HOUSTON – (By Michelle Leigh Smith for Realty News Report) – Rice University has launched a redevelopment of the old Sears store property in Midtown, to create an innovation district attracting technology startups, entrepreneurs and venture capital.
Rice owns 9.4 acres at the Midtown site, including the four-story Sears building, 4201 Main St., a Fiesta store and surface parking lots and other parcels around Wheeler Street, Fannin and San Jacinto.
In the old Sears building on Thursday, Rice University President David Leebron stood at the foot of Houston’s’ first escalator to announce a global technology center that he and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner hope will propel Houston to become a city that can attract technology businesses and generate new business growth.
“The redevelopment of the building will respect its historic character while making the modifications required to create dynamic space for creative companies in the innovation ecosystem,” said Leebron.
“The innovation district will leverage the region’s unique economic strengths and help transform Houston into a world leader in data science and digital technologies centered on energy, industrial, health care and logistics industries,” said Leebron. “We aim to attract talent and support all stages of the innovation life cycle through state-of-the-art resources, incubators and accelerators, classroom and event space, technology, prototyping facilities, networking opportunities and entrepreneurship support and training.”
Hines, the Houston development firm, will redevelop the Sears building, which opened in 1939 and closed a few months ago. Gensler and James Carpenter architects are working on the project.
The 190,000-SF Sears building, will be transformed into a hub designed to bring together the area’s entrepreneurial, corporate and academic communities into collaborative spaces and programs. The initial phase is expected to be completed within two years.
The effort comes after Houston was rejected in its effort to be considered for Amazon’s HQ2 site search. The $5 billion Amazon facility will bring 50,000 new jobs.
Houston was the largest city in the nation to be left off Amazon’s short list of 20 finalists.
What did he learn from Amazon’s snub of the Houston proposal, due to what they perceived as a lack of technology? “I’ve so much forgotten about that,” Mayor Turner joked. “Seriously, the City of Houston is ready to play ball in a major, major way. We are putting forth the best effort to prepare for our future. We didn’t wait. We are here today – this is the first day of a brand new Houston.”
A large gathering of homeless people has been living under the Highway 59 overpass near the Sears store. Mayor Turner said a new residential project that would offer free meals and housing for the nearby homeless encampment will be announced within the month.
“Houston is always transforming,” Turner said. “We went from a cotton, rice and rail hub to the energy capital of the world, a global center for biomedical breakthroughs and an enviable model for inclusion for people and cultures from everywhere. Thanks to Rice and our many other partners in the innovation district being announced today, the city is poised to make yet another dramatic leap into the future. “
“This will be an innovation and incubation facility for all Houston. Rice owns the property, but the enterprise will be a collaborative mix of many different participants and activities,” Leebron said.
In a deal that Investment Director Alan Arnold has worked to achieve for more than five years, the Rice Management Company bought out the stub of a 99-year lease on property they own from Sears.
The new innovation district will combine a variety of commercial uses with housing, food and entertainment, iconic public space and best-in-class infrastructure, Leebron said. “The surrounding neighborhoods’ vibrant and rich culture will be embraced to create an eclectic, engaging streetscape that blends the historic with the new and celebrates Houston’s diversity,” he said.
There will be classrooms, art shows in a creative space that brings in natural light.
“The many participants already committed to this vision typify Houston’s collective spirit of inclusivity and entrepreneurship, and we welcome people and organizations who can contribute to its overarching mission,” Leebron said.
The site, owned by Rice Management Co. as part of the university’s endowment, is located near the METRORail Red Line and central to downtown, the Museum District and the Texas Medical Center (TMC), which has committed to support the project, along with the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) and Houston Exponential (HX).
The site is at the epicenter of Houston institutions of higher education, with nearly all located within a three-mile radius, Leebron said. He said the University of Houston, the University of Houston-Downtown, Texas Southern University, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Baptist University, South Texas College of Law Houston, Houston Community College and Lone Star College have expressed their support for the project and intention to participate. The TMC plans to put its digital initiative in the facility when it is completed.
“There’s a thriving innovation community here in Houston, but it’s spread out across the city,” said Bill McKeon, Texas Medical Center president and CEO. “This site will serve as a cornerstone of the Houston innovation district, which will finally connect those hubs.”
In developing these plans, Rice worked closely with the GHP, HX and Station Houston, the region’s hub for tech innovation and entrepreneurship focused on digital technologies. Station Houston will serve as incubator and amenity program operator and will work on three key initiatives: connecting ecosystem players to drive high-impact collaborations; supporting entrepreneurs and the innovation community through a range of programs, workshops and events; and working with academic institutions and other groups to develop and connect Houston’s digital workforce.
“Transformative,” John Reale Jr., co-founder and CEO of Station Houston, said of the project. “Today we take a major step forward toward our shared vision of transforming Houston into a world-leading tech innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. This could not be possible without the ongoing collaboration of Houston’s academic institutions, corporations, major institutions, investors and entrepreneurs. We applaud Rice for its vision and commitment in leading this community effort.”
“It is clear Houston needs to take some aggressive steps on the innovation economy,” said Bill Fulton, Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. “Every other innovation center around the country involves a strong partnership between the city and a major university. San Francisco partners with UC San Diego, which is purely medical and biotech.”
UH Chancellor and President Dr. Renu Khator, METRO Chair Carrin Patman, South Texas College of Las Dean Donald Guter gathered to share in the excitement.
Part of the magic of the hub will be an easier transit approach, which promises to be at separate grade. “Edwin Friedrichs, Senior Principal at Walter P. Moore, has said that anything at street grade would mean traffic gridlock, so Rice will be working with HR&A to look at grade separation,” said Greg Marshall, a Rice University spokesman. “We have that top of mind.”