Mixed feelings

Third Ward community expresses concerns with The Ion project that's underway

The local community has raised some concerns about Rice Management Company's Ion project's effect on the Third Ward. Courtesy of Rice University

The city of Houston has been buzzing about Rice Management Company's Ion Innovation Hub — a 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub project expected to deliver in 2021 — but there's one group isn't so thrilled with the plans: The Third Ward community.

In a public community meeting on November 12, community members gathered at the Wesley AME Church to plan a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind The Innovation District's development team and the Rice Management Company to move forward with the local residents' indicated best interests. According to the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed group to work on the CBA, it would be the first of its kind in Houston.

The coalition is supported by Third Ward is Home Civic Club, the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats - Harris County, and the Houston Society for Change.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, presented the project's plans to the crowd, recognizing that innovation ecosystems across the country have issues with diversity.

"When you look around the tech ecosystems in the United States today, there are a couple things that stand out," Rowe says. "First and foremost is that they are extremely white and extremely male."

But since Houston is still developing its innovation infrastructure, Rowe says, the city has more opportunities to take the lessons learned from these other ecosystems and be more proactive about including diverse efforts.

One of the things The Ion is planning to incorporate to engage the community is a free coworking space — the only free coworking space in Houston, Rowe says. The Ion plans also include two public parks and community events, and both will be free and open to the public.

The Ion promises to bring free coworking, park space, and events to the area. Courtesy of Rice University

After the presentation, the estimated 150 community members in the crowd had the opportunity to address Rowe. While one local resident expressed concern with the non-inclusive verbiage The Ion is using — describing the area as "Midtown" over the pre-gentrification descriptor of Third Ward — other concerns surrounded the lack of diversity of the decision makers on the project.

"For me, that's where we need to start, which is in diversity," says Rowe, who mentions she has diversity among her programming team. "I look to all of you to come to get included in our team as we're growing."

Another concern that was raised was the job opportunities on the construction site itself. While Rowe didn't mention any specific job opportunities in construction, she did say she had been asked by the Rice Management Company to tap local artists to design the fences surrounding the site.

The meeting pivoted toward a discussion about the CBA and the importance the agreement would have moving forward. Assata Richards, founder of Sankofa Research Institute and local activist, and Mary Claire Neal, a Rice University student and leader of the Students for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor, and Carl Davis, chair of the Houston Society for Change and a representative of the church, have teamed up to move forward with the agreement.

Texas Appleseed, a group of volunteer lawyers, has agreed to help create and enforce the agreement, and Jeffrey Lowe, associate professor in the department of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has also advised the organizations.

"We've been told what's going to happen, but there's no binding agreement to make sure that it's going to happen," Richards says. "Those are just nice wishlists."

Moreover, the initiatives that have been suggested, enforceable or not, aren't enough, Richards adds, again stressing the importance of the CBA.

"We're going to be smarter this time. We're going to work with the people who have the power and make the decisions," Richards says. "You're doing all this development and come and tell me that you want art outside the building? We're talking millions of dollars of construction."

While the terms of the CBA are still in the works, some of the requests mentioned in the meeting include jobs, preservation of communities of color, affordable housing initiatives, access to affordable groceries, and opportunities for minority and African American-owned businesses.

The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan was included in notes pre-released ahead of the Houston Planning Commission's November 14 meeting. Photo via HPC

Neal proceeded with a presentation of actionable ways students and community members can get involved and make their voices heard. Her presentation included new concerns following the release of the master plan of The Innovation District, which the Houston Chronicle released earlier this week. The plans included a parking area that will be the next construction project following The Ion. The variance request is headed to the planning commission on Thursday.

"That's a two-day turnaround and it's the first opportunity for us to do something," Neal says. The group is intending to at least acquire a delay in the variance request moving forward.

The meeting wrapped up with a call to action for local residents as well as students. Since The Ion will include local academic institutions, student and alumni input is crucial.

"We want you to hold up and pause and think carefully on how this development is going to benefit and affect the community," Richards says.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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