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Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Here comes the driverless pizza delivery vehicle

Gotta admit, this has me scratching my head.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

There goes another high schooler’s job: Domino’s Pizza Inc. plans to test unmanned pizza delivery in Houston later this year.

The chain, known as a technology leader in the restaurant industry, is teaming up with Nuro, a Bay Area robotics startup run by a pair of former Google employees. To start, Domino’s will send food to customers from a single store in the Texas city using one of Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicles.

The test is scheduled to start late this year and could expand in 2020, according to the companies. Domino’s has more than 6,000 restaurants in the U.S. and, with the labor market tight, the company is experiencing a driver shortage, with as many as 10,000 open positions nationwide, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company’s chief information officer.

The Nuro partnership will help the chain determine if autonomous vehicles are a way for its restaurants to keep up with demand during busy times when drivers are in short supply, he said.

“Consumers are ready for this,” Vasconi said. “I have been surprised by the overall positive reaction people have had to an autonomous vehicle delivery experience.”

[…]

Domino’s previously tested autonomous delivery vehicles in a partnership with Ford Motor Co. The pilot began in 2017 to see how customers would react to stepping out of their homes to fetch pizza from a locked warming chamber in the vehicle. That program has ended.

Pizza Hut, a chain that made its name with sit-down dining and is now trying to catch up with rivals on delivery, teamed up with Toyota last year to work toward driverless delivery.

Nuro is the same outfit doing the Kroger autonomous grocery delivery testing. See here and here for background on that. I wish there were some information on how the earlier pilot went (I didn’t find anything in a cursory search). With groceries, you get a cheaper delivery price if you go out and lug them into your place on your own. Will that entice people to do the same for pizza? I guess you’d save the cost of a tip, if nothing else. I haven’t ordered from Domino’s in a million years, so I’m the wrong person to react to this news. How do you feel about this? TechCrunch has more.

Here comes the Kroger driverless grocery delivery car

Who wants to order some groceries, in certain selected ZIP codes?

Kroger, the nation’s largest grocer, has launched a self-driving grocery delivery service in Houston, the latest salvo in a hyper-competitive grocery market that has supermarket chains investing heavily in new technology to win over online shoppers.

Company officials on Tuesday showcased the first of dozens of autonomous delivery vehicles planned for Houston: Toyota Priuses outfitted with cameras, sensors and self-driving computer software. Shoppers at Kroger’s Meyerland store who live in ZIP codes 77401 and 77096 can order groceries through the company’s website and have their purchases pull up in a self-driven Prius. The Cincinnati-based grocer plans to bring the autonomous delivery service to its Buffalo Speedway store later this year, with plans to ultimately expand the program citywide.

“We are creating a seamless shopping experience for our customers so they can get anything, anytime and anywhere,” said Marlene Stewart, Kroger’s Houston division president.

[…]

In January 2018, Kroger partnered with Nuro, a Mountain View, Calif.-based self-driving delivery startup, to develop a grocery delivery service. Nuro, founded in 2016 by a pair of Google veterans, has raised $1 billion from investors, including Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners and Japanese holding conglomerate SoftBank, to make autonomous vehicle deliveries affordable for the mass consumer.

“We believe this technology isn’t just for an elite group of people, but for everybody,” said Dan Mitchell, Nuro’s head of product operations and community engagement.

The Kroger-Nuro partnership launched a pilot program in Scottsdale, Ariz., in August. Over the next seven months, the companies made more than 2,000 deliveries to customers living in one ZIP code around a Fry’s Market, a Kroger subsidiary. Mitchell said the autonomous vehicles were well-received in Arizona, with shoppers reveling in novelty of self-driving cars by taking photos and sharing them on social media.

Deliveries cost $5.95, which is less expensive than Kroger’s $11.95 delivery service through Shipt, whose human couriers bring groceries to the door. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message.

Nuro’s autonomous vehicles will have a safety operator at the driver’s seat who can take control in case of emergencies, as well as a co-pilot monitoring the technology. The vehicles had no accidents during its Arizona pilot program, Mitchell said.

Quincy Allen, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, said governmental agencies will closely watch Kroger’s autonomous delivery program as it expands.

“Safety remains our top priority, and we expect Kroger and Nuro to meet our safety standards,” Allen said.

See here for the background. I presume one reason for the difference in price is that the human couriers will carry the groceries to you, while with the autonomous car you have to schlep them yourself. I’d be interested to see if there’s a sufficient market for both options going forward. Those of you in ZIP codes 77005 and 77025 who order from the Kroger at 5150 Buffalo Speedway will get the chance to try this in a few months. Do you get groceries delivered, and if so do you find this appealing? Leave a comment and let us know.

Driverless grocery deliveries

Coming soon to Houston.

Some local shoppers soon could see their produce pull up in a Prius in one of the first forays into autonomous vehicles in the Houston area, a move observers said is sure to spur more robot deliveries in the region.

Following its launch in suburban Phoenix, California-based robotics company Nuro will debut automated deliveries at Kroger supermarkets on Buffalo Speedway and South Post Oak, with each store serving two zip codes. Officials did not specify an exact date for deliveries to start, only that the vehicles are in place and operation will start before summer.

“We want to learn as much as possible when we are out there,” said Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro.

The zip codes covered will be 77401 and 77096 at the South Post Oak store, and 77005 and 77025 from the Buffalo Speedway location.

Deliveries will cost a flat fee of $5.95 regardless of delivery size or value, said Matt Thompson, vice president of digital business for Kroger. In Phoenix, delivery is to one zip code around a Fry’s market, a Kroger subsidiary.

“We are really encouraged about the repeat rate we are seeing from the Phoenix area,” Thompson said.

[…]

As Nuro did in Phoenix, deliveries will begin using converted Toyota Prius sedans. Customers will order their groceries online via Kroger and choose delivery instead of pickup. The store, working with Nuro, will load the vehicle and notify the buyer the delivery is on its way. Dispatchers hired by Nuro will monitor the trip from an office in Houston.

Eventually, the sedans will be replaced by Nuro’s own all-electric vehicle, the R1, which is built especially for deliveries. The vehicle, with a top speed of 25 mph, is capable of holding six grocery bags in a compartment, with two compartments per vehicle. The company is working on a second generation vehicle capable of holding ten full grocery bags in each compartment, with refrigeration built into the electric vehicle.

As the story notes, using autonomous cars for deliveries rather than for transporting passengers might be an easier path to optimizing the service and getting widespread acceptance, since deliveries are less time-sensitive and the ride experience is irrelevant. This would be the first implementation of autonomous vehicles in Houston, as Metro’s planned TSU shuttle has been delayed. Multiple cities in Texas have been investigating or piloting autonomous cars since the Lege passed a law in 2017 allowing for it. At this point, there have been a lot of tests or announcements of tests, but I haven’t seen any reporting on how successful they’ve been as yet. We’ll see how this one goes. Would you use a service like this?

Costco joins in on liquor sales

Not just Wal-Mart any more.

Wholesale giant Costco has joined Wal-Mart and other retailers in the fight to let public corporations sell liquor in Texas.

Texans for Consumer Freedom, a group formed last month to lobby Texas lawmakers to loosen restrictions on the state liquor market, announced Wednesday that Costco Wholesale Corporation would lend its name to the effort.

“We are glad to be joined by Costco in our efforts to level the playing field for the retail sale of spirits so Texas consumers receive the choice, convenience and lower prices competition provides,” Travis Thomas, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

[…]

“Costco proudly stands with Texans for Consumer Freedom in its efforts to eliminate the unusual Texas spirits laws that artificially restrict competition and prevent us from directly serving our over 1.3 million Texas members,” Executive Vice President Dennis Zook said in a statement.

See here, here, and here for the background. Kroger and the Texas Association of Business were already in with Wal-Mart, and the Texas Package Stores Association – basically, the existing liquor stores – stands in opposition. My impression is that the bills in question will have a decent chance of passing, but we’ll see.

Why only Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart stands to benefit from legislation that would change how retail liquor licenses are granted, but some potential competitors would not.

While two state lawmakers recently filed legislation that would allow retail giant Wal-Mart and other public corporations to sell hard liquor in Texas, the proposed bills maintain provisions that would prevent grocery chains H-E-B and Whole Foods from joining the competition.

The state’s alcoholic beverage code currently prohibits publicly traded companies, such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Target, from selling spirits here. But House Bill 1225 and Senate Bill 609 would eliminate that prohibition and remove a cap on the number of liquor stores one company can operate.

However, those bills would continue to ban operators with mixed-beverage permits or permits for on-site wine and beer consumption from enjoying the same access to the state’s lucrative liquor market.

H-E-B and Whole Foods, both based in Texas, currently hold both those permits and so would remain in the excluded category.

As of Tuesday, it was unclear whether the bills could be amended to include H-E-B and Whole Foods without opening the door to bottled liquor sales at other establishments – for example bars and restaurants – that operate with similar permits.

State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, introduced HB 1225 last month, but said he was unaware the bill’s language wouldn’t benefit H-E-B or Whole Foods. And Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who filed companion legislation in the Senate, confirmed his office has started researching the issue.

“This concern has been brought to our attention by several retailers, and we are looking into ways to address this issue,” Hancock wrote in an email.

See here and here for the background. I’m okay with changing the law as it now stands, but not like this. Either open it up to all, or don’t bother. A supermarket shouldn’t have to choose between having an in-store cafe and being able to sell booze. This should not be that hard.

Wal-Mart booze update

The Lege gets involved.

One week after Wal-Mart sued the state for the right to sell hard liquor, two Texas lawmakers and a new coalition of businesses are taking the same fight to the Capitol.

Wal-Mart, Kroger and the Texas Association of Business on Wednesday helped birth a new nonprofit group calling itself Texans for Consumer Freedom to push for laws allowing publicly traded corporations like Wal-Mart and Kroger to own and operate liquor stores. Public companies are barred from the Texas booze market by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — an arbitrary exclusion from the free market, group members say.

“Free markets transcend any individual retailers whether they’re publicly or privately held,” said Travis Thomas, a spokesman who helped form Texans for Consumer Freedom. “It should be open to everybody to compete.”

Bills filed this week by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, would repeal parts of the alcohol code that exclude publicly traded corporations and limit the number of liquor stores a company can own.

If the bills pass, grocery stores that want to sell hard alcohol would still be required to do so in a separate building with its own entrance.

“This does not mean that publicly traded companies are going to be selling spirits next to bread and candy,” said Scott Dunaway, another spokesman with Texans for Consumer Freedom.

See here for the background. The bills in question are HB1225 and SB609. Texas law also limits a single owner to five liquor stores, though immediate family members can consolidate permits under a single company. Normally, I’d make fun of a big business-fronted group name like “Texans for Consumer Freedom”, but I don’t have any particular objection to the goal of updating this part of the alcohol code. It’s not a remnant of Prohibition, as Ross’ comment on my previous post notes, but it doesn’t make any sense as it stands now. We’ll see if they get any traction or if this will be a multi-session affair. In the meantime, RG Ratcliffe asks a darned good question.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

Unfair pay

Patricia Kilday Hart uncovers some skulduggery in one of Rick Perry’s vetoes.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill that would have let victims of wage discrimination sue in state court after receiving letters against the measure from the Texas Retailers Association and five of its members, mostly grocery stores, according to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who authored HB 950 mirroring the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, said she unaware that the group and the businesses opposed her bill, or that they sought a gubernatorial veto.

Among the businesses advocating for a veto was Kroger Food Stores.

“I shop at Kroger’s for my groceries,” Thompson said. “I shopped there just last week. I’m going to have to go to HEB now. I am really shocked.”

Also writing to seek a veto were representatives of Macy’s, the Houston grocery company Gerland Corp., Brookshire Grocery Company, Market Basket, the Texas Association of Business and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Here’s HB950, which received 26 Republican votes in the House on third reading. I take no pride in noting that I predicted the veto, though I did so on the usually reliable grounds of Rick Perry being a jerk. I had no idea that he had help in that department this time.

Two other prominent business groups – the Texas Association of Business and the National Federation of Independent Businesses – also wrote Perry urging a veto, but those groups opposed publicly during committee hearings. Thompson said she heard “not one time” from any of the retailers.

In his veto proclamation, Perry did not mention the opposition of any business groups, but cited Texas’ positive business climate as a reason to oppose the bill: “Texas’ commitment to smart regulations and fair courts is a large part of why we continue to lead the nation in job creation. House Bill 950 duplicates federal law, which already allows employees who feel they have been discriminated against through compensation to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

In his request for a veto, Ronnie Volkening, president and CEO of the Texas Retailers, said the bill was “unnecessary, in that existing law provides adequate remedies against employment discrimination; and harmful, in that it undermines opportunities for timely resolution of employment dispute in favor of fomenting expensive and divisive litigation.”

[…]

The retailers complained to Perry that under HB 950, the statute of limitations would be reset every time a worker received a retirement check. Not so, said Thompson, who said she rewrote the bill to exclude retirement benefits to win Republican support in the Texas Senate.

“They didn’t read the bill or someone get them the wrong information,” she said.

Gary Huddleston, Kroger’s director of consumer affairs, said he relied on the retailers association for his information on the bill. “I regret that Representative Thompson is upset and I am sure Kroger, along with the Texas Retailers Association, would like to discuss the issue with her,” he said.

Yo, Gary. You think maybe the time to “discuss the issue” with Rep. Thompson might have been during the session, when the bill was being written, heard in committee, and voted on? Because at this point, Rep. Thompson would be fully justified in discussing the issue of putting her foot up your rear end.

Let me refer once again to Nonsequiteuse for the reasons why this bill was a good idea and a necessary law.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a federal law, doesn’t mandate that women should receive equal pay for equal work, and it doesn’t make it illegal to discriminate (another law takes care of that). It is a more technical law that deals with the amount of time someone has to file a lawsuit if they discover that they are facing pay discrimination.

The law used to be that you had a relatively short period of time from the first time you were paid unequally. So, you are hired for a job on January 1st, and get your first paycheck on the 5th (I know, bear with me), and it turns out you are being paid less than a man doing the exact same job. Before this act, you were presumed to know that and to have only 180 days to file a lawsuit to remedy it. If you didn’t discovery the discrimination until the following January (or even the following October, or whenever 180 days is from January 5th), you were out of luck.

Realistically, of course, we all know that no one walks around on day 5 of a new job comparing paychecks. People are socialized not to talk about salary, and some companies (and I’ve always wondered if this is legal) explicitly tell you not to talk about salary.

The outcome, of course, was that if you didn’t learn early in the game that you were being discriminated against, you were out of luck, and your employer got away with it.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act changes the game, and says the statute of limitations starts afresh with each discriminatory paycheck. So, as long as you’re getting a discriminatory paycheck, you have a cause of action.

In other words, as long as the employer is violating your rights, you have a chance to remedy the situation in court.

Seems fair, doesn’t it? I mean, nowhere in life do we say that if you break the rules long enough without anyone noticing that you get a free pass, so why would we do it with discriminatory pay?

Note that this law isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be able to prove discriminatory pay. It merely extends your time frame for filing a lawsuit.

The allowance to file in either state or federal court is important, too. State courts are less expensive and easier to access–consider that every county has a courthouse, but few have federal ones (just 29 places for federal courts to meet in Texas).

It’s about making it just a tad bit harder to screw the little guy. I’m not surprised that Rick Perry couldn’t care less about that – he has a long and established record of not caring about that sort of thing – and his heir apparent Greg Abbott has a similar record of indifference. While I can’t say it’s surprising that these business interests would go skulking about under what they hoped would be the cover of darkness to maintain their unfair advantage over their workers, it is nonetheless shocking and appalling, and it deserves to come with a price tag attached. To that end, there is a push to boycott Macy’s and Kroger until they reverse their stance on this. Rep. Thompson and Sen. Sylvia Garcia have already canceled events at Macy’s having to do with the annual sales tax holiday as a result of this. I never know how much to expect from this kind of action, but I fully support making sure people know what the businesses they support are up to when they think we’re not looking. The long term answer is of course to elect better legislators and especially better Governors, which is much harder to do but will reap much bigger rewards. In the meantime, go ahead and heap all the shame you can on the retailers that pushed for this veto. They deserve every bit of it. BOR, Stace, PDiddie, Texas Leftist, and Progress Texas have more.

The Heights Wal-Mart is now open

On the plus side, the world did not come to an end. On the minus side, it’s still a lousy location for a Wal-Mart and a giant missed opportunity for better, more urban-oriented development.

For nearly 2½ years, Heights-area residents fought against one of the largest corporations in the world, employing yard signs, meeting with City Council members, even filing a lawsuit. It was an intense emotional effort to stop Walmart from opening a store just outside the Heights, its first inside Loop 610.

In the end, Walmart won. Its 153,000-square-foot Supercenter opened Friday at Yale and Koehler streets.

Those living nearby have mixed feelings about the store, ranging from anger to apathy, with some just waiting to see if any of the naysayers’ concerns come to fruition.

But for some opponents, the fight is far from lost. They say their cause always extended beyond just stopping the development of the Walmart.

“It was if you’re going to develop the neighborhood, do it right,” said Rob Task, president of Responsible Urban Development for Houston, a nonprofit born from the controversy over the Supercenter.

This earlier Chron story and The Leader have more on what’s on the inside of this store, and on the Studemont Kroger a mile or so due east that opened the same day. I can’t say I noticed a difference in traffic on Studemont on Friday, but it’s been awful around there for some time now, so it’s hard to say how much worse it could get. We’ll never know what could have been here, we can just hope that what we got isn’t as bad as we’ve feared it will be.

On getting to walkable urbanism

This story about neighborhood opposition to the Kroger 380 agreement doesn’t quite get at what I think are the key issues that need to be discussed.

[O]pponents of both the Wal-Mart and Kroger deals say suburban-style big-box stores don’t fit a widely-held urban vision for Washington Avenue Corridor. They’d like to see more incentives offered for development by small businesses or in more needy neighborhoods.

“It’s a lost opportunity for how we should be developing our urban space,” said Tom Dornbusch, who lives in Woodcrest. “Why don’t we incentivize something appropriate for these sites rather than just servicing the frontage roads on I-10?”

That five members of Houston City Council opposed the Kroger deal at least shows that neighborhood activists have “raised the consciousness” of some council members since the Ainbinder agreement was approved, Dornbusch said.

Dornbusch is an officer in the Washington Avenue Coalition/Memorial Park Super Neighborhood Council, a coalition of homeowner groups well-versed on planning and quality of life issues in this redeveloping area west of downtown. These groups helped raise matching funds for a Liveable Centers Study of the Washington Avenue Corridor.

Former City Councilman Peter Brown, an architect and urban planner with nonprofit Better Houston, has aided their planning efforts.

Like Dornbusch, he thinks the area is well-suited to become a teeming urban landscape that accommodates both pedestrians and transit, either rail or streetcar, which the neighborhoods have embraced.

But right now, economic development favors “the lands, Pearland, Sugar Land and the Woodlands,” Brown said, and that brings big-box stores to the fore.

“These are the kinds of things that city policy needs to consider, and it is evolving. It is evolving toward smaller urban growth. We’re just not there yet,” Brown said.

The issues here, at least as I see them, are whether it’s a good idea for the city to pursue 380 agreements of any kind in areas where development is likely to occur naturally, and whether the developments that are being pursued in these two 380 locations are suitable and desirable from an urbanist perspective. I can’t quite tell from the story whether Dornbusch and Brown are evaluating these deals separately or lumping them together. As I see it, the two sites are fundamentally different. There’s no reason why the Ainbinder/Washington Heights property couldn’t or shouldn’t be connected to and a key part of the walkable urban vision for the Washington corridor. It abuts a neighborhood to the west and apartments to the south – there used to be apartments to the east as well, but they were torn down to make room for more suburban-style development – and is certainly close enough to be reachable from a future Inner Katy rail line stop or streetcar stop at Heights Boulevard. With the West End Multipurpose Center and some townhome development already there, and who knows what to come in where the Center Street recycling center currently is, the Ainbinder location could be an epicenter of a real urban neighborhood. Instead, it’s going to be more like a sinkhole, separating places that should be connected, and that’s just a shame and a wasted opportunity.

The Kroger location, on the other hand, seems to me to be a much better fit for a supermarket or other car-oriented shopping center. Its neighbors are things like Arne’s, the Sawyer Heights Target center, Party Boy, and a truck depot. Where Yale and Heights have sidewalks that can connect the Washington Heights site to either side of I-10 if you ensure there’s a safe pedestrian crossing there, Studemont has no sidewalk from I-10 north to Stude Street, and from Hicks south to Center there’s only a very narrow sidewalk on the east side of the street. The eventual connection of Summer Street ought to be walkable, but Studemont will still serve as a dead end for anyone on foot. Otherwise, it’s basically cut off from Washington to the south and the Heights to the north. Who would ever walk there? With a long-term plan and control of most of the property between I-10 and Center, and Studemont and Sawyer, you could build something urban, but how likely is that to happen on its own? Washington Heights is close to that, or at least it was before Ainbinder screwed it up. Sawyer Heights isn’t.

Because of that, I don’t have any philosophical objections to a grocery store going in at that location, even though I know it’s going to mess up traffic. The question about 380 agreements is going to be more in the forefront – litigation will do that – but I don’t want to lose sight of the suitability question. I think it’s the more important discussion to have.

Kroger gets its 380

Despite neighborhood opposition, City Council has approved a 380 agreement for the proposed Kroger on Studemont at I-10.

District H Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who represents the area around the proposed store and who championed the 380 agreement, insisted the deal was less an incentive to Kroger than it was a way for the city to extract benefits from a market-driven project. The deal gives the city two blocks of road, sidewalks and traffic lights more than a decade early, and also hands over to the city a third of an acre that it would someday need to extend Summer Street from Studemont to Sawyer.

Mayor Annise Parker said Houston’s strategy differs from that of cities that build infrastructure first and then try to recruit businesses to move in.

“We have not chosen to use that sort of what I would call ‘corporate welfare.’ We have said, ‘Business, if you want to open and you need the street, you pay for the street. We’ll pay you back, but if you really want to be there, you use your dollars upfront,'” Parker said.

The city will pay a premium on that upfront money. The deal calls for the city to pay Kroger back with 5.17 percent interest. The city’s rate on bonds through which it finances public works projects ranges from 2.55 percent to 4.06 percent, according to information that Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck got from the city’s Finance Department.

“What do you make on your IRA? I would love to make a 5.17 percent return,” Clutterbuck said. “The taxpayer, in my opinion, should not be on the hook for that.”

The rationale given by Mayor Parker for the use of 380 agreements is sensible. It’s certainly a less risky approach than “build it and hope they come”. Aside from the premium interest rate, whether it’s good policy to use a 380 in this particular location is another matter. The outline of the deal here sounds better than what was struck for Ainbinder on Yale Street, but I’m dubious about the wisdom of a supermarket there. I’ve seen traffic at the light back up all the way to Center Street during the afternoon rush hour, thanks in large part to the many people wanting to enter I-10 West from Studemont. The thought of adding in grocery store traffic, not to mention another traffic light, makes my head hurt. Having said that, I’m not sure what kind of development could have been built there that would be both low impact on traffic and profitable to the developer. Long term, I may have to think about using Sawyer/Watson as an alternate route, though if the rumored plans of an Alamo Drafthouse come to fruition, it may not be much better.

RUDH files suit over 380 agreements

From the inbox:

RUDH has filed a petition in Harris County District Court challenging the legality of a six million dollar tax reimbursement deal between the City of Houston and Ainbinder Heights, LLC, the developer of the Houston Heights area Walmart Supercenter strip mall development. RUDH alleges that the deal violates section 380 of the Texas Local Government Code because the developer was committed to building the project with or without public funds.

Section 380 of the Texas Local Government Code broadly allows municipalities to provide various forms of public assistance to private developers so long as the public funds are used to promote economic development. The City of Houston’s 380 agreement with Ainbinder Heights, LLC provides over six million dollars in sales and property tax reimbursements for various infrastructure upgrades needed for the Walmart Supercenter strip mall development. RUDH alleges that the principals of Ainbinder Heights, LLC , the Mayor and members of Houston City Council all stated that Ainbinder Heights, LLC will build the development with or without the assistance of public funds. RUDH alleges that a 380 agreement cannot promote economic development when the developer can build with or without the assistance.

RUDH also alleges that the City of Houston’s program for awarding 380 assistance agreements violates the Texas Constitution because the program gives the City absolute discretion to ignore standards for awarding assistance in favor of agreements the City believes are “otherwise meritorious”. In the case of the Ainbinder Heights, LLC 380 agreement, RUDH alleges that the City completely ignored its own standards and application procedures and simply gave Ainbinder Heights, LLC over six million dollars to support the development of a Walmart Supercenter strip mall development.

RUDH believes that legal action is necessary because the City of Houston is using section 380 agreements to spend money out of future city budgets without doing anything to promote economic development. If a developer does not need public funds, then scarce tax revenues should not be sacrificed to pad a developer’s profit margin.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here; one of my blog posts is listed among the footnotes on page 7. Note that the suit asks for a “permanent injunction restraining the City from giving any effect to or complying with the 380 Agreement and from proposing any further 380 agreements” under its 1999 ordinance that created the 380 program. One presumes that would have an effect on the Studemont Kroger, for which a separate 380 agreement was voted on by Council yesterday.

Under the deal headed to City Council on Wednesday, the city would reimburse Kroger as much as $2.5 million for extension of a street, landscaping, traffic lights, sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements surrounding the store. In exchange, Kroger guarantees it will create 170 full- and part-time jobs at the 8.6-acre site.

[…]

In addition to the job-creation requirements, the deal calls for Kroger to donate $40,000 to the nearby Olivewood Cemetery. However, that, too, will be reimbursed by the city under the deal, [Mayoral spokesperson Janice] Evans acknowledged.

Evans said City Hall had no plans to extend Summer Street or do the other improvements for 12 years, so the deal buys the city an accelerated schedule. City officials see that as an economic booster shot that puts people to work sooner and clears the way for other businesses to open on the new street.

[Kroger spokesperson Rebecca] King described the improvements as “above and beyond” what would be required without the 380, but it is not clear how much more the city gets by agreeing to rebate to Kroger some of the property and sales taxes generated at the site over the next 13 years.

I’m pretty sure there will be a motion for a temporary injunction to come, so we’ll see if either of these projects are put on hold. Swamplot and Hair Balls have more.

UPDATE: The Kroger deal is on hold for now.

District H Councilman Ed Gonzalez championed the Krogerdeal as a contributor to economic development and one supported by the local civic associations he consulted.

Other members, who did not get many details of the deal until Tuesday, asked why the city was not offering incentives to grocers to set up shop in the Third Ward, Fifth Ward, Sunnyside, Independence Heights and Acres Homes.

“I hope we revisit our use of 380 agreements and use them in the parts of this city where we most need it, and I would respectfully submit to you we’re not doing that now,” Councilwoman Jolanda Jones said.

Councilman Jarvis Johnson said the city needs to do more outreach to urge companies to locate in low-income neighborhoods.

“We can’t have a city of haves and have-nots, we need to balance the city out to where there’s economic development all across the board,” Johnson said.

According to the Council agenda, the proposed ordinance was tagged by CMs Jones, Rodriguez, Noriega, Johnson, Sullivan, and Bradford

Studemont Kroger update

The Heights Life brings news about the proposed Kroger at Studemont and I-10. Of particular interest is this bit:

The property on which Kroger plans to build lies on the east side of Studemont north of Arne’s. The store will be at the south end of the property, facing the main customer parking lot to the north of the store. A fuel center will be placed at the north end of the property together with a small, secondary parking lot needed to fulfill code requirements.

Delivery docks will be located on the east and west faces of an extension on the south side of the store. The three main delivery dock doors will face east toward an industrial area. A small dock door will face west toward Studemont.

Hicks will be cut through to meet Summer Street on the east side of the property. The City’s intent is that this will become a through street, but there are some unspecified impediments. The portion of the block that is now Hicks will be improved to current City standards, and the whole block will be built like a City CIP project. Kroger will eventually dedicate that property to the City as street Right-of-Way in exchange for a smaller area of water/sewer ROW that the City will dedicate to Kroger. Access to the delivery docks will be from Hicks/Summer. An employee parking lot will occupy the portion of the lot south of Hicks/Summer next to Arne’s; Kroger expects that Arne’s will also use this lot at some point (possibly for its employees).

Couple things here. First, there may be “unspecified impediments” to extending Summer Street, but that doesn’t mean they are unknown. Behold, the view from where Summer dead ends heading eastbound at Oliver Street:

Presidential Heads Rear View

Yes, it’s the Giant Presidential Heads. And in what may be fortuitous timing or a harbinger of their doom, there’s this:

Now a source says that the [Alamo Drafthouse] plans to open a new central Houston location in the Sculpturworx compound. The 78,175-square-foot former studio of artist David Adickes (the man behind the giant president heads) was sold to Bartlett Lofts developers Phil Arnett and Chap Chapman in 2010, according to Swamplot, with plans for artists’ studios as well as significant commercial space.

That report may be a bit premature, but never mind that for now. Having an Alamo Drafthouse in there would greatly increase the need for and the value of a connected Summer Street. It also nearly guarantees a traffic light at the Studemont intersection, which I predicted in February. If nothing else, having Arne’s employees, and possibly its customers, park there will necessitate a stoplight, as the pedestrian crossing at I-10 isn’t really safe due to the right turn from the service road onto Studemont, which isn’t controlled by the light. Given what a mess that area can be during the evening rush hour, I’d hold out for a pedestrian crossing bridge as an alternative, but I don’t expect anyone to listen to me on that.

Anyway. As both Swamplot and Houston Politics note, the development is up for a 380 agreement this week. If that happens, and if the extension of Koehler Street to 2nd at the Heights Wal-Mart happens, you will be able to travel directly from one 380 agreement location to another, without using I-10 or Washington to get there. Just take 2nd to Harvard and turn on Hicks, then follow it along – see this Google map for the details. Note that Hicks passes over Studemont – it’s what on top of that underpass you pass under – and voila, there you are. Keep that in your back pocket for when you might need it.

The Studemont Kroger

Swamplot:

Kroger has bought 8.5 acres of former industrial land on Studemont, just south of I-10, the Chronicle‘s Purva Patel reports. The land, which was once part of Houston’s Sixth Ward, sits just north of Arne’s Warehouse and Party Store and across the street from Grocer’s Supply. Kroger closed on the larger portion — a 7.2-acre cleared parcel at 1400 Studewood, listed for sale at $15.7 million — just last week. A spokesperson for the grocery chain wasn’t ready to announce a new store on the site, but did say the company had already taken possession of 1.3 acres just to the south, at 1200 Givens St. If Kroger does build a new supermarket there, the parking lot would have 450 ft. of frontage on Studemont; other industrial properties, many of them accessed from Summer St., would still be sandwiched between it and the Sawyer Heights Target.

When built, this would easily be the closest grocery store to our house; it’s practically walking distance, not that I’d be likely to do so given the current sidewalk conditions and the need to cross under I-10. I’m not sure how much we’d use it anyway – Tiffany is not a big Kroger fan. She hates the Kroger at 11th and Shepherd, even post-renovation. Maybe the convenience factor will sway her, I don’t know.

I foresee issues getting into and out of the place. As it stands now, the only access to it is via Studemont, and I’d only want to access it via the northbound side. Making a left to or from the southbound side will be hairy. Most likely, there will need to be an additional traffic light, probably at the little piece of Summer Street that people use to get to Arne’s. I’m so looking forward to that. (Note: The street sign there actually says Hicks Street; Google Maps labels it as Summer. Just FYI.)

Another issue will be the Party Boy store across the street, especially in the month of October when they’ve got their Halloween haunted house open. It’s a popular attraction and traffic around that time is already pretty bad. Maybe the rebuilt service road on I-10 will provide additional access to that site, which would help.

Speaking of which, I wonder if there would be a way to fit a driveway from the new access road east of Studemont to the eventual Kroger parking lot. That would take some pressure off as well. From the diagram on Swamplot, which shows a little extension of the property behind its neighbor to the north, it looks like it’s at least theoretically possible. I hope someone is thinking about that.

Here’s a Google map of the area. You can approach it from the rear, which is to say from the east on Summer Street, which would mean access from Washington and Center via Oliver Street. It’s a little tricky – after you turn left from Oliver onto Summer, you may have to dodge semi trailers parked along the road as you follow the twisty street, and when you leave you have to turn off before you get to Hicks Street, or you’ll wind up on the overpass above Studemont, with your next opportunity to make a turn at Harvard Street. Alternately, if you start out west of Studemont, you could approach via Hicks and avoid Studemont altogether. I don’t think this will allow for any kind of volume unless some changes are made.

Whatever else happens, I hope one outcome of this is to improve the sidewalk along Studemont between Washington and White Oak. At least then the folks in the Sawyer Heights apartments could take advantage of the nice pedestrian path they’ve included along the new service road.

By the way, I’m hearing that the Target right there in Sawyer Heights is becoming a SuperTarget. So there will be a grocery option there even before the Kroger opens.

Finally, I can’t let this pass without noting that the site in question used to be a warehouse that was once the home of this impressive land shark before it was demolished in 2007. I’d love to know where that shark is today.

An open letter to HEB

Feed the Heights, which notes that HEB had a wildly successful debut of their new Buffalo Speedway store, implores them to do something similar for our neighborhood.

Grocery shopping in the Heights is getting better, but still needs some help. Fiesta on Shepherd is a great place to shop for every cut of meat imaginable, but lacks the quality in upper end cuts of meats and mainstream produce selections. Kroger has been doing a fairly poor job of servicing the area (the store on 20th is pathetic), but is at least attempting to improve the situation by revamping the tired store on 11th and Shepherd.

I know you can do much better. Your Bunker Hill location is one of my favorite places to shop. Prices seem fair, the store is clean, the selection is top notch, and you don’t need one of those annoying shopper cards in order to get the sale price. Quite frankly, I’m puzzled why a decision was made to open a store in the saturated 59 corridor, while other areas are grossly under-represented.

People have been complaining about the lack of a high-end grocery store in the Heights for years. There had been hope at one point that the Target on Sawyer would be a Super Target, but that didn’t happen. It is a little strange that there are four fairly similar stores within about a mile of Buffalo Speedway and 59 – the HEB and the Kroger that are right across the street from each other, plus Randalls locations on Bissonnet and Weslayan, and Westheimer at Shepherd; heck, HEB’s Central Market isn’t all that far from there, either – but nothing remotely like any of them in the Heights. I don’t quite understand the marketing logic of that.