When standing on a concourse at The Ion, the 266,000-square-foot building rising above city lots as the first step of many in creating a 16-acre Midtown Houston innovation district, it's easy to imagine all the activity that's expected in the future.
Look up, and Microsoft workers might scramble from one doorway to another. Entrepreneurs and makers from places like TX/RX Labs may converse over coffee while sitting at a concourse table, while down on the ground floor, a NASA official might be conducting a keynote speech. In other rooms and open spaces tucked along the perimeter of the building, you could find workshops, team meetings, and what folks in the innovation sector call "collisions," or random conversations between people that possibly lead to professional collaboration.
It all sounds great. But strip away the buzzwords and you have the historic Sears building at Main Street and Richmond Avenue, renovated by Rice University in a $100-million project that debuted to the public Thursday as the next phase in possibly turning Houston into a bigger and brighter hub of innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Ion looks like a clean slate. It's all concrete, steel, and glass, with the original frame of the 1930s-era Sears building retained. Rice has also kept some other relics of the old Sears building, including the sign, but the original escalators are no more.
It's shaped much like a square with an open center. Glass panels on the ceiling allow sunlight to rain in. The second-to-fifth-floor balconies look down at the first floor, where all eyes turn to massive wooden stairs meant to seat up to 250 people for live presentations.
That level also has both independent and collaborative seating areas, along with closed-off spaces for businesses and entrepreneur tenants. The third floor will hold a number of tenants, including Chevron Technology Ventures, while the now-open fourth floor doesn't yet have an occupant. Half of the fifth floor is for Microsoft; the other half is yet to be leased out.
Most people will enter The Ion from the second floor, which is at ground level. That will also be entrance space for The Ion's food-and-beverage clients—a location of Common Bond On The Go; The Lymbar, a bar and restaurant with global flavors from David and Michael Cordúa; and Late August, a collaboration between Chris Williams of Lucille's and former Kulture chef and current Top Chef contestant Dawn Burrell. Another client, Stuff'd Wings, will occupy a former Shipley Do-Nuts space across the street.
The restaurants will have patios, and The Lymbar's bar will be open until midnight to allow for late-night revelry. A taproom is promised for The Ion, as well, and that will be announced soon.
When it all comes together, this space should be another reason to visit Midtown. In time, the innovation district will sprout around it (2023 is the target for a larger phase-one opening) with additional incubator space potential and a greenbelt with routes for bicyclists.
The Ion will anchor the area, as Rice hopes it poses not just as a place for business and innovation, but as a place for Houstonians to come together. The university will plan family-friendly events. Houston entrepreneurs, even those without years of business education, are encouraged to use The Ion, attend workshops, and become part of the ecosystem. Through partnerships, such as with the DivInc Accelerator, Rice is hoping to ensure any Houstonian has the ability to thrive within the innovation district, in fields like 3-D printing, computer-aided design, and investment.
"We're really making it accessible for Houstonians," said Deanea LeFlore, senior director of partnerships at The Ion. "We're also keeping in mind the diversity of Houston's community, so when you see the presenters and the types of programmers we have here, it's a reflection of the Houston community."
Will The Ion become the central hub of Houston's future? Time will tell, but it's certainly showing its potential.