Houston: Rice University’s ION Campus Revealed as 15 Block Build-Out
Feature Illustration (above): Rendering of the planned Innovation District ION garage and retail structure, as seen from the corner of Fannin and Eagle streets. Courtesy: SHoP Architects.
by Eileen Pace
Houston (Harris County) — Rice University can proceed with the design of its ION Garage in Midtown, now that the Planning Commission has approved two variance requests at its Dec. 5 meeting.
The 10-story, 104-foot-tall garage will provide parking to the university’s ION Center, scheduled to open in January, 2021, and for other future development in the South Main Innovation District. The construction of ION Center began in July with the adaptive reuse of the Sears department store building.
The garage is designed to be a district-wide, centralized parking facility for what will eventually be a complex encompassing more than 15 city blocks.
“ION Garage is going to force people to be pedestrians in this area,” said Mary Lou Henry of Vernon G. Henry & Associates. “As opposed to having parking at each building, people will be parking at this garage and walking to their particular destinations, so we are going to add a lot to the pedestrian activity in this area.”
Until recently, all that most Houstonians knew of the Rice University project was the renovation of the old Sears store. Its new incarnation as the ION has been described as a venue for tech acceleration through collaboration with universities, global corporations and investors. The scale of the associated proposed parking structure, however, was more than needed for one building.
Last month, Rice Management Company (RMC), the university’s real estate development division, unveiled concept site plans that show an intent to create a vast complex with a pedestrian promenade three blocks in length that is in line with Barbee Street; a four-block reconstruction of Eagle Street and three-block reconstruction of Caroline Street, introducing to each new pedestrian friendly streetscapes with landscaping and wider sidewalks; and the future construction of at least 12 buildings that are in addition to the ION and its garage.
The Innovation District master plan. Courtesy: Rice Management Company.
East of Fannin, along the pedestrian promenade to be known as Central Laneway, the master plan carves out a 22,500 SF Civic Plaza that is situated between two buildings labeled F1 (32,500 SF) and F2 (40750 SF).
The garage itself is to be located in the block surrounded by Fannin, Cleburne, San Jacinto and Eagle Streets. It will be constructed on the site occupied for decades by the Sears automotive shop. The variances ask for a reduced setback on two sides of the garage to make more room for larger pedestrian areas and an encroachment into one of the visibility triangles designed for each corner.
Rice also wants a canopy along the Eagle Street side that would project beyond the property line and be part of a 15-foot wide pedestrian realm.
Ion Plaza looking east toward Civic Plaza. Courtesy: RMC.
The RMC had to defer its variance requests when first presented, due to concerns of neighbors and the Planning & Development Department. Concessions that were subsequently agreed to include:
The design calls for an active ground floor with 16-foot ceilings, which is to be surrounded by a “pedestrian realm” eight feet in width on each side.
The Cleburne Street driveway entrance has its width reduced from 35 to 30 feet.
Two large-diameter trees along Cleburne will be preserved – 41-inch and 52-inch oak trees. After consulting with the Urban Forestry and an arborist, the developer has agreed to install a root-friendly sidewalk with space underneath for the roots to grow. A preservation permit will be required at the time of applications for construction permits.
Three-inch caliper trees will be planted every 30 feet of frontage on all four sides.
The design calls for a 64 percent transparency on the ground floor, obscuring the view of the garage from the street, which is more than twice the transparency required by city ordinance.
Homero Guajardo Alegria, the city’s planner on this project, told the commission that a requested 3-foot building line along Fannin Street. will allow it to behave as a Type A Street and keep a consistent size for the pedestrian realm. Along Eagle Street, he said, a zero-foot setback was requested to allow for a canopy.
Guajardo said the second variance would not create any vehicular conflict. It calls for an encroachment of 7 feet-10 inches, into the visibility triangle at the corner of Cleburne and Fannin.
“At this intersection, Fannin Street is one-way going south,” Guajardo said. “Any vehicular traffic on Cleburne merging onto Fannin will look only north for oncoming traffic.”
Site plan for the ION Garage block. Courtesy: Rice Management Company.
Ryan LeVasseur, Managing Director for Real Estate Management at RMC said that while the ION is envisioned as a hub for growing and diversifying the city’s economy, “the ION Garage will be precedent-setting for future urban garage design.”
“RMC is committed to creating a well-designed, vibrant, mixed-use, pedestrian-focused and inclusive district on its 16 acres in the South Main Innovation District in Midtown.”
The retail spaces in the garage were also reconfigured since last presented in October. The latest ground floor spaces include 10,000 SF of community-focused retail facing Eagle Street, 1,000 SF art gallery facing Fannin Street, 1,500 SF for an innovation and mobility demonstration area facing Cleburne Street. It includes a vegetative façade, a masonry storefront system with transparency meeting city standards.
Several members of the Third Ward community expressed concern that they would be displaced by the development and that their history and culture will be erased. Houston attorney, Dominique Hinson, is assisting a coalition of Third Ward community organizations in establishing a Community Benefits Agreement that would assure residents surrounding the Innovation District benefit in ways the help insulate them from the coming gentrification that will result from the university’s project.
Beginning at this point westward from Eagle at Austin Street, Eagle would be reconstructed and become part of the Innovation District. Image: Google Streets.
“A CBA has never been done in Texas,” Hinson said. “It’s a new thing, and if Houston wants to say that we are as progressive as we pretend to be on our diversity flyers, then this is an opportunity to do that.”
Chair Marty Stein recognized how Hinson’s talk of a CBA addressed a scope well beyond the purview of the Rice project or the Planning Commission’s jurisdiction.
“There’s no displacement on this project because there’s nothing there now, but you’re worried about what’s going to be built around it,” Stein said, acknowledging that a 16-acre institutional campus would attract developers intent on bringing market rate townhomes, apartment or condominium towers, and new shopping centers into the surrounding neighborhood.
All but one member of the Planning Commission voted in favor of the variances.
Commissioner Antoine Bryant said, “I think a CBA should happen, and if it’s going to happen, it should happen with this project,” Bryant said.
Commissioner Sonny Garza said, who made the motion to recommend the variances, lamented the commission’s lack of authority to consider any type of development agreement between parties. But he was fascinated with the concept, adding, “I think the CBA might be the answer to a question that we need to look at in the future because we are going to be looking at so many projects that are going to impact the inner city and the east end.”
LeVasseur said a CBA is the end product of a dialogue, adding, “And this is a dialogue that we are starting now, and it should be a win-win-win for the city, the community and the developer.”
HWA Parking was an RMC consultant on the design. SHoP Architects provided the renderings.
The Fannin Street elevation of the ION Garage. Courtesy: RMC.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.