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What could be done with the Wal-Mart site instead

If you read through my previous post, you may be wondering “if not Wal-Mart there, then what?” For that, I turn to Andrew Burleson, wearing his President of the Houston Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism hat, who makes a proposal to the Mayor and Council about what should be built at the Koehler Street site.

1. The proposed development is in no way ground-breaking or innovative, and apparently the developer has said that if he does not receive the 380 agreement from the City that “he’ll build it anyway.” As I understand it, the purpose of a 380 agreement is to enable the development of projects that offer a significant public good which could not otherwise be completed due to some financial or regulatory constraint.

I am concerned that if the City of Houston offers a 380 agreement to a very ordinary project that could arguably be built without it, then a precedent will be set where developers begin to expect financial aid from the city for the construction of any kind of infrastructure in any kind of project. This would certainly not be a desirable outcome for the city.

2. The proposed development is extremely low density, and I believe it is a gross underutilization of the site. That site is an absolutely incomparable infill tract, and it could easily support moderate-density mixed-use development. Such a development could be reasonably expected to produce $70-$100 million dollars of ad-valorem tax value, versus $15-20 million for the proposed development. Further, a mixed-use development would include a significant retail and entertainment component which would likely produce as much or nearly as much sales tax revenue as this very low-density retail center. Lastly, a mixed-use project could include significant amounts of metered parking, which would result in a third source of revenue for the city.

Those are good points that I haven’t seen raised anywhere else. Burleson goes so far as to say that if the city did a thorough financial analysis on this property, it would be best served by buying it outright and developing it itself. He also details his proposal for a different development at that location. Check it out.

I hope City Council members read through that proposal, because it makes much more sense than what Ainbinder wants to be compensated to build. Unfortunately, the Chron’s editorial board has decided that Lisa Falkenberg’s lazy logic is good enough for them. In doing so, they make an interesting observation:

Opponents of the project have patterned their campaign tactics after those of a group fighting the construction of a high-rise on Ashby Street in the Rice University area. In that case the issue was clear-cut. Development of the residential tower would have severely crowded narrow streets, and the city used a traffic control ordinance to impose limits on the project’s size and to knock out a commercial component. Those strictures may effectively kill it. Developers of the high-rise have taken the city to court, seeking $40 million in damages.

The circumstances are very different for the Walmart project, sited on former industrial acreage that has been a wasteland for years. Adjacent to railroad tracks and just south of I-10, the site is strikingly similar to that of the Target in nearby Sawyer Heights. Target’s construction in 2006 provoked little community protest, despite the fact that it is also situated directly across the freeway from the Heights. Sawyer, a narrow street running through an industrial area to Washington, has far less traffic-carrying capacity than Yale and Heights near the Walmart location.

Actually, the Ashby situation is just about perfectly on point here. The argument of the anti-Ashby folks was “This is not an appropriate location for a high-rise”. The argument of the anti-Wal-Mart folks is “This is not an appropriate location for a suburban big-box store like Wal-Mart”. In each case, residents who were alarmed by the prospect of that development taking place learned to their chagrin that there was essentially nothing they could do about it procedurally. Unless you’ve already gone through the arduous deed restriction process – which is block by block and thus would not have been an option for the Wal-Mart site anyway – there no ordinances, no tools, basically no nothing to allow a neighborhood to push back against a development they don’t like. The only option open to them is to raise hell, become a general pain in the ass to the city, and hope for the best. The only difference that I can see between the two situations is that the city bent over backwards to accommodate the anti-Ashby folks, and it has done nothing of the sort for the anti-Wal-Mart forces. So far, anyway.

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10 Comments

  1. jt says:

    Thanks. I asked essentially this question in the last thread and this is a good answer.

    So here’s another (non-rhetorical) question: Are there any precedents for the City of Houston doing something like that? Are there any non-Houston precedents that look like they would apply to this case?

    It just sounds like there could be some pony-thinking going on here, where the alternative to Wal-Mart is a new urbanist jewel that nobody is actually planning to build and not (a) nothing, or (b) some other big-box.

  2. will says:

    That’s because the Ashby case cost them millions, am I wrong? They’re still dealing with the fallout from lawsuits. It was a debacle.

    The 380 is a terrible idea, it doesn’t really extract any real concessions, and flies in the face of the usefulness of tool like it. That being said, I’m pretty sure these neighbors were aware of the nature of the city’s lack of zoning laws/tools when they bought their property. Ex post facto much?

  3. John says:

    The Ashby case is just going to cost the COH (thank Bill White) millions and the only thing it cost the anti-Ashby crowd were donations to Bill White’s losing gubernatorial run

    CAVEAT EMPTOR

  4. Worried says:

    Forgive me for a silly question, but is Burleson presenting this to council at all? I know he was not able to attend today, but have any of our council members really taken a hard look at it? or do they really just not care to explore alternatives?

  5. John says:

    My frustration with the whole debate has been twofold: first, if you want local input or control over what happens in your neighborhood, you need the have ordinances that provide for it. What we have now is good for nobody, including developers; without clear rules about what’s allowed and what’s not and what the process is, residents aren’t sure what will happen with vacant lots near their homes and developers can wind up in the position of the Ashby High Rise folks, where they plan something that violates no rules but gets shot down by angry neighbors with political connections. That kind of uncertainty is just bad all around. That means, if you’re a resident, and you don’t like this, you need to push your representatives in city government to pul sensible land use rules and community review procedures into law.

    The second part – if you’re sitting around waiting for someone to scoop up unused land and build something you want, good luck. Years ago my neighborhood association in DC, having gotten wind that Whole Foods was looking for a central DC location for a big new store, went and put together a convincing presentation on our neighborhoods demographics and trends (gentfication), networked their way to the appropriate executives at WF, and made a great pitch for locating in our part of town vs the location that everybody new they were moving forward on. And sold them, and the store moved in, and started the transformation of a blighted business area into a place that people drive in from the suburbs to visit.

    If all the “stop Wal-Mart” energy had been focused on pitching better ideas to people who can make them happen (developers, key potential tenants) someone might well have seen the potential of the location and decided to do something much better with it.

  6. el_longhorn says:

    Seen this before in Austin and elsewhere. This is all about WalMart – the traffic and other concerns are just a ruse.

    Wouldn’t a high density mixed use development at the site generate huge amounts of traffic? Wouldn’t it attract people and crime? A lot of people just don’t like WalMart. End of story.

    In Austin, Wal Mart wanted to build a dense, two story store with a parking garage and a mixed use feel to it. Didn’t matter to the neighbors. Wal Mart = poor, dirty people shopping for their basic goods, and that is not what rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods want around.

  7. Michael says:

    Do you have any information what the community attempted to do before this plan was put in place? It seems to me that in many of these cases, the community doesn’t have any input on development until the developers push forward. This Wal-Mart property has long lain dormant, did anyone expect it to remain so? Has the community EVER tried to give input to the developer for this plot of land? If not, I find it galling to think they have any right to do so now simply because they don’t like the development being proposed.

    To your comments about branding in the previous post, I hardly think the Heights residents are custodians of any kind of neighborhood brand. See Midtown Heights across I-10 a short distance from Sawyer Heights. It’s nowhere near Midtown. Uptown, River Oaks, Bellaire, etc. There are countless businesses that use names to draw customers, but I see no one in charge of or defending a brand like you suggest.

    If the Heights was so anti big box, then why did they allow their Kroger (on Shepherd at 20th) grow to Wal-Mart-sized proportions while sitting down the same shopping center as a Big Lots! and across the street from a Ross and Mattress Giant Superstore? It’s hard to take their arguments seriously. I’d also like someone to call out the racism buried in the non-sensical concerns about crime being generated at this store.

    I don’t see Heights residents, who gladly claim the Washington Corridor as part of “the Heights”, complaining about the awful traffic and public misconduct that is regularly present during the weekends.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the Wal-Mart development, but I find about 60%-80% of the argument against it to be NIMBY hysterics. I doubt Heights residents would be very vocal at all if this development were happening in Montrose or the East End.

    The only argument is will this development benefit the City of Houston? I can’t hear the answer to this question over the din of bullshit.

  8. Michael – There are empty lots like that one all over town. They often change ownership without anyone knowing about it. You seem to be suggesting that people should have known that something was about to happen at that site before the news was broken. I don’t understand that reasoning.

    I also don’t understand the contention that because nobody in the area was actively staying informed about what might be happening on this long-vacant lot that they should have no right to try and influence it once some development proposal did surface. If what Ainbinder was trying to build included a strip club or a cement plant, no one would question the residents’ right to pitch a fit about it. Of course, we have actual regulations about such things. If only that were the case here.

    And I don’t understand your point about the Kroger. For one thing, regardless of the store’s size, the parking lot has always been like that. For another, Durham and Shepherd are quite well suited for the volume of traffic. Finally, that stretch of road is home to numerous car lots, as well as an even bigger Fiesta at 24th Street. In other words, it’s an appropriate location for that kind of development. Which is the whole point of this debate.

    As for whether this development will benefit the city of Houston, I suggest you go read Andrew’s post and take a look at his supporting documents. His answer to that question is “Not nearly as much as some other types of development would”. He also points out that the city hasn’t actually given any thought to that question at all. If you like, I could loan you some earplugs to drown out all that noise while you’re reading it, so you won’t get distracted.

    El Longhorn, having that kind of mixed use development would at the very least mean no 18-wheelers coming and going each day. You’re right in that it’s not likely to be transformative on its own, but you know what? It took us a long time to become this sprawl- and car-centric society, which many of us believe is not sustainable in the long term. It will take a long time to become something else. The more we let urban infill locations that already abut some dense mixed-use development be turned into suburban-style big-box stores surrounded by acres of parking, the longer, harder, and more expensive it will be to get there.

  9. Michael says:

    Re: Empty Lots – I think if people want to be this involved with what happens to these lots, they should spend the resources afforded to their civic clubs, and find out who owns these lots, and open the dialog about what they would like to see. These are civically active areas, and it seem to me this is an area that should spend more time investigating. There are a lot of great ideas about what the Heights wants there, but I feel they are less proactive and more reactive.

    Re: Kroger – If that area can sustain a Kroger that big, then I don’t see how a Wal-Mart is necessarily wrong for the area.

    Re: Mixed Use Development – Doesn’t the development include widening the streets to allow more traffic? Honestly, I don’t know how traffic can be continue to be used as a weapon argument in these situations. Dense mixed-use is going to generate traffic no matter where you put it because people from outside the immediate neighborhood are going to want to travel to that destination from other parts of Houston. This renders that argument moot.

  10. Michael,

    Re: empty lots – I still think you’re asking way too much. Sure, the civic association should be aware who owns the site, and they probably ought to be aware that the owner is looking to get it developed, but unless they have inside information how are they ever going to know beforehand that the owner is negotiating with a Wal-Mart? That’s not public information, and it’s very much in the interests of the parties involved to keep their discussions a secret. I don’t see how this standard can be reasonably met.

    Re: Kroger – I’m sure the area could sustain a Wal-Mart. That’s not really at issue. And remember, there will be another Wal-Mart just down I-10 at Silber, and another one at I-45 and Crosstimbers. Anyone in this area who wants to shop at Wal-Mart will be able to do so easily regardless of what happens at Washington Heights.

    Re: mixed use development – Yes, street widening is part of this. But these streets are really narrow to begin with. Koehler Street is 21 feet wide, with drainage ditches. It can be literally impassable if people park on both sides of it. Sure, dense mixed-use development would also generate traffic, but the point is that it’s not as dependent on people driving there. The commercial establishments can and will draw customers from the people who live right there. How much different would it be? I don’t know. Maybe a lot less different than I expect. But again, as I said to El Longhorn, we’re never going to make progress towards a society that isn’t as car-dependent as we are now if we keep putting the same suburban developments in places that can and should be done differently.