Rice Developer, Community Groups Continue To Clash Over Innovation District

The disagreement is centered on who gets to sign a community benefits agreement.


A recent photo of the Ion development at the site of a former Sears in Midtown Houston.


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Ever since the city started construction last year on a new innovation district, there's been concern about how it would affect the surrounding area – specifically, if it will speed up gentrification in Houston's historically black Third Ward.

The innovation district will center around a tech hub called the Ion, where startups can receive support and resources. It's being developed at the site of the former Midtown Sears building.

To address the concerns, developer Rice Management Company recently held a series of workshops to engage with the community.

Earlier this month, community members met online for a debrief.

It was led by Uyiosa Elegon, co-organizer of the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement. The HCEDD includes different community groups and advocates from across the city.

Elegon isn’t happy with how Rice Management Co. has handled the process. Specifically, he said, they weren’t on the same page about what a community benefits agreement should look like.

"We are following the definition of a CBA that scholars and organizers from across the country have used for past CBAs, so we are following by the book," he said.

Under that definition, a CBA is a project-specific contract between community groups and a developer or city agency, which establishes certain benefits for the community.

Those include things like the development of affordable housing, support of minority-owned businesses, hiring of minorities for the construction and inclusion of entrepreneurs from the community at the Ion.

The coalition says that would help slow gentrification.

Sam Dike, manager for strategic initiatives at Rice Management Co., said the project is designed to benefit the public. But he said the agreement to put those benefits in writing will be with the city of Houston, not community groups.

"What I would like to do is to get to a point where we're having a conversation about what goes into a CBA," he said. "That's the most important part. That's what people want to care about is what public benefits people can see as a result of this development."

He said Rice Management Co. was committed to the city and the things the community coalition is demanding.

But Elegon said that's not enough. He's worried that even if the current Rice Management and city administrators are committed, there's no guarantee of what the future holds.

"This is a thing that is going to morph and change significantly over the next 10, 20 and 30 years, and he's saying we're going to make these promises now and they're going to live up for forever," he said. "It's going to be an agreement that is, first of all, not based off of the exact things that people have been asking for, and then two, we have no sort of backing of it."

In a statement, the city of Houston said it is in a "unique position to coordinate the agreement for all stakeholders and monitor it for compliance.”

“We are committed to ensuring that all community interests are heard and represented in the final agreement," the statement read.

The plan is to sign it by the end of the year.

The Rice developers plan to open the Ion in the spring.

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