For any recent visitors to the Houston Sears located south of downtown, the news that this holiday season would mark the store's last probably wasn't too surprising. For one, the company has been downsizing and struggling with debt. For another, that particular location didn't seem to be doing brisk business. Among reactions to Tuesday's news was surprise that the store was still even open in the first place.
Though Rice University's Management Company has owned and leased the property out for decades, it decided to buy out the remaining 28 years on the store's lease and move ahead on a still fuzzy but seemingly ambitious plan for the 9.4 acres of real estate the company now owns.
"Removing the long-term lease obligation from Rice's Midtown property will allow the university to initiate a process of thoughtful planning for the future use of this land," Rice President David Leebron said in a statement Tuesday.
"The Rice Management Company will initiate a yearlong study to consider options that contribute to the ongoing revitalization of the surrounding community as well as the city's broader economic strength. In this process, we'll consult with many actors and experts, including the Urban Land Institute, city officials and our own Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
"This is another dimension of Rice's enthusiastic engagement with the city of Houston, while at the same time assuring a return to the university's endowment in support of our missions of education, research and community service."
So what does that all mean? Well, it remains to be seen. But we asked our readers to weigh in on what they'd like to see at that location. Here's a sampling of what people are asking for:
"Maybe reconfigure it into a bus/lightrail hub rather than have the light rail stop across the street," suggested Gary Larson on Facebook.
"...the adjacent sites should be considered of a piece in this long-range thinking, too, because the Wheeler TC is a snarl of ugly, unsafe infrastructure and unused space. It is not easy for pedestrians or cyclists, even though it is a kind of hinge, connecting the Museum District to Midtown north to south and Montrose to Third Ward east to west," added Allyn West, Gray Matters editor with the Houston Chronicle.
Beneath that monolithic metal exterior is an Art Deco classic that preservationists would like to see honored in some way.
"This is a really good building," David Bush of Preservation Houston said back in 2015. "It's late Deco, so it's not that really ornate, zigzag thing. But it's got really good proportions, really good detailing and it's one of the few we have left."
The inside of the building also included murals, now mostly painted over, including one by Eugene Montgomery.
People were eager to restore the murals and uncover the original exterior.
"Let's see what's under the metal shell and restore the lovely mid-century building if possible," wrote Bonnie McMillian on Facebook.
Whatever the use, please Expose the original art deco details of the building.
— C Money (@cmoney_htx) October 10, 2017
Would love to see those murals & #artdeco styles again! @RiceKinderInst @RiceUniversity @PresHou https://t.co/y1woOgr2Fr
— Sarah Tucker (@misssarahsue) October 10, 2017
"Definitely restore to the 1930s Sears store, put the windows back on first floor... Keep the escalators inside even though not original, one of the earliest stores in Texas to have one," wrote Justin Bryan Galloway on Facebook.
Though the Sears often received credit as the first store to use escalators in Texas, it was actually the first to have escalators connecting every floor and the Houston Chronicle even printed a guide for shoppers explaining how to use them.
West shared his vision for preservation on Facebook saying, "The Sears sign should be donated to the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft," and adding that the building, "should be restored to its original Art Deco sleekness and reprogrammed for restaurants, retail, and offices...some of Rice's more public-facing nonprofits could even office here."
In addition to preservation, Joe Turner thought the building could serve as a museum. "Metal off," he wrote on Facebook. "Beautiful renovated exterior with a museum inside tied to Rice and History of Houston."
Equity and affordability
Something that captures the spirit and culture of Houston & is open to all, but does not become another midtown hangout for the homeless
— Mary Benton (@IAmMaryBenton) October 11, 2017
2/2 of course, the homeless need help and shelter
— Mary Benton (@IAmMaryBenton) October 11, 2017
As development has crept further south from downtown, the area around Sears remained a sort of in-between destination where Houston's homeless population found space to exist. "For the homeless," Thao Costis, president of SEARCH Homeless Services, told the Houston Chronicle in 2015, "it's never welcoming." But this particular spot, in the shadow of the highway and next door to a Fiesta grocery store, seemed a little more tolerant.
The Fiesta, reports the Houston Chronicle, has two years left on its lease with the Rice company, and currently serves as one of the few grocery stores in the nearby area.
"There's a tremendous number of vulnerable populations that pass through that area," wrote Allison Leedie on Facebook. "A one-stop shop for various resources/workshops would be awesome. Job training, social services, drug treatment, housing resources, immigration resources, reproductive health/general health services, etc-- but more utopian than that. Think yoga and meditation classes, cooking, and nutrition classes, etc."
McMillian highlighted both its transit potential and role as a social services center on Facebook: "It could be a light rail hub and also possibly house a police sub-station and social services and an out-patient general medicine clinic."
Others shared a similar vision. On Facebook, Margarita Zambrano Arevalo suggested it serve as a "multi use community center for non profits similar to United Way building."
From West: "There also needs to be a conversation about equity, because this site is a kind of way station for many people, and being so close to the Fiesta, it needs to remain so. The workforce housing proposed by the Houston Housing Authority last year needs to be built, the low-income housing for veterans protected."
Put all those visions together and add some housing and Houston has the potential for a large, mixed-use development. "Like City Centre but with affordable housing," said Raj Mankad, editor of Cite magazine for the Rice Design Alliance. With plans to redo the highway that runs near the Sears, there's an opportunity for transformational projects, said Mankad.
"With that being on the Red Line and where the University Line will intersect," wrote Steve Parker on Facebook, "it would be a great location for a boutique mall. A place where tourists and visitors to the Downtown and Museum/Medical Center areas could go for essential items, tourist memorabilia, clothing, etc...It could have a great urban, street-level connection by opening up the original windows. The Fiesta location could be rebuilt to have a parking structure with grocery/commercial on the first couple of levels and above that potentially mixed-income housing, office space, or possible some additional retail/restaurant space."
Leveraging the state department of transportation plans already in the works with other efforts in the area could redefine the area.
"The Sears site is a great opportunity because METRO, Rice Management Co., and TxDOT all own property that is connected," said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at the Kinder Institute. "It’s a huge opportunity for a transformative transit-oriented development that could anchor the southern part of midtown. Needs to be mixed-income, coupled with green amenities, and future transit investment."
And realizing something like that would be a big step for the city.
"With the right stakeholders," wrote West, "the site should become a transit-oriented, mixed-use district, the first of its kind in the city, since it would also have mixed-income Houstonians working and living here."