HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Ryan LeVasseur is managing director of direct real estate for Rice Management, which manages the $6 billion Rice University Endowment. Ryan’s key project has been the redevelopment of the 80-year-old Sears store on Main Street in Midtown. The transformed store is now The Ion and it’s the cornerstone of a fledgling innovation district.
Ryan LeVasseur was a recent guest on THE RALPH BIVINS PROJECT, a podcast produced by Realty News Report. Here is an excerpt from his appearance.
Ralph Bivins: We are here today visiting with Ryan LeVasseur of Rice Management. Ryan has been busy transforming an 80-year-old Sears store into The Ion and an innovation district is next. People are showing a lot of interest in it. Welcome.
Ryan LeVasseur: Thank you, Ralph, it’s good to see you today. Especially today, because we are having an all-too-frequent occurrence of a storm coming through the city.
Ralph Bivins: We had a Category 1 hurricane come through overnight, a lot of people are without power, but we are carrying on in a remote studio – so things will look a little different today. Tell us about the Ion, the new project in Midtown by Rice Management.
Ryan LeVasseur: Thank you for helping us who are in the real estate world in Houston and in Texas keep in touch with what is going on. Thank you for still sharing information. Right now, it’s hard to stay in touch with friends. We thank you for sharing the story of the Ion and its impact on Houston. What the Ion is, in simplest terms, is a catalyst. First, there is the real estate segment. Rice owns 16 acres in Midtown, which is an area primed for natural development, maybe in a few years from now. With development a few years away, if Rice makes an investment in this area, then it must have a catalyst, and The Ion is that catalyst to start future investment. It is also a catalyst for the broader, regional economy. If you look at the history of other cities, you realize that many had a reliance on too few industries. This could happen in Houston, but it doesn’t have to. Rice, and its president, David Leebron, have really stepped up, saying, “We can do something different. We have the real estate to attract talent and create new places to live and work and share ideas.” This is Rice’s commitment, in hopes of catalyzing new business.
Ralph Bivins: Rice University has a beautiful, oak-lined campus on Main Street in Houston. Rice is stepping “outside the hedges,” as someone put it, and going out into the city. Midtown is a work in progress. The university has done great things and made great investments. This is a big step, to help the city in its growth.
Ryan LeVasseur: It is a big step, a substantial step for the university, especially for a university that has spent its 109-year existence staying mainly inside the hedges. It has been internally focused. This is an opportunity for Rice to lead. It is also coming on the heels of Amazon and its HQ2 headquarters search. Amazon said to the city of Houston: “You are not like the others. You are not even in our top 20.” So, Houston said, “What’s wrong with us?” The people looked back at the city and asked, “What can we do?” President Leebron and the board of Rice said we can do something different, something that’s not segregated by tunnels and other systems. We want to create a place where people can work together, where people get out of their cars and walk around, and people can come together. This is a major investment by the university. Look, Rice is not going anywhere. It will be here forever. As long as it is here, it will help Houston maintain itself as a world-class city.
Ralph Bivins: So, you have 16 acres around the former Sears Store. Tell us more about the Sears redevelopment.
Ryan LeVasseur: The university has 16 acres of land spread over 12 city blocks, with a building measuring 266,000 SF over 6 levels. The original building had a lower level with three stories above it. We have added two stories above that. Physically, the building is unlike anything else in the commercial market. It has floor plates of 58,000 SF, ceiling heights of 14 feet. The structure is rather robust; extremely robust, in fact. It’s irreplaceable. It’s not a building that any sane developer would build anew; it would be too expensive.”
“The structure is extremely robust. It’s irreplaceable.”
Ryan LeVasseur: We have this building that has industrial character that the market is attracted to. And there’s a story to it. There is just not a plethora of opportunities in Houston to preserve something that is old, and which has also touched so many lives. It’s interesting to see so many people with an emotional connection. I mean, it’s just a box, just a store, just a Sears. But so many people say, “I remember when my grandparents took me there to get shoes in August for school” or “My spouse and I went to Sears to get our first appliances.” It’s meaningful. To save this structure is a rare opportunity. It is the preservation of an historic building, not one remembered for the great things that happened there, but one with small instances that affected people’s lives.
Ralph Bivins: So a freestanding department store has become an office building.
Ryan LeVasseur: Right now, the structure is an office building with a range of amenities unlike any other. There are four restaurants. There are a maker lab and a prototyping lab, a studio built for investors to have a base for pitches. There are forum stairs with seating for 250 people for public events. There is also an abundance of differentiated office products that are leasing very well.
Ralph Bivins: You recently signed Common Desk a co-working outlet, as a 58,000 SF tenant.
Ryan LeVasseur: I believe it is the largest operation in their portfolio. They have 23 locations, mostly in Texas, with a handful in Houston. We did a nationwide search for a co-working operation and landed on Common Desk. They have the right personality. Their leadership is young and engaged. We joke that they are very much on brand. They are serious businesspeople. This is a joint venture. As their space does well, Rice does well, and Common Desk does well.
In this building, people are doing well. They are really excited. As a testament to the success, we see people who are not even tenants of Common Desk yet who are taking people on tours, telling them, “We’re taking that office over there,” “We’re coming in to lease that space,” “Take a look at that amazing space,” and so on. It’s pretty cool when people who are not even tenants are talking about the amazing things that are happening here.
Oct. 3, 2021 Realty News Report Copyright 2021
(Interview edited for clarity)
For more about Texas real estate, check out the book Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up by Ralph Bivins. Available on Amazon http://tiny.cc/4a2g6y
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File: The Ion – a Podcast with Ryan LeVasseur
File: Midtown Houston. Sears. David Leebron. The Ion – a Podcast with Ryan LeVasseur of Rice Management. Common Desk. Hurricane Nicholas.