Innovation district is worth the investment

Urban planning consultant John Alschuler sees great potential for ambitious Midtown plan

The future arrives every day, but for Houston’s Midtown innovation district, it could begin to pay serious dividends in seven to 12 years.

So said John Alschuler, chairman of HR&A Advisors and a specialist in the revitalization of urban communities. Alschuler, who gave the semester’s final Rice Design Alliance lecture at Anderson Hall on Oct. 29, is a consultant for the project as well as for the university’s ongoing redevelopment of Rice Village.

The innovation district introduced by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rice in April will transform 12-plus acres owned by Rice and anchored by the former Sears building into a hub for the region’s entrepreneurial, corporate and academic communities. It will combine commercial uses with housing, dining, entertainment, public space and modern infrastructure.

John Alschuler, a specialist in urban development, talks with Rice architecture students at the Brochstein Pavilion before his evening lecture on Oct. 29. Photo by Brenda Cruz-Wolf

John Alschuler, a specialist in urban development, talks with Rice architecture students at the Brochstein Pavilion before his evening lecture on Oct. 29. Photo by Brenda Cruz-Wolf

Alschuler told the audience that if a city planner unfamiliar with Houston were to look at a map, that person would put the innovation district on the precise spot already chosen.

“The right place for this place is Sears,” he said. “It’s not just because they happened to close and it’s there. If you had to pick an ideal place, you’re at the center of a rich, robust educational system. … You’re halfway between downtown and the medical district, you’re on the light rail system, you have good access to the regional highway system. … As foresight, and maybe some luck, would have it, the Rice Endowment owns substantial land here and has owned it for many years.”

The fact there’s a robust, classic building at the center of that location is indeed good luck, he said.

“The purpose of the Sears building is to create the DNA of the new precinct of Houston,” he said. “I do a lot of large-scale master plan work. The key to success in all of them is, the very first thing you do has to produce the DNA of the last thing you do. You’re creating an organism. You’re creating something that has to replicate.

“People only believe things when they walk in the door and they feel it … and then it comes alive for them,” Alschuler said. “And if you’re trying to create the energy that can drive 3 to 5 million square feet, this first building has to be a place where everybody who comes in understands the DNA of what it can be.”

Alschuler has been down this road and sees great potential for the district, especially for the “very astute capital managers” at Rice Management.

“This project will, I believe, produce substantially more than a 6 percent return to this institution,” he said. “But it’s not going to do it in five years. It’ll do it in seven to 10, maybe 12.

“You have to have, like the endowment has, an investment horizon for the long-term welfare of this institution. That gets you a very different building and public space typology than a merchant builder who wants their money in and out in five to seven years.”

Alschuler’s remarks on the Houston plan came during a presentation in which he also discussed the history of work and urban density and society’s move toward urbanization in lockstep with the advance of technology, from the steam engine to the iPhone.

“The interaction between technological change, economic growth and urbanism is pretty new to us as a society,” he said. “The creation of the microprocessor and, I would argue, the iPhone, our ability to carry around in our pockets the equivalent of what was 10 years ago a supercomputer … is a revolution roughly of the effect of the creation of the steam engine.”

Alschuler has high hopes for the Houston project and encouraging words for the team gearing up for it.

“I think that the Midtown innovation district will be another great experiment, small in scope, but it will deal with changes in how we work, where we work, why we work there,” he said. “It will deal with changes in how we move and why that changes the geography, and I think it will change how we experience urbanity. That’s what this great revolution is about.”

Video of Alschuler’s talk will be available online at the Rice Design Alliance website,

Rice Architecture’s Cullinan Lecture and Seminar Series concludes Nov. 5 with a 5:30 p.m. talk by Tom Emerson, founding director of 6a architects and a professor at the ETH Department of Architecture in Zurich.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.