For the last three years, the West Houston Association has been partnering with Rice University through their Social Science Consulting Practicum by providing an experiential learning opportunity for undergraduate students to apply their social science skills to real-world projects and thought processes. Bridging the gap between academia and workforce, students build on their skills of project management, research design, data analysis, and communication. Throughout the hands-on practicum, students work closely with WHA members and faculty advisors to develop research questions, collect and analyze data, and present their findings and recommendations. During this partnership, the West Houston Association has engaged over three-dozen students through eleven projects each spanning various topics all relating to quality of life.
The first project of the Spring 2023 cohort was led by Harry Thompson, Senior Attorney at Allen Boone Humphries Robinson, LLP and Vice Chair of WHA’s Sustainable Infrastructure Committee. Thompson presented the idea of examining the return on investment of sustainable infrastructure with the intent that demonstrating the monetary value of sustainable components within development will facilitate an increase in use of these elements. Thompson’s team included: Ruoqing Wang, Emma Chen, Berkan Gedik, and Stuti Jain. To conduct their research, the team analyzed various readings from secondary sources, performed a financial analysis, and conducted interviews with developers and engineers. The team found that incorporating sustainable infrastructure in development yields economic benefits through maintenance cost savings, tax exemptions, and an overall increase of attractiveness of the projects. Additionally, environmental and social benefits were noted, such as preserving natural features and improved air quality.
The idea for the second and third projects emerged out of a dialogue that took place during the Fall 2022 presentation on Neighborhood Revitalization. It was mentioned that future practicum students could specifically look at what to do with a growing list of failing malls across the Greater Houston region. When the idea was presented to the students participating in the Spring 2023 cohort it was so popular that we were asked if we could have two groups research the idea. One group was led by Ernesto Alfaro, Principal Planner at LJA Engineering, and the other was led by Taylor Reed, Partner/Project Manager at Vogler & Spencer Engineering. Each group took vastly different approaches to the same problem. One group focused on making the best use of the location by reframing how we think about “malls,” and the other group focused more on repurposing the existing physical structure.
Alfaro’s team included: Erica Friedman, Bianca Chen, Pablo Solano, and Guangshun Chen. The group considered socioeconomic and political cultures unique to the greater West Houston region and identified a series of characteristics related to mall performance: visibility, variety of offerings, atmosphere/experience, differentiation, and community events. They found that underperforming malls scored consistently lower in all five of these categories as compared to higher performing malls. Identifying a single case study, they put their attention on West Oaks Mall and offered their recommendation to redevelop it into an outdoor mall – similar to the way CityCentre replaced what was Town and Country Mall.
Reed’s team consisted of: Kaylah Cantu, David Davisson, Connor Hughes, and Christina Westheimer. The team worked to analyze the characteristics that lead to the success or failure of malls followed by identifying ways to repurpose the facilities such that they would provide more economic value to the community. Based on president set in other parts of the country and the needs of the communities the development is in, the team suggested repurposing failing malls into schools, medical facilities, or large-scale distribution centers like Amazon or Target.
West Houston Association is proud to continue our relationship with Rice University and their School of Social Science Consulting Practicum. We look forward to the continued engagement and growth opportunities in Fall 2023 and beyond, including a potential spin-off project to explore the role that sustainable infrastructure plays in marketing and how buyers consider sustainable aspects when purchasing homes.
Special thanks to Harry Thompson, Ernesto Alfaro, and Taylor Reed for their time and efforts working with the students throughout these projects.