Houston: Rice University’s Sears Building Goes Up for Review on Renovation
Updated: 3-14-2019, 3:50 p.m.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Houston (Harris County) — The Houston Planning Commission had its turn Thursday afternoon at reviewing Rice University’s plans to renovate the empty Sears Building in Midtown.
A number of variances were approved without added conditions, however, Commissioner Bill Baldwin cut a deal for a variance on the planting of trees for a streetscape. Rice University asked for a waiver on the requirement to plant curb trees because they would interfere with plans for an expanded system of sidewalk canopies. At Baldwin’s suggestion, the commission required that Rice rescue nine existing trees on the property and coordinate with the city arborist to replant them elsewhere.
Other elements considered at the March 14 meeting included requests to allow a dual building setback for the existing structure; to allow additional construction on portions of the building that would encroach into the building line; to allow encroachments into the traffic visibility corner block triangles at Main Street/Wheeler Avenue and Fannin Street/Wheeler Avenue intersections; and to allow canopies up to the property lines along those three streets.
Rice University, which owns the property, announced its plans Jan. 30 for the restoration/expansion project. Originally built in 1939, the building is considered a local landmark. It was leased to Sears, Roebuck and Company and functioned as a department store through most of the 20th century.
Construction is scheduled to begin in May and be completed the fourth quarter of 2020. It will reopen as The Ion and the concept is to establish it as an innovation center to support businesses and the advancement of students’ entrepreneurial skills. Most of Harris County’s institutions of higher learning–Rice, University of Houston, UH-Downtown, University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College, and South Texas College of Law–will provide multiple forms of academic programming within the Ion.
The Sears Building as it looks today (above), as viewed from the Main Street-Wheeler Avenue intersection. Courtesy: Google Streets Jan. 2019; (below) A conceptual rendering of the remodeled building from the same point of view. Courtesy: James Carpenter Design Associates Inc.
Rice Management Company, the manager of Rice University’s endowment, is spearheading the project. Rice Management brought in Houston-based Hines to manage the development and retained the services of four architectural firms:
SHoP ARchitects, New York office
James Carpenter Design Associates
James Corner Field Operations, landscape architects
Gensler, Houston office
Station Houston, a hub for tech startups, innovation and entrepreneurship, will oversee the public programming efforts at The Ion, which will include entrepreneurial workshops, thought-leadership conferences, industry lectures, job training, educational classes and networking opportunities.
In the university’s prepared statements, Station Houston CEO Gabriela Rowe said, “The Ion will inspire open innovation between universities, global corporations and investors. Students and faculty members from institutions … will coexist and collaborate with scientists from Houston’s other great institutions. Investors and corporations will meet face to face with startup entrepreneurs. Together, they will transform Houston into a thriving, connected, high-tech ecosystem.”
The Ion represents the first phase of a broader innovation district that will encompass about 16 contiguous acres in Midtown. The district will combine a diversity of commercial development with housing, public spaces and best-in-class infrastructure.
At the unveiling, Midtown Houston’s executive director, Matt Thibodeaux, said, “The Midtown innovation district is an embodiment of our shared community vision to give professionals and families a means of seizing opportunity as Houston continues to grow as a leading city in technology.”
Scope of Work
The Sears building is located beside the northbound Red Line light rail at the northeast corner of Main Street and Wheeler Avenue. It occupies about a half-block, with the north end being used for surface parking. Upon completion, the renovated structure will have 270,000 square feet and a 21,000-square-foot landscaped plaza will be created between the building and the parking lot.
“This building was originally oriented towards the parking lot as a result of the automobile-centric attitudes of planning and design at the time this building was constructed. In recent years, Houston and other cities want to focus more on the multi-modal transportation rather than simply automobiles. The proposed expansions along Wheeler street and the canopy expansions/reconstructions will provide shade and get more eyes on the street frontages, which will make it a better pedestrian experience,” staff stated in its briefing document to the Planning Commission.
Aerial shot of the Sears building and parking lot. Image: Google Earth.
Site plan of The Ion project with proposed revisions. Courtesy: Rice University.
Other Staff Notes:
The existing building treated Wheeler as a loading berth area and an area for customer pickup. There was also a 1-story addition added to the building mid-block at some point during the building’s history that comes out to the property line.
The owner proposes enclosing the previous customer pickup area, replacing the 1-story mid-block addition with 5-story new construction, and enclose the existing loading area, which had room for 4 berths.
The building is being expanded in this location to accommodate the installation of new building equipment (chillers and central plant equipment, emergency generator, CenterPoint vault, etc.) required to meet current code and construction standards.
Due to the poor condition of the 1 story addition, there is a need for this equipment to be at grade level and accessible for maintenance, the south side is the best location to install this equipment. Two berths will be preserved for future use and the curb cut will be reduced to match the new loading berths.
There will also be several windows added to this frontage west of the loading berths. This will result in more eyes on the street as well as let in more natural light. The loading berth area will have doors that close it off and levels 2-5 will come out to the property line.
In a previous era, the retail windows that once existed were filled in with bricks. These will be reopened to allow interior light and pedestrian interest along the streetscape. This will result in more eyes on the street.
A glass enclosure is proposed within the visibility triangle at the corner of Main and Wheeler to allow visibility into the building by passersby. The squaring off of this part of the building will allow for the new glass façade to bring natural light into the building, which currently has very few windows.
This intersection (Main and Wheeler) is signalized for vehicles, trains, and pedestrians. Therefore, it should not need a visibility triangle according to engineering standards.
The Fannin and Wheeler intersection is also signalized. The opposing traffic is also on the other side of the street, which creates ample visibility.
Along Wheeler Avenue, there will be a pedestrian realm ranging from 11 feet to 15.5 feet. The building ranges from zero feet to 7 inches from the property line.
Rendering of The Ion facades, highlighting enclosure materials. Courtesy: Rice University.
In recent years, several parts of the building have become dilapidated and are in need of repair or replacement. It is anticipated that the parking lot on the north side of the building will be redeveloped in the next few years and that alternative parking will be provided.
There are existing canopies on Main, Wheeler, and Fannin. The owner is proposing to repair or replace different portions as needed along all of these frontages and to remove a band of trim meant to be decorative in an earlier age. New canopies are proposed to fill in gaps along Wheeler, the former back of house, loading dock, and previous customer pickup area.
Due to the lack of setback requirements at the time of construction, these canopies extend to the property lines and in some spots into the right-of-way, of Main, Wheeler, and Fannin. There will be encroachment agreements sought for the portions over the property lines.
Along Main Street, there will be a pedestrian realm of just over 15.5 feet and a building line that ranges from 6 feet to 9 feet-1 inch depending on the location along the frontage.
There is currently a canopy along the entire building frontage of Main Street that is cantilevered from the building. This canopy extends out from the building 8 feet-3 inches, which means it extends into the Main Street right of way. The owner is proposing to partially demolish the canopy at the corner of Main and Wheeler as well as the portion near the corner of the building further to the north along Main.
The proposed section of canopy will be an amalgam of both an existing canopy to remain and a new canopy. The new portion of the canopy is proposed because part of it is not in good condition. The entire length of the canopy on Main Street will be 166 feet. The canopy height is 11 feet-4 inches and is 8 feet-3 inches wide measured from the face of the building.
Similar to Main Street, Wheeler will also have a canopy that matches the character of the existing structure. There is a section of canopy stretching from near the corner of Main and Wheeler southeast approximately 165 feet to the west side of the loading berth area.
A section of canopy is then proposed from the east side of the loading berth to the Fannin ROW for a length of approximately 42 feet. The canopy height is 11 feet-4 inches and is 8 feet wide measured from the building face. Along Fannin Street, there will be a pedestrian realm of about 19 feet-4 inches depending on the location along the frontage.
The building line along Fannin Street ranges from 2 feet-4 inches to 5 feet-3 inches. There is currently a canopy along Fannin Street that does not go all the way to the corner of Wheeler. Part of this canopy will remain as is, part will be reconstructed to match the existing and part will be constructed to meet the new canopy on Wheeler at a right angle.
The entire canopy length on Fannin Street is 205 feet-4 inches. The canopy height is 11 feet-4 inches and is 9 feet wide measured from the building face.
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.