The former Sears Midtown has completed its $100 million metamorphosis into the Ion, a tech-focused office and collaboration center that debuted Thursday.
Gone are the escalators and a large chunk of the roof, allowing light to filter in through the heart of the building. The first floor opens into a sweeping staircase that doubles as seating for 250 people. Restaurants, offices and a space to meet investors surround the stairwell; overhead, two new stories have been added to the top of the converted mall, offering sweeping views of the city.
A journey from the basement to the fifth floor is a tour through the various layers of the technology ecosystem, starting with classrooms where colleges can bring students, moving through spaces meant for startups and investors and arriving at the offices of major tech corporations such as Microsoft. Tenants are building out their spaces, and a grand opening is planned for the fall — when Rice University, which owns the development, expects the pandemic will have subsided enough to loosen its restrictions on indoor gatherings.SPRING SALE! | 16 Weeks for 99¢ | Digital AccessACT NOW
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The project is a manifestation of city and civic leaders’ efforts to see Houston emerge as a destination for start-up companies and investment in new technologies. While that role has been staked out by Austin, San Francisco, Boston and other cities, academic and business organizations are betting that Houston’s innovation corridor will begin to draw some of those opportunities.
“We’re not Silicon Valley, but I think we do have momentum,” said Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures. “It helps when you have some physical spaces where it’s OK for different organizations — big companies, small companies, investors — to meet and to hear the same messages and to work together.”
Creating a central space for investors and companies will be crucial for bringing more capital to Houston’s nascent start-up scene, said Ryan LeVasseur, managing director of direct real estate at Rice Management Co., which is leading and financing the Ion. Rather than flying to Houston and driving from the Energy Corridor to The Woodlands to downtown to meet with individual groups, companies can use the Ion’s 2,000-square-foot investor studio as a one-stop shop for meetings and networking.
“The challenge with Houston is that it’s so geographically complex, it’s so spread out,” LeVasseur said. “We’re trying to create a nexus for capital.”
Innovation corridor takes shape
The 270,000-square-foot project at 4201 Main marks a milestone in the transformation of a 4-mile stretch between downtown and the Texas Medical Center into what city officials are calling the innovation corridor. LeVasseur estimated the Ion eventually will be home to 1,500 tech workers.
The 16-acre corridor has already attracted 50 start-up companies to Greentown Labs, a clean-energy incubator a block east of the Ion.
The Ion itself is currently 56 percent leased, with negotiations underway for an additional 20 percent of its space, LeVasseur said.
Microsoft and Chevron Technology Ventures, an arm of the oil and gas giant that scouts and funds energy-related tech start-ups, are among the development’s major tenants. The coworking operator Common Desk is occupying an entire floor — 58,000 square feet — to provide flexible work arrangements to startups.
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The center will also be home to restaurants including Late August, led by Chris Williams and Dawn Burrell of famous Third Ward restaurant Lucille’s; Lymbar, which will offer a fusion of Latin American and Asian cuisines; and Common Bond On-the-Go, a takeout version of the well-known Montrose bakery. Management is interviewing a small Houston brewer to lease a tap room, and across Richmond Avenue, in the former site of Shipley’s Do-Nuts, there will soon be a Stuff’d Wings, a brick-and-mortar location for a Third Ward food truck of the same name.
The Ion has been intentional about bringing in diverse, local businesses, said Robin Owens, a project manager with Mpact Strategic Consulting, who was brought in to help the development be inclusive. That philosophy applies both to tenants and to contractors working on the next buildings, Owens said.
A storied site looks to the future
Rice has owned the Sears parcel for close to 80 years. It leased the land to Sears in 1945 under a 99-year agreement. The management company bought the department store out of its lease in 2017 as it was closing stores across the country.
The iconic 40-foot-long Sears sign from its previous life has been carefully saved, and the developers are searching for ways to give it new life, possibly as part of a public art installation. They also saved other historic items from the Sears, such as shoe racks and antique clocks.
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Later this year, Rice Management Co., which owns three blocks in the area, plans to begin construction on a 10-story garage with 1,585 parking spots in the block between the Ion and Greentown Labs. The garage will have 10,000 square feet of retail, a 1,500-square-foot art gallery and 2,000 square feet of space for large projects. If, for example, an Ion tenant is working on automobile-related technology, the ground floor space could accommodate it. The company also plans to break ground on three more buildings, with retail on the ground floor and apartments and office space above, just north and east of the Ion in 2022.
Although swaths of the Ion and the innovation corridor are still under construction, its first tenants are ready to move in. Raamel Mitchell, corporate citizenship director of Microsoft, said he plans to use the company’s Ion platform to help bring technical innovations to the energy industry and help with the energy transition.
He said the timing of the opening could not be better.
“We’re coming out of the pandemic, and companies are thinking about how to innovate and create,” Mitchell said. “I think it represents the future of innovation in Houston. We’re not just the energy capital — we can be an innovation capital too.”
This story includes previous reporting by Nancy Sarnoff.
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