Transformation begins on Houston’s Main Street

Groundbreaking ceremony celebrates start of work on The Ion

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, The Ion celebrated its official groundbreaking as the cornerstone of what’s expected to become a thriving innovation and technology district centered along Houston’s Main Street.

A ceremony attended by elected officials, academic leaders and tech entrepreneurs marked the beginning of a long-awaited transformation, a renovation that will turn what once was a landmark Sears department store into the hub of a district dedicated to further development of the city’s innovation infrastructure.

Artist renderings offer an idea of what The Ion will look like after the renovation.

An artist rendering offers an idea of what the The Ion will look like.

“We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at the July 19 event. “And we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

The art deco building where generations of Houstonians shopped for everything from appliances to power tools is now being renovated into a 270,000-square-foot structure that will be shared by the area’s entrepreneurial, corporate and academic communities. It’s envisioned as the centerpiece of a district covering at least 16 acres strategically located along a corridor midway between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

“Our aspiration is to have here imaginative start-up companies, established tech companies, the great energy companies of Houston, the higher education community and others,” said Rice President David Leebron. “We have the capacity, if we work together, not merely to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do collaborative spirit.”

The project is being spearheaded by the Rice Management Co., which manages the Rice endowment, but speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony emphasized that the innovation district is a cooperative venture involving a network of the city’s institutions of higher learning. Leebron thanked partners at the University of Houston, UH Downtown College, Texas Southern University, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Baptist University, South Texas College of Law, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Lone Star College.

“This is about our city, our county, our communities,” Leebron said. “It is a Rice investment, but it is not the Rice Ion. And that was a decision we made at the very beginning of this project.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner and President David Leebron spoke at the July 19 event.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, left, and President David Leebron speak at the July 19 groundbreaking.

Before the groundbreaking, Turner recited a series of statistics touting Houston as a technology hub, saying the city boasts more than 3,000 tech startups, a number that’s more than doubled in the last three years.

“We’re off and running,” the mayor said. “And perhaps most importantly, venture capital in tech startups has gone up by 380 percent in the first half of 2019, year over year.”

Both Turner and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis emphasized that the new innovation district will create benefits far beyond just the surrounding neighborhoods.

“The Ion on South Main Innovation District will create the type of community-based jobs that everybody will benefit from,” Ellis said.

A host of dignitaries wearing hard hats turned ceremonial shovels of dirt symbolically marking the project’s beginning, but visitors walking inside the building could see the renovation work was already well underway. Cavernous interior spaces have been stripped down to bare concrete and load-bearing columns.

ground breaking

The Ion celebrated its official groundbreaking July 19.

Artist renderings mounted on easels inside the dimly lit building offered visitors an idea of what it will look like after the renovation. The Ion will retain some of the signature elements of the original art deco design while large windows will reconnect the open interior to the surrounding streetscape. A new central light well will shower what was once a windowless building in sunlight and provide unobstructed views across the ground floor.

“The goal is to create a truly welcoming place that will attract a community, a community of rule-breakers and problem-solvers,” said Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Co. “This is what is needed by our city and by our industry. We wanted to create a building that will be a beehive of activity, a place where technologists and entrepreneurial talent would actually want to cluster.”

The Ion will offer flexible office space for businesses at all stages of development, from entrepreneurs needing small offices to larger companies needing more space for more workers. It will feature more than 100,000 square feet of shared space, including academic and conference facilities, laboratories, community areas with food and beverages and an amphitheater, Thacker said.

The Ion

The Ion will retain some of the signature elements of the original art deco design while large windows will reconnect the open interior to the surrounding streetscape.

Station Houston, a leading technology accelerator, will oversee The Ion’s public programming efforts, which will include entrepreneurial workshops, thought-leadership conferences, industry lectures, job training, educational classes and networking opportunities.

“This is an incredibly exciting day for those of us who not only have been working on this project, but also working on building our innovation economy here in Houston,” said Station Houston CEO Gaby Rowe.

Houston-based Hines is managing the development on behalf of Rice Management Co., which has engaged New York-based SHoP Architects, James Carpenter Design Associates and James Corner Field Operations and the Houston office of Gensler to bring the 1939 building into the 21st century.

The renovation is expected to be completed late next year.


About Doug Miller

Doug Miller is director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.