Student blog: Sears — Once Your Ordinary Department Store, Now a Vehicle for Tech Sector Gentrification

By Nicole Mitchell
Graduate student, Department of Computer Science, Rice University

In May 2019, the Rice Management Company (RMC), which oversees Rice University’s investments, broke ground on the old Sears lot in Midtown Houston, transforming the historic Sears building into the Ion, the centerpiece of the planned South Main Innovation District. This development offers the promise of cultivating a startup ecosystem in Houston, providing a space to promote collaboration among industrial, academic and medical center partners and to share resources for entrepreneurs. Aiming to position Houston as a leading center for technology, the RMC claims the Ion will strengthen the economy, attract and retain talent, and benefit the community at large. However, this grand vision comes amid growing concerns that establishing such a district on the edge of the Third Ward will magnify existing issues of gentrification in the historically-disadvantaged, predominantly-black community. The success of the Ion depends upon the RMC working with current residents to protect local resources and to design a district that is sustainable, equitable and inclusive.

As Rice widens its footprint in Houston on its quest to transform the city into an entrepreneurial hub, the RMC needs to work proactively to address issues of food security and affordable housing in the Third Ward that the Ion will exacerbate. Currently, the Ion project will force the only grocery story in the area to close — making access to fresh produce and food more challenging for residents. In addition to ensuring that this development will not widen the existing food desert, the RMC should also find ways to manage the potential for increased rents and housing costs and to make certain that the nearby shelter is not displaced so that those in need are not left without a reasonable alternative.

The RMC has a willing community partner working to ensure that the planned Ion District uplifts the Third Ward while preserving their culture and community: the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement (HCEDD). The HCEDD has united 28 community organizations in the Third Ward to negotiate a community benefits agreement (CBA) with the RMC on behalf of Third Ward residents. The proposed CBA calls for historical and cultural preservation of communities of color, protection of affordable housing to prevent displacement, prioritization and support for minority and black businesses, economic opportunities for residents, community access to education and enrichment activities, minority inclusion in tech entrepreneurship and access to quality, affordable groceries.

As the Ion development is funded by the Rice University Endowment, Rice’s stated values must be central to this effort. By engaging with the predominantly black residents of the Third Ward to develop a mutually beneficial development plan, the RMC can work to ensure that diversity and inclusion are built into the foundation of the Ion, an objective of Rice’s Task Force on Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice. Strengthening Rice’s relationship with the Houston community also aligns with a core goal of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade to “use its off-campus properties strategically to benefit both the university and the city … [and] embark on new collaborations and partnerships, within Rice and with partners in our city and around the world.”

It is crucial that the RMC negotiate a responsible and sustainable development plan with the HCEDD, before earning Rice the reputation of a gentrifying institution plowing into under-resourced areas, raising the cost of living and bringing about cultural erasure in the name of innovation. Rice should draw upon its character traits of “Responsibility, Integrity, Community, and Excellence” to work with the HCEDD in developing a CBA that will mitigate issues of tech sector gentrification, rather than introducing them in our Houston community.

This blog post is part of the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program’s Developing Civic Scientist Leaders project.