus on the financial impact of the project,” he says. “Whereas the Urban Land Institute case studies gave you the background. Why did this thing happen. Why did it happen this way. Why was it designed this way.”

Midway’s CEO always wanted to know how and why things worked. Or didn’t. Brinsden bought his first car at age 15 — and completely took the whole thing apart and rebuilt it.

“My father was always a really handy person,” Brinsden says. “And he was a wood worker. So I kind of grew up with an understanding of how things are built and put together. How to make things.”

These are lessons that served Brinsden well as he developed his first shopping center off a connection from church, built up the Hamm Corporation development firm over seven years, jumped into Midway for a better fit and ascended to CEO in 2013. Now, he is serving as the chairman of the Urban Land Institute (of the Americas), the organization whose case studies he used to trek to the library to examine all those years ago.

Brinsden is not aiming for some ceremonial, sit back and take it easy role either. That’s not in his nature. His No. 1 goal as chairman of ULI is to help bring more diversity to the real estate development industry.

“As an industry, we are very much still biased towards male, pale and stale,” Brinsden says. “And so really trying to make sure ULI can play a role in truly welcoming and bringing everyone into the industry.

“. . . There have been a lot of things in real estate history — whether it’s zoning laws or deed restrictions — that have been very divisive. And so I think for me, that’s the priority. On the one hand, it kind of seems timely. On the other, regardless of the context, it should be a priority.”

For this forward-thinking CEO, it’s another way to try and help create a better future.

Going Beyond Just Financial Transactions

Brinsden quotes both Wayne Gretzky and Richard Branson in the same morning interview. This is someone who spends time thinking about things. Whether it’s how to best make a shopping center a community rather than just a lineup of stores. Or how to best build Midway’s company culture.

Midway CEO Jonathan Brinsden is not afraid to take on something big. (Photo by Gerardo Velasquez.)
Midway CEO Jonathan Brinsden is not afraid to take on something big. (Photo by Gerardo Velasquez.)

“Fundamentally, I think people want to be part of an organization that has a purpose, makes a difference, and believes in something,” Brinsden says. “One of my favorite quotes is from Richard Branson who said, ‘Fundamentally companies exist to solve problems and make people’s lives better.’ ”

Sometimes doing that centers on getting all the endless little details right. Brinsden still remembers meeting with Gerald D. Hines at the height of the legendary real estate figure’s powers and listening to Hines go on an excited, extended tangent about new elevator upgrades at One Shell Plaza.

“And I’m sitting there thinking, there’s this guy who runs this truly global organization and we’re talking about elevator upgrades,” Brinsden says, grinning in wonder all these years later. “Design and thoughtfulness and quality matter. We talk about it a lot internally. I always tell them, ‘Never lose sight of what people touch.’ Because that can inherently indicate quality.

“If a beautiful car has a crappy door handle, that first impression is not good. There’s a reason those door handles over there (in the GreenStreet lobby) have leather wrappings. And even details like elevator buttons count so much.”

Yes, when you hit an elevator button at CityCentre or even one in a Kirby Grove parking garage, you can be sure plenty of thought was put into it. That is part of the Midway way of doing things, too. Jonathan Brinsden figures he has a secret weapon as he pushes to expand Midway further into more major Texas markets. His relationship with Midway Chairman Bradley Freels, the man who saw greater possibilities when he brought Brinsden onboard.

“He’s been an unbelievable mentor both professionally and personally,” Brinsden says of Freels. “I always joke he’s almost exactly 10 years older than me and it’s kind of like I got the guide book.

“It could be raising kids or anything. ‘OK, how did you deal with this? How did you deal with that?’ ”

“On the macro level, you’re always trying to figure out — the Wayne Gretzky saying is ‘How do we skate where the puck is going.’ ” — Jonathan Brinsden

Now, Brinsden is focused on creating deals in new markets for Midway. On the day of our talk, he had just returned from a few days in Dallas, full of meetings centered around possible expansion. Brinsden expects to complete some of these deals in the next 12 months — and more within the next two years.

“I think we know the areas where we want to be,” he says. “I think it will be a combination of both urban and some suburban. Northern Dallas has a lot of good mixed-use developments. There’s a core that’s been developed there. We’ll look at opportunities to acquire and develop. A lot of that is being adaptable to what the market offers you.

“We’re at a time where we think in the next year, 18 months there will be some attractive acquisition opportunities.”

Jonathan Brinsden is still looking ahead, with designs for all the tomorrows to come.

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