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Monday, May 25, 2020

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Students demand Innovation District not harm Third Ward’s identity


The renovation of the old Sears building on Main Street in Midtown will create “The Ion," a hub for startups and large corporations to collaborate. The project is spearheaded by Rice Management Company. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

The renovation of the old Sears building on Main Street in Midtown will create “The Ion,” a hub for startups and large corporations to collaborate. The project is spearheaded by Rice Management Company. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

Students at UH and other local universities are working together to ensure Third Ward residents aren’t victims of gentrification from the Innovation District development near the community led by Rice University. 

The renovation of the old Sears building on Main Street in Midtown will create “The Ion,” a hub for startups and large corporations to collaborate. The Ion is the first phase in the development of the Innovation District, which will encompass approximately 16 acres in Midtown, according to Rice University.

The Student Coalition for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor is calling on Rice Management Company, the organization leading the development, to ensure the project prevents Third Ward affordable housing insecurity, food deserts, unemployment and other detrimental effects.

“We need to really figure out how our residents can benefit from the prestige of this University and not be moved out of this place,” said Uyiosa Elegon, marketing senior and a UH leader of the student coalition.

The student coalition is part of a collection of community groups called the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement

The group is working to secure a Community Benefits Agreement with the Rice Management Company as they develop the Innovation District.

A CBA is a contract signed by community groups and developers or cities that requires the developer to provide a range of specific benefits tailored to the needs of the local community and to enforce the developer’s promises. 

Listening to the community

Since November, the Student Coalition has engaged with over a thousand Third Ward residents to hear out their needs and concerns regarding the Innovation District.

“The Third Ward is full of intelligent, very creative and innovative people, and people who have not been given the resources that match their huge potential,” Elegon said.

Elegon believes development in the Third Ward needs to be done in the eyes of what is good for the residents. In years past, he said he has seen outsiders of the neighborhood reap benefits, while nothing changed for longtime residents.

As a result of the many meetings with Third Ward residents and the Houston Coalition’s previous research on the needs of the community, the CBA has a variety of goals for the Innovation District. 

Honoring and maintaining the neighborhood’s diverse history, as well as prioritization and support for minority and African American owned businesses are some of the CBA’s pillars.

The CBA also aims for K-12 schools in the area to be given tech education from the start of their school experience, Elegon said.

“Because we have a lot of historically black, low-income schools around the area, we want to make sure that they are given all the beautiful programming that they deserve because it’s their neighborhood,” Elegon said.

Making sure that the Innovation District prioritizes first-source hiring is another key part of the CBA. This would ensure that residents of the surrounding community would be looked to first when hiring jobs with living wage and benefits. 

Changing the status quo

Residents being pushed out of their own communities is a result of many different systems, Elegon said. Whether it’s lack of affordable grocery stores, rising rents or a new company moving in where local residents can’t be hired because they lack the qualifications. 

“That just limits all the opportunity until it’s almost inevitable that you have to leave or you’re evicted,” Elegon said about the factors that can lead to displacement. 

Rice University students on behalf of the coalition put together a letter to Rice President David Leebron and their Board of Trustees on Jan. 20. The letter said they will have no part in the risks the development could place upon low-income Black residents of the Third Ward. 

“Not in our name will Rice continue to promote its research partnerships with low-income communities of color without supporting those communities when it counts,” reads the letter. 

Elegon is working to get UH organizations to sign on to the letter to make a statement to the University. 

“This letter that not only says this is what we want our university to do, but this is also how we want to envision being a future neighbor, being a good neighbor to better workplaces,” Elegon said.

Elegon hopes student organizations at UH and TSU write their own letter stating to the Board of Regents at both universities that they don’t want any sort of involvement as students in any programming with the Innovation District if it is not out of a CBA.

“We want to make sure that the people within this community have access to all the benefits that this development can bring them because we are pro-development, but equitably,” Elegon said.

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