Real Estate / Neighborhoods

Houston is Getting Its Own Innovation District — and the Techie Playground is Taking Over the Old Historic Sears Building

Who Needs Amazon?

BY // 04.12.18
photography Annie Gallay

Out with the old, in with the new. The brand new — and high tech. The iconic midtown Sears building is set to become the hub of Houston’s new innovation district, a land geared around startups and tech.

Who needs Amazon when you have Houston talent and trailblazers waiting in the wings?

In the wake of Amazon rejecting Houston relatively early in its search for its coveted second headquarters, Rice University president David Leebron and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the plans for a new $100 million Midtown Innovation District at a press conference held in the 1939 Art Deco building at 4201 Main that long housed a Sears. The two were joined by Texas Medical Center president and CEO Bill McKeon and Station Houston co-founder and CEO John Reale Jr.

“It’s an important day for the entire city of Houston,” Turner told the crowd. “We are here today to uplift the city of Houston. I ask as strongly and passionately as I can for you to put forward a concerted effort as we advance the city of Houston. It’s all about the city.”

The massive, multilevel former department store will anchor a 9.4-acre district owned by Rice University’s Rice Management Company. It is slated to be a center that brings Houston’s startup, tech, corporate and academic communities together.

“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,” Leebron said.

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“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.”

The renovation of the Sears building, which the department store chain shuttered last year, will take two years.

Amazon is not coming to Houston, but something else is. “I’ve so much forgotten about that,” Turner laughed when asked about the Amazon rejection. “I don’t spend a lot of time focusing on things in my past.”

The mayor’s emphasis is on Houston’s next stage. In his view, this new innovation district  “says to companies that the city of Houston is ready to play ball in a major, major way.” Turner isn’t shy about admitting that the Bayou City let these tech and startup opportunities pass it by in the past.

“As a city we have been slow to tap into our collective resources, talent and brain trust to compete globally,” he says. “We can no longer be in the shadow of a Chicago or a Silicon Valley.”

The new innovation district is about taking the next step for Houston, and it’s critical to the city’s long-term health and resiliency, in Turner’s view. “We must leap, not hop into the future. We must sprint, not jog,” he says.

The innovation district is a vital piece of the puzzle. “There’s a thriving innovation community here in Houston, but it’s spread out across the city,” McKeon said.

Leebron and Turner paid respect to the revolutionary work being done all across the city, by the University of Houston, Johnson Space Center, Texas Medical Center and more. “When you combine your best with the best of the other individuals, we’re much stronger when we work together,” Turner said.

The project has received support from Houston’s colleges beyond just Rice. Many of the city’s universities are located within a three-mile radius of the Midtown Innovation District. Representatives of several schools, including The University of St. Thomas and South Texas College of Law, attended the press conference.

Cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, London, Montreal and Barcelona already have innovation districts, putting the pressure on for Houston to get into the game.

For its part, Station Houston will tackle three key areas in the new district: connecting ecosystem players to forge significant collaboration, supporting entrepreneurs and the entire innovation community through workshops, programs and events, and working with academic institutions and other organizations and groups to nurture the city’s digital workforce.

Reale put it plainly and powerfully. “This is our district. This is our hub. This is our home.”

Transforming a Sears

The historic Sears building, with its central location tying it to transportation, neighborhoods and university, is a slam dunk of a setting in some ways. But Turner knows that its current state doesn’t shout ‘inspiring.’

“Some, when they look at it, they might see a blight. I see a site of opportunity,” he said.

Reporters were allowed to tour the historic building in groups of 10 to 12. Hines will lead the design and development of the building. The group is collaborating with architecture firms Gensler and James Carpenter.

A Rice representative noted that the basic bones of the building are still very good, but allowed that really substantial renovation will soon be underway. The size of the floor plate is one that you don’t typically see in Houston. It’s an oddity in Space City, which in general lacks the large, industrial SoHo-style buildings you find in many other big cities.

That sort of oversized floor plan, all high ceilings and open spaces, is catnip to techies.

After a brief explanation on the ground level where the press conference was held, the tour swiftly went subterranean. There, you could find the core of the original building, like the real marble floor.

It’s on that floor that James Carpenter, who describes himself as both an architect and artist, will really get to play. His work is distinctive for its focus on glass and natural light, the latter of which is sorely lacking in the Sears basement.

The good news: It turns out you can potentially cut through the concrete center, allowing light to flood the center from the top down like a beacon, if desired.

The overall goal is to preserve the true character of the historic building while allowing in some light and some airiness, bringing it into the modern age. The architects want to keep the Sears building’s rough shell, but really liven things up.

That means stripping it down to its concrete shell before building it back up. The building was boarded up with bricks some time in the 1960s or 1970s. The already-insular building was made to be even more insular. That’s essentially another layer of material that will have to be removed.

The tour brought the media back up to the ground floor. That meant going one floor higher in a service elevator that one reporter in floral print combat boots called “the elevator of my nightmares.”

The next floor was the same as the others —high ceilings, broad columns, open spaces— and just so happened to be the very site where a member of the media bought his first lawnmower. The times, they are a-changin’.

The roof, on the next floor up, looks out over Downtown and the highway, which will be transformed over the coming years with a project by the Texas Department of Transportation. Changes are due for the rail and bus transfer station to the south, independently of the innovation district, also.

Is this the look of a new techie Houston? Time will tell.

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