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Houston Coalition meets to discuss Community Benefits Agreement regarding The Ion

Mai Ton/Thresher

By Rynd Morgan     11/15/19 2:18pm

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a group that includes many Third Ward community organizations as well as the Student Coalition for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor, was officially established in a meeting on Nov. 12 to secure a community benefits agreement with Rice Management Company they continue to develop the innovation corridor, according to the Student Coalition’s Facebook page.

At the meeting, Gaby Rowe, director of The Ion, gave a presentation on the current progress of the project. In her presentation, Rowe said that Houston can benefit from being one of the last tech ecosystems to develop in this country by learning from the mistakes of other tech ecosystems in major cities. 

“We’ve all read the stories about northern California, we’ve read about the challenges of lack of education,” Rowe said. “We have the opportunity here in Houston as we develop an innovation economy to make different choices and take different paths.”

Rowe said that Houston’s tech ecosystem did not need to rely on outside talent, and could be fueled by local workers and entrepreneurs.

“If we get people getting the right skills, and then those are people already living in our community, whose wages are rising and whose incomes are rising [...] they’re not going to be pushing themselves out,” Rowe said. “They’re going to be able to maintain, stay and build communities.”

In response to an audience member who asked if there would be Black or Third Ward-owned subcontractors working on the construction of The Ion, Rowe said that The Ion would like to solicit artwork from the Third Ward to cover a construction fence covering that is about to be put up.

Founding Director of the Sankofa Research Institute and Houston Coalition member Assata Richards said that The Ion’s diversity and inclusion efforts should go beyond checking a box and make real commitments to providing for the community.

“We’re talking millions of dollars in construction, and Gaby [Rowe] tells us she wants us to select some art to go on the outside of the building,” Richards said. “I don’t care what you put on the outside of the building, I care about the economic footprint of the building itself. We have to drive by that building every day, knowing that we have people who need jobs in this community, and we don’t see anybody at that construction site that looks like us.”

Richards also said that while the presentation from Rowe was a good start, Rice Management Company should have done more from the beginning to include the community, such as including them in the process of hiring Rowe.

“This is the problem with this whole conversation. I’m glad Gaby [Rowe] came. But that is not how we’re going to operate,” Richards said. “We have to understand that without our community benefits agreement, without a long term vision of the impact of this development, then we will only be roadblocks for what is going to come in.”

Mary Claire Neal, a member of the Student Coalition for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor, said that it was important to keep in mind that Rice Management Company hired Rowe as the director of The Ion.

“[Rowe] is working for, reporting directly back to Rice Management Company,” Neal, a Jones College junior, said. “That’s who owns sixteen acres in Midtown, the Sears building, the Fiesta, some of the parking lots. So this is who we’re talking to and who we’re asking for when we talk about the community benefits agreement.”

The next task for the Houston Coalition, according to Neal, will be to write to the city of Houston to delay a variance request that Rice Management Company requested for a parking garage for The Ion. The Houston Planning Commission will meet Nov. 14, two days after the Houston Coalition meeting, to consider the application.

“It’s the first opportunity we have to do something — it’s not going to be everything, just the parking lot — but we need to have any many people as we can be there,” Neal said.

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