Houston City Council approves community benefits agreement tied to Ion District

A community benefits agreement has been approved between the city of Houston and Rice Management Co., paving the way for a series of infrastructure improvements surrounding the upcoming Ion tech hub in Midtown. (Courtesy Rice Management Co.)
A community benefits agreement has been approved between the city of Houston and Rice Management Co., paving the way for a series of infrastructure improvements surrounding the upcoming Ion tech hub in Midtown. (Courtesy Rice Management Co.)

A community benefits agreement has been approved between the city of Houston and Rice Management Co., paving the way for a series of infrastructure improvements surrounding the upcoming Ion tech hub in Midtown. (Courtesy Rice Management Co.)

A community benefits agreement has been approved between the city of Houston and Rice Management Co., paving the way for direct investments and community partnerships surrounding the upcoming Ion District in Midtown.

The Houston City Council approved the agreement with a 14-3 vote at its weekly meeting Nov. 10.

The Ion District is a tech industry incubator being developed by Rice University on 16 acres in Midtown. Upon completion, it will feature more than 3 million square feet of mixed-use space, including offices, retail, apartments and community spaces.

In the agreement, Rice commits $15 million to a number of programs meant to benefit the community, including $5 million for a Minority and Women Tech Investment Fund, $4.5 million to fund affordable housing in the surrounding area, and $250,000 for housing counseling and eviction protection. Other commitments from Rice that do not have a financial component include contracting with minority- and women-owned business enterprises on future phases of the project, and providing leasing space opportunities for small businesses on-site.

"This will be a game-changer on so many fronts," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at the Nov. 10 meeting.


While the agreement got Turner's support and benefits of the Ion itself were lauded by many council members, strong opposition has also organized against the CBA and the effects some advocates fear it will have on the neighboring Third Ward.

During the council's public comment period Nov. 9, more than 15 people spoke out against the approval of the agreement. Speakers—many of whom were aligned with the advocacy group Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement—said community members did not have enough say in the agreement and that the CBA did not provide enough specifics to hold Rice accountable on its efforts to mitigate the effects of gentrification.

"We are being asked to pay for this development with our homes and money," speaker Dolores Rodgers said. "We do more to protect wildlife when a development negatively impacts a habitat than [what] is being proposed here."

Accountability

The council approved the agreement by a vote of 14-3 with Council Members Tiffany Thomas, Letitia Plummer and Carolyn Evans Shabazz voting against it.

Shabazz—who represents District D on the council, where the Ion is located—will serve as an ex-officio member of the Community Advisory Council tasked with advising Rice on behalf of the surrounding community. She also will be allowed to recommend two members to the advisory council from the Third Ward. CAC members, of which there will be nine, will serve two-year terms.

Following her vote against the agreement, Shabazz emphasized that she supports the Ion and that her vote was based on the principal that a community benefits agreement should be between a developer and the affected community, not a developer and a municipality.

Plummer also said she supported the Ion but felt the agreement missed an opportunity for the city to look at its protocols for how it could protect the people who already live in the area, including further exploring ways to address homelessness and lock in property tax rates.

"The shininess of the project cannot take away from what communities need," Plummer said at the Nov. 10 meeting. "Gentrification is real, and people who live there have to be able to stay there if they want. These are long conversations to discuss ... but Houston doesn’t have a plan. We don’t give the private sector the guidance they need for how to play well with us."

Before the item passed, Turner accepted an amendment from Plummer that for someone serve on the Community Advisory Council, they would have to first be approved by City Council. Plummer also pushed for the City Council to be able to nominate members to be voted on, but Turner turned down that amendment.

In comments made to Houston City Council members Nov. 9, Sam Dike, manager of strategic initiatives with Rice Management Corp., pushed back on the claim that community feedback was being disregarded. The process leading up to the agreement involved a series of public workshops, stakeholder meetings with neighborhood groups, and the formation of a 13-person working group of business and civic leaders, Dike said.

"Any interested stakeholder in this project, we have had an open door to meet with," he said.

The agreement also requires Rice to produce an annual evaluation report to gauge how well it is doing to uphold its end of the agreement. The report will be presented each year to the city's Economic Development Committee, which can then make recommendations for changes to the City Council. The report process also provides a chance for the public to provide feedback.

Council members who supported the CBA said they were satisfied with the work Rice did to engage with the community and incorporate their feedback.

"I can’t say no to this because, it may not be perfect, but it is really good, and we have the opportunity to make it better year after year," said Martha Castex-Tatum, District K council member and vice mayor pro tem.

The council's approval comes several months after the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone approved an economic development deal with Rice Management Corp. Under that deal, Rice will complete roughly $65 million in infrastructure improvements in the area, the costs of which will be reimbursed by the TIRZ down the line with tax revenue boosts spurred by the Ion. The deal was approved in an 8-1 vote.

During the Nov. 9 public comment session, Zoe Middleton—a housing advocate and the sole member of the Midtown TIRZ to vote against the economic development deal—was among the speakers to oppose the agreement. She detailed several concerns she had, including that the agreement did not clearly define "affordability," it did not appoint any third-party monitors, and it did not provide a base budget for marketing and outreach for MWBE engagement.

"It sets a lackluster precedent," Middleton said. "It might as well be a pinky promise."

Carol Guess, the interim president of the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, was among the public speakers to support the agreement. Guess also served as a member of the working group.

"We saw our ideas reflected in the agreement," Guess said. "So I feel very confident that our community ... and the community that will be impacted around the Ion will have a fair shot at jobs and other business opportunities."


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