Saturday, August 05, 2017

Where should Houston's innovation district be?

As Houston has recently reinvigorated efforts to support a tech innovation startup community, the idea of a concentrated "innovation district" has been raised to create a critical mass to concentrate Houston's dispersed initiatives.  The Chronicle article mentions EaDo, Montrose, and the Rice Village, all of which I think are bad ideas.  My own inclination was Midtown at first, but the more I thought about it, the more Downtown makes the most sense, specifically concentrated around the Main Street Square to Preston rail stops.  There are several reasons.

The first and most important reason is that Houston needs to concentrate the startup activities from entrepreneurs all over the metro area.  Because of the tremendous amount of commuter bus service concentrated there (including Metro's central transit center), downtown is the obvious choice.  An Exxon employee out near The Woodlands that quits his job and wants to work on a startup merely has to hop on an express bus downtown to join the community - no transfers required (or a quick transfer to the rail line).  Even if they don't ride the bus, all our freeways point there too - and that works both ways as well: it will be easy for entrepreneurs downtown to go visit customer and partner companies all over the city. Additionally, Rice, UH, and med center students and faculty to easily get there on rail lines.  In fact, I think they need to cut a deal with METRO for an affordable monthly rail pass for any members of Station Houston or other incubators there.

Other reasons downtown makes the most sense:
  • Plenty of unused office space, especially more affordable Class B space (maybe even the old Exxon building?)
  • Recent college grads love living in Midtown, which would have a short rail ride up to the offices.
  • Tons of walkable bars and restaurants for entrepreneurs to mix and mingle in.
  • Several parks within walking distance.
  • Short ride to TX/RX Labs for product design and prototype manufacturing.
The more you think about it, the more sense it makes.  I hope they're taking a serious look at it.

Additionally, this might be a good time to mention my other "big idea" for supporting innovation in Houston: give all the big company employees around the city (especially the energy companies) an option to invest up to a tiny percentage of their 401k funds in local venture capital (a Houston-focused "special situations" fund). Even if capped at 1-5% of their portfolio, that could still put tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into local VC, which would be a huge shot in the arm for Houston's startup scene.

Finally, it's worth stressing how critical this endeavor is to Houston's future. Nobody knows how the energy future is going to play out - especially when it comes to electric cars or renewables - or how it will affect the oil industry, but no matter what, Houston will have to adapt, and having a strong innovation scene will make that much, much easier and more likely to keep Houston thriving instead of going the way of other rust belt cities.

UPDATE 4/12/18: They picked Midtown around the Sears (land owned by Rice). Certainly a better redevelopment opportunity than downtown.

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At 5:44 PM, August 05, 2017, Blogger George Rogers said...

Good reasoning there.

At 5:54 PM, August 05, 2017, Blogger Tory Gattis said...


At 6:06 PM, August 05, 2017, Blogger George Rogers said...

The only problem with it being Downtown vs in other districts would be rent, because of the reasons mentioned in the post for being a good place for the startup district, startups running a tight ship might avoid Downtown for other places because of the sqft cost.

At 7:52 PM, August 05, 2017, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm hoping the high vacancy rate right now will bring down rents, at least for short term leases.

At 7:01 PM, August 06, 2017, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old Post Office site has potential to meet most of your criteria

At 9:34 AM, August 07, 2017, Blogger dentext said...

Innovators, nobody else, will choose where. My bet is E of downtown: H's startups will be longshot dreamer outsiders, not SV or even Austin. Rice/Uh -H lacks higher ed in proportionality for innovation. And we know where energy is going. We don't like to talk about it.

At 11:07 AM, August 07, 2017, Blogger George Rogers said...

Houston's energy industry will win because it focuses on energy technologies that work. The green malthusians only like energy that does not work, and if they accidently find something that works they will stop liking the technology.

At 12:29 PM, August 09, 2017, Anonymous Mike said...

I don't think rents downtown will fall greatly, or relative to other office districts in the area, most of which are suffering more than downtown is. With the dramatic increase in dining options and street life, downtown is only solidifying its position as the place to be, while companies looking to cut costs are fleeing the other direction (Shell, Houston Chronicle). There may be some opportunity though in downtown's Class C buildings like you mention, especially the Humble building, since I don't think Shorenstein will go forward with their renovation in this climate. The Greenstreet building in Midtown is also looking for tenants to go forward with their renovation as a Class B building.

An alternative might be Greenspoint, given all the low-cost office space there in the wake of Exxon's departure. Definitely trading glamour for cost efficiency though; no one wants to be in Greenspoint.

At 9:01 AM, August 13, 2017, Blogger George Rogers said...

What do you think of the annexation reforms?

At 1:03 PM, August 13, 2017, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Not a fan. It will essentially shut down annexation, which will not be good for the long-term fiscal health of Texas' major cities.

At 12:36 PM, August 15, 2017, Blogger George Rogers said...

Dallas is already landlocked. Houston should (and are) threatening annexation of the rich suburbs and have the rich suburbs buy out of the ETJ thereby getting tax money without providing services.


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