Since its creation was announced in April 2018, The Ion has been a topic of discussion for Rice University and the local community, culminating in the formation of a community coalition and their proposed community benefits agreement. The Ion, currently being built in the old Sears building at 4201 Main St., is headed by Rice Management Company, which is responsible for Rice’s endowment and real estate holdings, and Station Houston, a tech startup facilitator.
After The Ion was announced, the Student Coalition for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor formed with students from Rice, Texas Southern University, University of Houston and other local colleges and universities in an effort to protect the surrounding community. The Student Coalition is part of a larger effort by community groups who form the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement. In the meantime, Rice Management and Station Houston broke ground on The Ion in July, and from July 17 onward Rice Management and Station Houston have been meeting with the Houston Coalition.
Houston as a Tech Ecosystem
Gaby Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, said that in 2015, a year after being recruited to Houston as a school principal, she tried to seek out a tech ecosystem in the city and found that there was none.
“There was absolutely nothing in Houston in 2015,” Rowe said. “Technologists and young people were leaving Houston if [working in tech] was something they wanted to do.”
According to Rowe, the biggest difference between Houston’s tech economy and other tech economies around the nation is a focus on industrial rather than consumer technology. Rowe said that she hopes The Ion can serve as a place to provide training for jobs in technology.
“We are a city dominated by energy, aerospace, medicine, large-scale logistics, heavy construction,” Rowe said. “Those are all industries that are extremely important to the development of tech. They are also filled with hundreds of thousands of high-paying tech jobs that our workforce is capable of filling or capable of being trained in order to fill.”
According to Stephen Klineberg, sociology professor and founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the fundamental reality of Houston is the growing gap between rich and poor due to differing access to quality education.
“It’s a new world where the good blue collar jobs have disappeared. Education is critical. And you’ve got in Houston growing affluence and growing poverty simultaneously,” Klineberg said. “The central division in America, the ethnic decision and the class division that is predicated on quality education is the critical question for the future of Houston.”
Outside of the city’s recent advancements in the industrial technology industry, Houston has a historical legacy of a strong sense of culture and community, according to Lenty Tran, a student at Texas Southern University and another member of the Student Coalition.
“There’s a strong cultural presence in Houston,” Tran said. “If you try to touch their communities, without really giving them a warning [...] it will come back, because we have really strong roots here in Houston. If they don’t try to center [The Ion] around Houston, I feel like it’s not going to go well, and it’s just going to be a poor investment.”
According to a Third Ward Community Needs Assessment published by the Baker Institute for Public Policy in 2019, most residents in the area were interested in working in health, food and hospitality sectors. Very few respondents wanted to enter energy or technology fields, according to the report.
Background of The Ion Project
According to Rowe, the development of the Ion started when Houston, along with many other cities in the United States at the time, wrote a proposal to bring the second Amazon headquarters to Houston. After the proposal was submitted, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston.
“It was a really devastating time in many ways for the city of Houston,” Rowe said. “But in other ways, and I’m saying this [from] an outsider’s perspective, it was amazing to see the city pull together in some really fundamental ways, across geography, across racial lines, across economic lines.”
After they found out that Houston was no longer in the running for the new Amazon headquarters, Rice and Station Houston started a conversation about how to help the city through innovation, according to Rowe. Rice decided that the Sears building property, which had been put up as part of the initial Amazon bid, would be used as a place to develop opportunities for Houstonians, according to Rowe.
According to a Rice News article from Jan. 2019, the renovated Sears building will “bring the area’s entrepreneurial, corporate and academic communities together into collaborative spaces and programs [...] and provide resources for Houstonians seeking to participate in the innovation economy.”
The Ion is one part of a long-term plan to create 16-acre innovation district in Midtown, according to Rice News.
Formation of the Student Coalition
Mary Claire Neal, a Jones College junior, said that when she first learned about the Ion project, while she didn’t know much about Third Ward at the time, she was familiar with the area that the Ion would be built in.
“I knew there was a homeless encampment and that it was sort of ironic to hear all this language about the progress and innovation, just erasing their existence there,” Neal said. “And then talking about supporting the local community when they obviously weren’t talking about … like they were deliberately erasing a population that was the most local.”
Neal said that the move toward a community benefits agreement between the Houston Coalition and Rice Management stemmed from a need expressed by the community members of not just engagement, but accountability.
A community benefits agreement is a contract signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community or neighborhood, according to the Partnership of Working Families. The Student Coalition formed after the announcement of The Ion project to help create the community benefits agreement. According to Neal, the meeting on Nov. 12 would be the first step in a long process of seeking out and securing the agreement.
“The pattern in other cities is that the first step is that a coalition forms, and then the developers ultimately have to be the ones to say, ‘Okay, we’re reaching out and saying we’ll do an agreement,’” Neal said. “It’s the community leaders and groups that are at the center of it that [...] will be organizing it for much longer than we’ll be at Rice.”
Neal said that while Rice Management and Station Houston have said that they intend to do some of the same things that the agreement will ask for, the agreement is meant to act as a form of accountability.
“It’s not that we have completely different ideas of what the space should be,” Neal said. “What the [agreement]does is it makes sure [...] that the developers are taking what the community says seriously [...] For there to be trust between these two groups, there has to be that formality. Because it’s not something that you can build in just a few years, and there’s not that trust between Third Ward and an institution like Rice, because … I don’t know, why should they trust Rice?”
Defining the local community
According to the Baker Institute’s assessment, residents of the Third Ward, where The Ion is located, had a strong sense of community, had little desire to move and were overwhelmingly satisfied with living in the Third Ward. Neal said that at this point, the next step should be to apply what has been learned from various needs assessments to helping the community.
Neal also said that it would be important to avoid separating the homeless population from the other residents of Third Ward in conversations about what the community needs.
“I think it’s important to recognize how ongoing of a problem homelessness is and how complicated it is, but it’s also a really important shift to say we’re not going to separate those two,” Neal said. “We’re thinking about who is the local community, and if you include people who don’t have houses in that local community you can treat everyone as if they are [...] valued as people who deserve to have their needs addressed by this.”
Interactions between Rice Management/Station Houston and community
Rowe said that Station Houston and Rice Management have met with the Student Coalition and other community groups to gather input for The Ion.
“I think more than anything is to supply them with the data that we have developed through research about what those jobs of the future are going to be, and to listen to them about the needs that they see around tech development in their communities,” Rowe said.
According to Neal, Rice Management wanted to reach out to students before the summer, before the Student Coalition had even been formed.
“They knew there were students at Rice that had those concerns, like from that meeting [...] and so we kept trying to meet with them and nothing happened,” Neal said.
Due to scheduling conflicts, Rice Management was unable to meet with the Student Coalition until July 17, after the Student Coalition announced that they would be holding a press conference at The Ion’s groundbreaking, according to Neal.
“So it was this weird kind of timing, like, ‘Oh, now you’re doing something publicly? Now we want to meet with you.’ Which you can take what you want from that,” Neal said.
Rowe said she wouldn’t want too much structure to be put around the types of programming Station Houston will develop at this point to allow for room for feedback from the community.
“This is the time to listen, it’s the time to solicit feedback, it’s the time to think about our path forward in the programming we develop, and to partner and collaborate,” Rowe said. “I actually look forward to the next six to eight months and the feedback and the input that we’re going to receive.”
Klineberg said that even though Rice Management and Station Houston have made gestures toward wanting to benefit the local community, community development and the development of a tech ecosystem are two separate issues.
Tran said that Rice Management and Station Houston should include the community in major decisions about the project, such as the leadership of the project and the construction company working on the building.
“Even the community organizations they’ve talked to, the majority of them are only on the West side of [State Highway] 288, which is really just Midtown area, and just a few other places from the Third Ward area. But not really the whole community,” Tran said. “When you really want to reach out to the students and the community, you reach out to the advisors, and the people who actually do things around, not the people that handle the money.”
Jolen Martinez, a senior from Baker College and another member of the Student Coalition, said that he thought Rice Management and Station Houston’s communication with the Student Coalition suggested something about the members’ own privilege as Rice students.
“These are all things that community members have said time and time again [...] it’s just, they’ve been ignored,” Martinez said.
Neal and Martinez said that the goal for the Student Coalition was to work alongside the community, not to act as an intermediary between the community and the developers.
Legacy of Development/Legacy of Gentrification
According to the Baker Institute’s assessment, recent neighborhood development had many residents concerned about displacement, and a majority of Third Ward residents were “extremely” concerned with a loss of African American culture in the Third Ward.
Martinez said that The Ion is only one part of an ongoing pattern of commercial development changing the landscape of major cities throughout the country.
“It’s very visceral, too, for Third Ward populations themselves, but it’s something that has been historically ongoing in Houston and you see it in cities around the country too,” Martinez said.
Neal said that while Rice may not be able to solve gentrification in its entirety, it has the potential to do something different.
“There are so many examples across the country of coalitions of community groups that have gotten together to ask for an agreement from a development. So we have a lot to look at from the strengths and weaknesses of those agreements and how we can build on them and make them fit Houston’s context,” Neal said.
Residents of the Third Ward were not opposed to all new development in the neighborhood, according to the Baker Institute assessment. The report found that residents would like to see new services, stores and businesses come into the Third Ward, including hospitals, childcare facilities, restaurants and movie theaters.
Rowe said that she hopes Houston’s tech ecosystem differs from others around the country by addressing inequity.
“Less than two percent of venture capital dollars in the United States go to female-owned businesses. The amount of equity going to minority-owned businesses [...] is even lower. And that is not reflective of what we believe a technology ecosystem or innovation economy should be here in Houston,” Rowe said.
Third Ward of the Future
With the community benefits agreement, Neal said she hopes that Rice Management and Station Houston will provide resources for the local community that address not only job opportunities, but also needs such as affordable housing and accessible groceries.
For Rowe, The Ion will be reflective of Houston’s history, community and culture and also look toward the future.
“We have found a lot of people who have said to us, ‘we’re not part of the equation,’ or ‘we don’t feel like a part of the equation,’ and our job is to change that, and to change it dramatically, so that the day The Ion opens, it looks like Houston, and it’s accessible to all of Houston,” Rowe said.
Martinez said that the human value and building relationships within the community should be prioritized over building capital, and that Third Ward residents would benefit from the resources requested in the community benefits agreement.
“It’s like, this is your home, you can have these resources, because this is your local experience [...] I think that’s a big shift from the usual narrative of development,” Martinez said.
Construction on The Ion is set to be completed by the spring of 2021.