The administration is gathering student feedback about the construction of the innovation district adjacent to Midtown and third ward, which aims to bring entrepreneurship and start-up resources to the city of Houston, according to Thomas Killian, the Rice Management Company’s liaison for the project.

Killian said he will host a series of lunches in late October and November that will be open to anyone who is interested in the project or has ideas regarding its establishment. These lunches will be open to faculty, graduate and undergraduate students.

According to Hanszen College Senator Tessa Schreiber, there is an emphasis on gaining buy-in from the student body.

“Students will have the opportunity to submit outlines of ideas that they might have and what resources might be needed with those, what staff or faculty might be able to help, and how those might encompass the existing entrepreneurship resources we have here, like the LILIE Lab or some of the engineering offices that help students with startups and innovation,” Schreiber, a sophomore, said.

University President David Leebron said the ultimate goal for this Midtown district, which will be over 14 acres and located next to the third ward one one side and the Montrose area on the other, is that it will be the city’s center for innovation and entrepreneurship, and as a result, benefit the local community substantially.  

This project has been openly communicating with the local community since the beginning, according to Killian.

“There are very powerful and very strong civic organizations in that area, especially the third ward and so working hand-in-hand with them to make sure this development is actually a benefit to their community is very important,” Killian said.

Nia Prince, who is originally from the Houston third ward, said that although she recognizes the benefits for Rice students, she is concerned about the negative impacts this project will have in her already gentrified community.  She said she is specifically concerned about the closure of the Fiesta market, which is on adjacent Rice-owned land that will be part of the innovation district, in a community that already faces limited food resources.

“Third ward is a food desert already and the only two grocery stores are the HEB that’s all the way on the other side of third ward and then the Fiesta,” Prince, a sophomore at Sid Richardson college, said. “To tear [the Fiesta] down is taking a problem that’s already a really huge problem for the community and making it even worse.” 

Leebron said the Fiesta market was planning to close regardless.

“And I think that’s what’s important, we need to enliven that area and make sure that folks in the neighborhood have access to services they need,” Leebron said. “So a food market is certainly one of the things that we want to be part of the broader district.”

Nia Prince said that she is concerned because of her awareness of Houston’s history with gentrification, having grown up here.

“It’s a conflict of two worlds because I love Rice and I always have good things to say about Rice and everything that we’re doing and I’m very passionate about making sure we have the best impact as possible,” Prince said “But also being from third ward and just the history Houston has with gentrification and not really paying attention to the social impact of the things going on, it puts me at a weird place.”

Leebron said that the property was originally offered as a part of Houston’s bid to Amazon as a potential location for their headquarters.  When Houston was passed over by Amazon, Leebron said Rice ultimately decided on this innovation center instead.

Killian said that a central part of this project is renovating the old Sears building to be an “innovation hub,” an idea found in many other major cities, like Chicago and Brooklyn.  According to Killian, the building will have opportunities for start-up accelerator programs, office space, workforce training programs and maker spaces, along with amenities like restaurants and outdoor spaces.

“The overarching vision is that this whole district would be the heart of an innovation ecosystem and this renovated Sears building would be the first part of it,” Killian said.

The renovated Sears building is expected to be completed at the end of 2020, which according to Killian is possible because they are not tearing down the existing structure.

As the Rice liaison for the project, Killian said his job is to focus on the academic aspect of the district, including partnerships between Rice and other universities in the use of space.

“My charge was to focus on the academic partners and that’s a very important part of the project for multiple reasons,” Killian said.  “One of the main ones is that academic institutions bring a tremendous amount of energy and they're critical for the success of this kind of a project.  They bring the ideas, the young people, they bring academic programs.”

Rice has partnered with the University of Houston, the University of Houston Downtown, the University of St. Thomas, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College, Houston Community College, Lonestar College and the South Texas College of Law.

Killian said the project planners are giving students a variety of opportunities to give feedback, all in order to create the best possible space for students and the city of Houston.

“This is a huge change for Houston and a huge change in the way Rice interacts with Houston, so hopefully there'll be lots of different ways that people can step up and engage,” Killian said.

President Leebron says that the space will benefit Rice’s entrepreneurial education efforts, but that the gains from the innovation center will extend beyond Rice students to the entire Houston population, remedying what he said is Houston’s apparent lack of entrepreneurial opportunity.

“The benefit to the city is really creating much more of a startup community, which in the long run is an economic driver and a job creation driver,” Leebron said.  “Ultimately, that’s what this is really about for the city, to create the jobs of the future, to make sure that Houston is well-positioned and competitive as a place where new enterprises are developed.”