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Wal-Mart

You may finally be able to buy booze at Walmart and Costco now

I agree with this.

A protectionist Texas law that has kept Walmart, Costco and other giant retailers from selling hard liquor was found unconstitutional by a federal judge this week, prompting cheers from free-market advocates — and vows of a quick appeal from one of the parties on the losing side.

The Texas law that was struck down — unique in the United States — forbids publicly traded businesses from owning liquor stores while allowing family-owned companies to grow into giant chains without fear of competition from large national or international corporations.

If the late Tuesday ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman survives appeals, Texas consumers — like those in at least 31 other states and many foreign countries — will be able to buy vodka, tequila and bourbon from Walmart-owned stores and from other multinational retailer outlets.

“For decades, these laws have stood in stark contrast to Texas values,” said Travis Thomas, spokesman for Texans for Consumer Freedom, which advocates for free-market reforms in Texas. “The State of Texas should not pick winners and losers in private industry.”

[…]

Experts said an appeal could take more than a year to play out in the federal court system — longer if it were to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Texans can expect the status quo in liquor retailing. If publicly traded companies are allowed eventually to sell distilled spirits, existing law would still require the companies to build separate facilities, though they can be adjacent to existing stores.

See here and here for the background. The Texas Package Stores Association, which represents the state’s liquor store owners, has vowed to appeal, and I’d expect this to go the distance. As you know, I’m no fan of Walmart, but on this issue I think they’re in the right. Now if we could only bring a similar sense of sanity to the state’s ridiculous beer laws, we’d really have something.

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.

Wal-Mart sues Texas

It’s about booze.

Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit in an Austin federal court on Thursday challenging a Texas law that forbids the company from owning and operating liquor stores in the state.

The lawsuit says the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission code prevents Wal-Mart from obtaining a permit to sell hard alcohol because it is a publicly traded corporation.

Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said the company is seeking a “fair and level playing field so we can offer our customers a full assortment of adult beverages.”

“This is counter to Texas’ belief in free enterprise and fair competition, limits our customer’s choice and keeps the price of spirits artificially high, all of which harm Texas consumers,” Lopez said in an email.

I’m not exactly a fan of Wal-Mart, but it’s hard to see the rationale for that law. I’m guessing it’s another remnant of Prohibition that never got updated or deleted, and now it has a constituency behind it in the existing retailers. Any lawyers want to weigh in on this one?

Going where the payday lenders are

The most frequent defense I hear of payday lenders it that there’s a demand for the kind of short-term low-dollar loans that they provide that aren’t provided by other financial institutions, and even if they were those institutions don’t exist in the neighborhoods that generate the demand for these loans. That doesn’t come close to justifying the payday lenders’ exorbitant rates and fees or their predatory practices, but I admit that there’s a need that will get fulfilled one way or another. Given that, wouldn’t it be preferable by far to have more reputable financial institutions in the neighborhoods that need these services, operating in a manner that serves the customers rather than preys on them? One such institution is giving that a try in San Antonio.

Select Federal Credit Union (SFCU), an outspoken opponent of the payday lending industry, is trying to fill the gap from two directions: accessibility and availability.

One reason payday lenders were successful is that they were densely present in their target markets. While their clients fall across a range of income brackets, the highest concentration is in low income areas, where many are unbanked.

“We definitely have a proliferation of payday lenders, and bank branches are sparse,” said District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor.

SFCU realized that to be effective, they needed to be in the neighborhood. They needed to find places along people’s pathways. Convenience is an issue for those who take public transit or walk to and from work with their paycheck in their hands.

So SFCU found a home in the middle of their target market: Ella Austin Community Center, affectionately known around the neighborhood simply as “Ella Austin” or “Ella.”

[…]

SFCU seized the moment to set up shop on the campus, giving them access to senior citizens and families who use the services offered at Ella Austin. They also have access to the employees of Ella Austin and the resident businesses. Employed people are statistically just as likely to use payday lenders as those without steady income.

SFCU goes a step further even, as they have the technology to bring banking directly to the homes of those who have trouble accessing in person or online. They are also working on other partnerships with local businesses and institutions to bring virtual or mini-branches to their facilities.

Ella Austin is easily walkable for neighborhood residents, and the branch has a slower, more relational atmosphere.

“We want to dedicate this branch to sitting down and talking with people,” said John Garcia, head of Business Development and Marketing at SFCU.

From their post at Ella Austin, SFCU is poised to offer not only accessible financial services, but also financial education. SFCU is a designated Community Development Financial Institution, one of only two in San Antonio. They keep their footprint small and nimble, with a focus on increasing financial stability for their members.

“We welcome Select Federal Credit Union because they have the flexibility to do more outreach than a traditional bank,” said Taylor.

The basic idea here is simple and well-conceived. Any business wants to be where the potential customers are, and Lord knows there’s plenty of room to compete with payday lenders on price and service. Those are the pillars behind the concepts of allowing post offices and WalMart to act as banks – they exist everywhere, including a lot of places where there are no traditional banks, and they can provide standard services like checking, savings, and low-dollar loans at very reasonable costs. Getting credit unions into the game is even better, as they wouldn’t need to seek regulatory approval to take on this business and they’ve generally been a force for good overall. I will be very interested to see how this plays out – there are no guarantees, of course, but this is a great idea that has real hope of succeeding. I hope their peers in other cities are watching how this goes, too.

Another way to squeeze the payday lenders

I wholeheartedly approve of this.

The Postal Service (USPS) could spare the most economically vulnerable Americans from dealing with predatory financial companies under a proposal endorsed over the weekend by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

“USPS could partner with banks to make a critical difference for millions of Americans who don’t have basic banking services because there are almost no banks or bank branches in their neighborhoods,” Warren wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed on Saturday. The op-ed picked up on a report from the USPS’s Inspector General that proposed using the agency’s extensive physical infrastructure to extend basics like debit cards and small-dollar loans to the same communities that the banking industry has generally ignored. The report found that 68 million Americans don’t have bank accounts and spent $89 billion in 2012 on interest and fees for the kinds of basic financial services that USPS could begin offering. The average un-banked household spent more than $2,400, or about 10 percent of its income, just to access its own money through things like check cashing and payday lending stores. USPS would generate savings for those families and revenue for itself by stepping in to replace those non-bank financial services companies.

[…]

But while ending triple-digit interest rates and fine-print tricks is a good thing for consumers, it doesn’t reduce the demand for those financial services. The USPS could slide into that space and meet that need without preying upon those communities. “Instead of partnering with predatory lenders,” David Dayen writes in The New Republic, “banks could partner with the USPS on a public option, not beholden to shareholder demands, which would treat customers more fairly.” America’s post offices are an ideal physical infrastructure for furnishing these services to communities currently neglected by banks. Roughly six in 10 post offices nationwide are in what the USPS report calls “bank deserts” — zip codes with either one or zero bank branches.

I noted that David Dayen story in a previous linkdump. I like this idea for the same reason why I like the idea of letting Wal-Mart open banks: It would provide low-cost banking and financial services, including short-term, low-dollar loans, to a large class of people whose only current options are high-cost predatory lenders. Anything that puts downward pressure on the price of these services and makes savings and checking accounts available to people who don’t have them is a win in my book. This idea should especially appeal to people who don’t care for having cities step in to regulate payday lenders, since it would reduce barriers to competition and allow for real customer-friendly innovation in a highly non-customer-friendly market. What’s not to like?

One thing Wal-Mart could be good for

They could wreak havoc on payday lenders.

Raj Date says that with modern data analysis banks could offer payday loans on much less extortionate terms. Felix Salmon retorts that banks don’t actually want to do business with poor people unless they can scrape them for high fees. Otherwise the costs of dealing with the accounts exceeds the profits to be made by having them as customers.

The solution to this problem, I think, would be for banking services to be performed by a firm that already has low-income clients and would have an interest in increasing its level of engagement with them even if the payday lending operation wasn’t profitable per se. In a word, you need Wal-Mart. A few years back, Wal-Mart started offering check-cashing services that were much cheaper than the prices charged by stand-alone check-cashing places. And it’s no surprise that this worked. If your whole business is cashing checks, then your check-cashing fees have to be high. But if check cashing is basically just another way to get people in the door of your store, then it makes business sense to offer attractive terms. Wal-Mart once applied for a banking license and was turned down so it can’t lend money. But if low-end retail chains were allowed to get bank charters, you could imagine one or more of them wanting to offer discount payday lending services for similar reasons—it’s a great way to get customers in the door at a time when you know they have money to spend.

The embedded link about Wal-Mart in the check cashing business is worth reading. For that and for the payday lending industry, having WalMart come in and crush the existing players with the force of low prices would be a good thing. Frankly, letting Wal-Mart have a banking license, which would immediately give access to basic checking and savings account services for millions of adults that don’t currently have them. That could have a major effect right here in Houston.

The Houston area is now the sixth-most unbanked major metropolitan statistical area in the country, as 11.9 percent, or 264,000 households in the region, do not have access to a bank account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. About 8.2 percent of U.S. households are unbanked.

It’s also the fifth-most underbanked major metro in the U.S., meaning the 28.4 percent, or 630,000 households, that fall into this category have bank accounts but rely heavily on alternative financial products, such as payday lending.

Even after the city of Houston in 2009 established Bank on Houston, a program to draw the unbanked to bank accounts, the numbers of the city’s unbanked and underbanked have increased. In 2009, when Houston was the seventh-most unbanked metro area in the U.S., 10.5 percent of the city’s households were unbanked and 21.4 percent were underbanked.

“Part of it is the population increase,” Alexander Obregon, special projects coordinator for the city controller’s office and chair of the financial education committee for Bank on Houston. “There aren’t enough service providers out there that can reach all the people who need a financial education. Houston’s population continues to grow, and demand for its safety-net services continues to grow,” outpacing the growth of those services, he said.

Roger Widmeyer, spokesman for the Houston controller’s office, added that the unbanked can be a challenging demographic group to draw to the financial services industry, as many have a generational or cultural distrust of banks.

“Houston is a mecca for skilled labor, and many of these folks get paid in cash, and they prefer it that way,” Widmeyer said. “We’re attracting a lot of new residents who are coming here without a bank.”

I’m willing to bet that if Bank On Houston could partner with Wal-Mart, that would make a major dent in those numbers. Hey, I dislike and distrust Wal-Mart as much as the next liberal do-gooder. No question, Wal-Mart is evil. Compared to the payday lending industry, though, they’re clearly the lesser evil. I’m not particularly sanguine about a legislative fix for payday lending, and while the city of Houston is likely to take action to restrict payday lending here, that can only cover the city. Bigger action than that is needed. I say let WalMart come in and squeeze all the profit out of payday lending. That’s one industry where there’s no downside to lower prices.

Alexan Heights update

The developers of the Alexan Heights project on Yale will go before the Planning Commission tomorrow to get a variance that would remove a single-family restriction on part of the property. Some folks in the neighborhood have been petitioning against the variance. The Leader reports from a meeting that was supposed to be between residents and the developer, except that the developer didn’t show.

Plans submitted by Terra Associates, affiliated with several luxury Alexan apartments throughout the Houston area, show a 350-plus unit complex with 4 stories of apartment units over two levels of parking, one of which is below grade. Currently a mixed-use block in the Maple Heights subdivision, the 3.5-acre site fronts Yale between 6th and 7th, with Allston Street its interior border and the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail to its north.

Last week, Houston Planning Commission deferred its decision on whether to grant a variance request to replat as unrestricted reserved a single-family portion of the site. Since it has twice-deferred the variance request, however, the planning commission must make a decision at its next meeting, with or without the traffic study reportedly being conducted by the developer and expected in mid-February.

Whether passed or denied, however, a version of the project is likely to advance in some form, said Bill Pellerin, land use committee chairman, who also said neither the committee nor the association has taken a position on the proposed project.

Residents, however, were outspoken on the project’s potential impact on traffic in an already-bottlenecked stretch of roadway, on access and flow, on setbacks, on sidewalks, on drainage and on the overall presence of a mid-rise building abutting an otherwise single-family neighborhood.

“The variance is the project,” one attendee said, calling for residents to give the planning commission “reasons to deny it” and to remind commissioners as well as council members that seeking a variance means something is not in compliance. “Stick to the rules,” said another resident.

The West Heights Coalition is leading the resistance, with assistance from RUDH. I have sympathy for the WHC, but I have a hard time seeing how the Planning Commission denies the variance. There’s a similar high-end apartment complex about a mile north, at 2125 Yale, and between 6th and I-10 Yale is basically all industrial. Yale is a thoroughfare in the way that Bissonnet where the Ashby Highrise will be isn’t. It’s true that the traffic is awful right there, but as far as I can tell that’s because of the traffic light that went in after the I-10 service road was extended west of Yale. You could probably mitigate some of this traffic by building a dedicated right-turn lane for the service road, which is something I know was talked about as mitigation for the Wal-Mart construction. Anyone know whatever happened with that? Tweaking the timing on that light to give a longer green and a shorter red for Yale would also help some. I certainly agree that between this, the Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart-related development, and whatever is to come on the San Jacinto Stone site, Yale is going to become an unholy mess to drive on. But given all that, it’s hard to see how this one project will make that much difference.

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.

Yale Street Bridge to get makeover

You may recall that last November the load limit on the Yale Street Bridge was reduced by TxDOT to 8,000 lbs per single axle and 10,000 lbs per tandem axle, which has resulted in truck traffic being forbidden on the bridge. That hasn’t stopped trucks from actually using it, of course, but they’re not supposed to. Anyway, since then a few more things have happened:

– An inspection and assessment of the bridge by Entech Civil Engineers says that it really should have a load limit of 7200 lbs, which is basically a full-size SUV with multiple passengers.

– Neighborhood leaders sent a letter to the city asking for Something To Be Done about this:

Necessary Action

As indicated above, based on the ratings of the Yale Street Bridge, corrective action is required; based on the current ratings, according to TXDOT, this bridge is either one of the top or the top bridge in Texas eligible for replacement based on TxDOT’s and the Federal Highway Administration’s criteria for distributing Federal and State Funds. The required corrective action is reconstruction of the Yale Street Bridge. Since this is a City-owned Bridge, the process to prioritize the Bridge for replacement and to solicit the necessary funding begins with the City. With City budget and CIP discussion now underway, this is the time to address it so that it will be included in the current CIP priority list. Eighty percent (80%) of the funding would come from the Federal Highway Administration, 10% from TXDOT and 10% from the
City’s budget. This means that this problem can be addressed promptly and with a limited impact on the City’s budget. The Bridge should be reconstructed BEFORE it has to be closed due to low ratings.

– The city sent a reply saying that the Department of Public Works and Engineering was working with TxDOT to apply for federal funds to help with the cost of fixing the bridge, for which candidate projects will be nominated to the Federal Highway Administration in 2012.

Not clear what happens if the project doesn’t get the federal funds, though the city did say that it would try to work it out through the District C Council office. See this press advisory, this letter from CM Cohen, and this story in The Leader for more.

UPDATE: Here’s a direct link to that story in The Leader.

Wayside Wal-Mart update

From Nancy Sarnoff:

The East End of Houston has been called a “food desert” for its lack of grocery stores. But come next year, the area will be a little less dry.

Wal-Mart Stores said it will open a store at the corner of Interstate 45 and Wayside around the middle of next year. The company had been eyeing the spot for a 150,000-square-foot Supercenter for a while.

Construction details are still being completed, according to a spokeswoman.

“We are very excited about moving into and partnering with the East End community,” said Wal-Mart’s Kellie Duhr.

The store will be the second Walmart Supercenter inside the Loop. The first is being built near the Heights on Yale Street and should open this fall.

Source: Swamplot

We first heard about this almost exactly a year ago. Far as I know, there hasn’t been anywhere near the hue and cry over this location, which I daresay (and said at the time) is almost certainly because there are very few residences in the area, unlike the Heights Wal-Mart. I don’t know what the folks in the Idylwood neighborhood, on the other side of Sylvan Road, think about this, all I know is that if they hate it or love it, I haven’t heard it. This fits my perception of where big box retail belongs – adjacent to a highway, with direct access from the service road, and with separation from residential neighborhoods. I can’t quite tell from this Food Trust report on food deserts in Houston if that area qualifies as such, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s not exactly oversaturated with grocery options. Be all that as it may, here it comes whether you like it or not.

Yale Street Bridge load limit reduced by TxDOT

This hit my inbox on Wednesday afternoon:

Yale Street Bridge Load Limit Reduced by TxDOT

A recent assessment of the Yale Street Bridge over White Oak Bayou performed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) has resulted in a reduction in the bridge’s maximum traffic load rating.

The assessment was performed under the state’s program to monitor bridge safety across the streets and highway network called BRINSAP (Bridge Inventory, Inspection and Appraisal Program).

The Yale Street Bridge rating was reduced from a previous maximum weight load of 40,000 lbs and 21,000 lbs for tandem axle to a new rating of 8,000 lbs per single axle and 10,000 lbs per tandem axle. This lower weight limit does not impact use of the bridge by passenger vehicles or small trucks.

However, due to the new ratings, the City of Houston is restricting truck use of the bridge, effective immediately. This restriction will apply to all commercial truck traffic, including standard semi-tractor trailers, large panel vans, delivery trucks and buses.

The Houston Fire Department (HFD), Metro and the Houston Independent School District have been notified and have made route changes as necessary.

Signs noting the restrictions and directing trucks to Heights Boulevard south of I-10 were installed on Tuesday, November 22, 2011. HPD’s Truck Enforcement Unit has been notified and their assistance in enforcement has been requested.

The bridge is safe and is expected to continue to provide service over the long term to the public for traffic within the load ratings.

That’s a pretty remarkable change. The RUDH folks have been yelling about the Yale Street Bridge for months now, mostly out of concern for the truck traffic that the Ainbinder Wal-Mart will generate. One presumes this will have some effect on that.

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.

More thoughts on the Mayoral election

I think there are two key things to keep in mind when contemplating Tuesday’s election results in Houston and what they may mean for 2013. First and foremost, I believe you have to see the Mayor’s percentage of the vote, which everyone would agree was underwhelming, as a reflection on her level of support and nothing else. To put it another way, this was her “generic” re-elect number, given that she wasn’t running against any one opponent but against a mostly interchangeable slate of “not Annise Parker” candidates. That’s bad, because some 49% of the people who bothered to vote said they wanted someone else, but it’s not necessarily as bad as it looks. Many incumbents do worse in polls against a generic opponent. Look at President Obama for a clear example of that. The flipside of this, which is also crystal clear with the President, is that it means they generally do better, sometimes much better, against actual named opponents. Every single person who might run against Annise Parker in 2013 has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and many of them have their own record in public service that can be examined and critiqued. Change the choice from “I’d like somebody else to be Mayor” to “I’d like this specific person to be Mayor” – Paul Bettencourt, Ben Hall, Bill King, whoever – and some people who maybe aren’t too happy with Parker will decide she’s the preferable option. (Or not – it can certainly go either way.) Give the Mayor a single named opponent whose flaws and policy ideas she can attack, and the dynamic of the race changes, because it’s no longer all about her. Like I said, that may or may not ultimately work in her favor, but it will be different than this race was. We can’t know how that will go until someone actually decides to run against her. Further, while it’s easy enough to imagine Parker getting squeezed between a white Republican and an African-American Democrat, what happens if more than one of either or both decides to jump in? This is what I mean when I say it’s far too early to make any grand pronunciations about 2013. There are too many variables in play. I still believe, as I said before the election and before anyone else, that an underperformance by the Mayor would make it more likely she will draw a serious opponent in 2013. That’s not the same as saying I believe she’ll lose, or even that she’s more likely to lose. It’s far too early to tell about that.

The Mayor’s first term was affected by several factors that were beyond her control – things like the economy, the red light camera referendum, various Council hijinx. I believe she is likely to derive some benefit from there being fewer of these external factors over the next two years – I mean, how much more can there be? If it turns out I’m wrong about that, she may well decide this job is a curse and gladly hand it off to someone else. Be that as it may, there’s no shortage of things well within her control where she can and must do better. The Mayor’s biggest political liability isn’t the caprices of fate but the fact that she has done very little to expand her base of support, and quite a bit to antagonize and depress it. I think of the Mayor’s base primarily as people like me – urban progressives. As far as I can tell – I’ll have a better grasp on this when I get the vote canvass, but I don’t need numbers to see the basic problem outline – there’s a lot of discontent among people in my neck of the woods with the Mayor’s actions. First and foremost among them is the 380 agreement situation, which begins but now doesn’t end with Ainbinder and Washington Heights. The fact that Ainbinder chose Wal-Mart as its anchor tenant is another example of uncontrollable bad luck for the Mayor – if they had announced a deal with HEB, no one would have cared enough to kick up a fuss about it – but the decision to offer Ainbinder a 380 agreement in return for what appear to be minor, almost trivial, infrastructure improvements, along with still-unresolved questions about traffic, bridge safety, noise, drainage, and so forth, that was all on the Mayor and her unhelpful department heads. Pursuing historic preservation – which, one must admit, was something she campaigned on – won her more enemies than friends, as support for preservation is broad but shallow, while opposition to it is narrow but deep and fierce and activism-inspiring. However you feel about these things, the fact remains that there are fewer people in neighborhoods that should be her strongholds that are on her side, and more than aren’t. That’s not a good position to be in. I don’t know what she and her advisers have been discussing since Tuesday night, but if I were in on those conversations, I’d strongly recommend they spend less time worrying about who may or may not decide to run against her, and more time figuring out how to do something about this. And if they can’t come up with a good strategy for that, they’d best start working on their oppo research, because they’re going to need plenty of it.

Anyway. I’ll have some analysis of the other results tomorrow, and once I get my hands on canvass data, I’ll start bringing the numbers. In the meantime, here are some more overviews of the election results, from PDiddie, Stace, Greg, BOR, and EoW.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron analysis, which covers much of the same ground as I did.

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.

Since we’ve been speaking of drainage

Meanwhile, over in Washington Heights, Ainbinder is doing a commissioning a study of streets and drainage. It’s their second study, as apparently they didn’t like what the first one told them. Go read They Are Building A Wal-Mart On My Street for the details.

Heights Wal-Mart public meeting reminder

From the inbox:

Responsible Urban Development for Houston [RUDH] Announces their next:

PUBLIC MEETING: TUESDAY MAY 3RD, 2011 AT 6:30 PM
The Council on Alcohol and Drugs
303 Jackson Hill Street, Houston, Texas 77007

Regarding: Heights Wal-Mart Project and the Yale Street Bridge over White Oak Bayou

WHAT: Alarm Bells are sounding in the Heights and West End communities of Houston over revelations surrounding the Yale Street Bridge over White Oak Bayou. This is a load-zoned bridge that is predicted to have far greater traffic, including vehicles idling in both directions during peak hours, after the construction of the new I-10 frontage roads and the proposed Wal-Mart development. The City of Houston has acknowledged the 40K load-zoned bridge is a public safety risk. This very bridge directly feeds traffic from the I-10 to the planned Wal-Mart Supercenter and associated retail. The City of Houston has not required that the developer spend any of the public funds given via the 380 Agreement, or any of
their own monies, towards ensuring this bridge is structurally sound.

Mark Loethen and Jeff Weatherford from the Public Works and Engineering Department will be in attendance at the May 3rd Public Meeting to answer the public’s questions.

WHY: RUDH has been publicizing the dangers to the Bridge for many months. District H Councilman Ed Gonzalez and State Representative Jessica Farrar have written letters this April to the City Engineer and the Mayor citing the dangers posed to the load-zoned bridge by 18-wheelers and traffic generated by the proposed Wal-Mart development. The West End Civic Club, the Heights Association, the Woodland Heights Association, Super Neighborhood 22, and Super Neighborhood 15 have sent even stronger letters to the City citing the load-zoned bridge as a major concern.

The City claims they will re-route 18-wheelers to the development on Heights via the Koehler Street extension, and that this re-routing solves the problem of 18-wheelers exceeding bridge weight limits. However, the City has admitted that the only available method of enforcing the weight limits is HPD issuing tickets.

Be there if you can.

Public meeting with updates on Wal-Mart

From RUDH:

PUBLIC MEETING: SEE YOU THERE!

Join RUDH and receive updates about the Yale Street bridge, the Bass Street connection and TxDOTs role in ensuring the safety of West End residents, the City’s plan for re-routing 18-wheelers onto Heights Boulevard and what is known about drainage to date.  Now is the time to set responsible precedents for development in our neighborhood.Permits are pending, we have no time to waste. The Mayor, City Council members and other representatives will be invited to answer questions. We look forward to seeing you all there for a quick, informative meeting!

WHEN: Tuesday May 3, 2011 @ 6:30 pm
WHERE: The Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston, 303 Jackson Hill Street, Houston, Texas 77007

Here’s a map. Click over for more info about what will be discussed, and see They Are Building A Wal-Mart On My Street for more.

Can we take a step forward without also taking one back?

From last week’s Texas Tribune on the subject of plastic bag recycling.

On Tuesday the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony on a bill sponsored by the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, that would require large retailers like Wal-Mart to have well-labeled bag recycling canisters in their stores. This afternoon the House’s Environmental Regulations committee heard testimony on a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-Fort Worth.

“It encourages more eco-friendly behaviors,” said Hancock, who said that plastic bags cannot be recycled at curbside. It was a “free market-based solution,” he emphasized, that would result in more bags being recycled and made into items like benches or flower pots.

Environmental groups, however, oppose the bills because a clause at the end of both would “preempt” local rules that are in conflict with the bill. They fear this would prevent cities from banning the bags outright. Already, Brownsville has instituted a plastic bag ban, which took effect in January, and two other locations — Fort Stockton and South Padre Island — have approved bag bans that will come into effect in the coming months.

“We shouldn’t tie the hands of local communities trying to reduce solid waste,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, in an email. Metzger did not testify but opposes the bill.

Fraser said that the bill aimed to bring a “transition” period for plastic bags. “We’ve got plastic bags in the system and we’re moving toward trying to eliminate them,” he said.

But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there was “nothing in this bill that eliminates plastic bags in the waste stream,” and he feared that cities wanting to ban bags would be preempted from doing so under the bill’s language. Fraser said the three cities with bag bans would not be preempted, but it appeared that other cities that moved to ban bags in the future would be preempted.

Large retail groups like Wal-Mart and the Texas Restaurant Association back the bill, and several bag manufacturers also testified in favor.

I’ve noted the Brownsville and South Padre bag-banning efforts; Fort Stockton was news to me. Fraser’s bill is SB908; it was approved by the committee and is on the intent calendar for tomorrow. Hancock’s bill is HB1913; it’s still in committee. While there are times when it makes sense for the state to establish a single standard for something and in doing so override what cities have done, this isn’t one of those times. I’m confident that this provision is in there to get support from those large business interests. I’d prefer the Lege take no action at this time than take a step to prevent other cities from following Brownsville or South Padre or Fort Stockton’s example. Let’s let there be some experimentation to see what works best, and let’s leave some flexibility in place for the future rather than impose a one-size-fits-all solution. We should have bag recycling dropoffs at these locations, but we should be allowed to have more than that if we want it as well.

I-10 service road update

From Ultimate Heights:

Two of six planned detention ponds are under construction near Interstate 10 east of Patterson Street, along with new feeder roads between Shepherd and Taylor.

Work on the project began in October, with the first two detention ponds scheduled for completion near the end of this year, two Texas Department of Transportation representatives said March 8.

Alan Wang, supervising design engineer, and Elie J. Alkhoury, assistant director of the transportation department’s consultant contract administration, spoke at a meeting of the Greater Houston Heights Community Emergency Response Team.

The meeting took place at Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, 211 Byrne St.

Building the feeder roads is expected to take another three years, the two said.

The project is designed to prevent catastrophic flooding on Interstate 10 near White Oak Bayou, which happened during Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001, they said.

“I-10 acted as a detention pond in Allison,” Wang said. “We’re trying to make sure this won’t happen again.”

Four more detention ponds will be built between Studemont and Taylor on the north side of the freeway, within the I-10 right-of-way that varies between about 200 feet and 500 feet, Wang said.

The retention ponds have been on the agenda for awhile – I have a note about a public meeting to discuss them from 2006. You can also find some schematics for the service roads here, from 2008. With the way this is snarling traffic in my neck of the woods, the bit about construction lasting till 2014 is enough to give me a migraine. Odds are good that the Heights Wal-Mart will be built before the service roads are done, which makes the Ainbinder traffic study even less useful. Anyway, just wanted to pass this along.

The Wayside Wal-Mart

For what it’s worth, I don’t have an opinion about the new Wal-Mart at I-45 and Wayside, whether it’s a Super Center or not. Other than a few comments at Swamplot and on the Stop Heights Wal-Mart Facebook page, I haven’t seen any evidence of an uproar from the nearby Idylwood neighborhood. If there is one, I’m sure I’ll be sympathetic; if not, then there’s nothing at issue.

While there are concerns about traffic on Wayside, that location seems more suitable on its face – direct access from a major freeway, and no residences immediately adjacent to the side, as far as I know. There’s also not much in the way of grocery stores or other major retail nearby, at least according to the maps in the preliminary impact review that was put together by RUDH last August. That map says there’s a grocery store right there at Wayside and I-45, but I can’t tell what it is. There is a Kroger and a Fiesta farther east on Wayside, but nothing else within about five miles. This is the part of town for which you’d expect to see a 380 agreement deployed; I have no idea if that may be in the cards here.

Speaking of such things, there was one very interesting tidbit that I picked up at the recent RUDH meeting that discussed the Ainbinder-sponsored traffic impact analysis (TIA). We know that in addition to the Ainbinder site, which is primarily on the west side of Yale and which will include other retail besides the Wal-Mart, there’s another retail development on the east side of Yale, right across the street. The Ainbinder TIA doesn’t take into account any additional traffic that may some day be generated by this other development. It’s not required to do so. This is sensible enough in that many proposed projects never come to fruition – Sonoma, anyone? – or eventually get done as something else, and so any traffic projections you might make that included other unfinished developments would be just wild guesses. But on the reasonable assumption that something is going to be built there, it means that Ainbinder’s TIA numbers are lower, perhaps much lower, than what we’ll really see. The other guy will have to account for Ainbinder’s site when he does his TIA, but that won’t affect Ainbinder. Just so you know. For more about the Ainbinder TIA, see the RUDH presentation from that meeting.

The Ainbinder traffic impact analysis for the Height Wal-Mart

When last we discussed the Heights Wal-Mart development, we were awaiting a traffic impact analysis (TIA) on the roads around the site, which was to be done on behalf of Ainbinder, the developer of the project. For your perusal, here is the TIA of the Wal-Mart development. I want to quote you a paragraph from the executive summary:

The results of this traffic engineering study indicate that the construction of IH-10 frontage roads and resulting changes in traffic patterns will impact both mobility and traffic operations within the study area on a much greater scale than the new trips generated by the proposed Washington Heights development. Furthermore, it was found that the addition of the proposed retail development is not expected to cause a significant reduction in LOS beyond what is expected for year 2012 No Build conditions.

“LOS” is “level of service”, and it refers to the congestion and wait-time conditions at intersections; they are given grades from A (always smooth flow, no problems at all) to F (“Unstable traffic flow. Heavy congestion. Traffic moves in forced flow condition. Average delays of greater than one minute highly probable. Total breakdown.”) based on what is observed or projected. What Kimley-Horn, the firm that conducted the TIA for Ainbinder, is saying is that the intersection of Yale and the under-construction I-10 service roads will start off as an F even if the Wal-Mart site is still an empty lot in 2012.

Does that sound credible to you? It doesn’t to me. I used to take Height Boulevard south past I-10, for several years after dropping my kids off at preschool. It was not unusual for me to have to sit through one light cycle on Heights, but that was because the duration of the green light for the southbound approach at I-10 West was only about 15 seconds. (Believe me, I timed it myself out of frustration more than once.) The folks coming from the I-10 West service road, who were the bulk of the traffic and were mostly turning left (south) onto Heights had a nice long light, and had no trouble. (A corollary to this was that the green light for the southbound approach at I-10 East, which included a protected left, was much longer. This was the only way onto I-10 East between Yale and Studemont, so a fair number of vehicles turning left from the I-10 West service road turned again onto the eastbound service road.)

The point I’m making is that before the current construction, the traffic at this intersection wasn’t bad. Most of it was for vehicles getting on and off the freeway. On Yale, traffic was even less of an issue, as there was only one light, where the westbound service road dead-ended into Yale. A few people going south on Yale would turn left at the un-signaled intersection onto the eastbound service road, but my observation was that most people heading south on Yale were aiming for either Washington Avenue, or points south, where Yale merged into Waugh Drive. This was also the only way to get onto Memorial Drive west, as that entrance is inaccessible from Heights/Waugh southbound.

What would make traffic at Yale/I-10 so much worse once there’s a service road there to connect to points west, or to handle people now exiting at Yale? Obviously, people will use this to get onto I-10, but one presumes these people are currently using either the entrance at Studemont or the entrance at Durham/Shepherd. The people who will some day exit at Yale are presumably now exiting at Studemont, making the U-turn, then turning left at either Heights or Yale. We’ve already established that pre-construction this was no big deal. Where’s all that extra traffic going to come from? Other than some reshuffling from Studemont and Durham/Shepherd, it’s not obvious to me. It’s not like there will be more residences or businesses putting traffic onto Yale by 2012.

Well, except for the one factor that this TIA wants you to think won’t be much of one, that being the Wal-Mart development. But if Yale at I-10 was going to be a nightmare anyway, then it’s not their fault, is it? How fortunate for them that TxDOT is there to take the hit for this.

Anyway. There’s a lot more to the TIA, but a couple of other points need to be mentioned. One is that the 380 agreement the city signed with Ainbinder doesn’t mention the service roads, or the intersections at Yale and Heights. The stuff that Ainbinder agreed to do as part of the 380 involve widening Yale between the train bridge and Koehler so as to allow a left turn lane into the development, and adding a left turn lane from Heights onto Koehler once the apartments in between have been torn down. The TIA suggests adding as mitigations a right turn lane from Yale onto I-10 service road westbound, and a left turn lane from Heights to I-10 westbound, but as neither of the 380, it’s not clear who would pay for them. With the TIA claiming that Ainbinder’s development would not be responsible for this traffic, don’t expect them to make any offers. Oh, and the TIA doesn’t include their full data sets, and this report apparently differs from a previous one. We’re taking their word for it on this.

Another point, separate from the traffic issues, is that the bridge on Yale between Koehler and I-10, the one that goes over the bayou, has a gross weight limit of 40,000 pounds. This wasn’t discussed before because the sign indicating this weight limit isn’t easily visible from the street. Here’s a photo so you can see what I mean. The tare weight, which is to say the empty weight, of a typical 18-wheeler is 30,000 to 36,000 pounds, and the legal maximum is 80,000 pounds. That would seem to be a problem, given the limitations of that bridge. How many 18-wheelers a day come into a Wal-Mart facility?

All of the documents linked in this post, as well as this summary doc, which notes these and other issues, came to me via RUDH. There will be a public meeting tomorrow, January 26, to discuss these items:

PUBLIC MEETING
WEDNESDAY JAN. 26th
6:30 to 7:30 PM
Council on Alcohol & Drugs
303 Jackson Hill Street
Houston, TX 77007

Here’s a map to the location. See you there.

Why HEB is not like Wal-Mart

I read this story about how residents near the old Wilshire Village Apartments site, where HEB plans to build a new store, will be voting on possible designs for that new store, and I wondered what might have been.

Residents who live near the corner of Alabama and Dunlavy, the site of an H-E-B scheduled to open next year, also are having their say on other store-related matters, such as whether or not to have bold colors on the outside of the building or install a large canopy for shade in front of it.

The San Antonio-based grocer is going to unusual lengths in an effort to make people in the area comfortable with having an H-E-B as a neighbor.

“We always ask for community input, but this time we took it to a whole new level,” said Scott McClelland, president of H-E-B, Houston. The company has never before allowed residents to vote on their favorite design scheme, he said.

When the chain announced its plans for the store in April, there was opposition from some residents. A number of them had wanted a park on the 8-acre wooded site. A group called the Montrose Land Defense Coalition formed to champion the park idea.

H-E-B has been meeting with residents to hear their concerns. “We’ve been impressed with H-E-B — they have truly listened to the community,” said David Robinson, president of the Neartown Association, a collection of 21 Montrose area civic groups and other organizations.

[…]

Smart retailers encourage community involvement, said Kit Yarrow, a professor of business and psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. It is more crucial than ever for companies to get the neighborhood on board, she said, because consumers have unprecedented voice today: “The Internet has given them the power to rally from their homes with minimal effort.”

The consumers’ ability to be heard by H-E-B gives them a sense of ownership for the project, which Yarrow said moves the dialog from defensive to collaborative: “It helped change the topic from ‘Should we build?’ to ‘How should we build?’ ”

Other retailers prefer the “We don’t care what you think” approach. I wonder why they don’t have as positive a relationship with the public as some other firms do. In the end, residents got to vote on the design this past weekend; see here for the winner.

Email counts, too

I have one thing to say about this.

City officials involved in negotiating a tax reimbursement deal with the developer of a controversial Walmart-anchored retail project near Washington Avenue made dismissive, and sometimes derisive, references to citizens opposed to the development, according to e-mails released to the Houston Chronicle.

For example, in response to a subordinate’s e-mail regarding potential fallout from a July 2 Chronicle report about Wal-Mart’s interest in the site, the city’s chief development officer, Andy Icken, wrote, “In that neighborhood I assume there are some who feel they have access to unique info that makes those folks uniquely qualified to decide what is good for everyone else. … Walmart deals with folks like this everywhere.”

Three weeks later, as neighborhood opposition intensified, Icken responded to a colleague’s comment about Wal-Mart’s growth in the Houston market by writing, “We have had 4 new ones built in the last 2 years without a community comment until they touched the effete in the heights!”

[…]

Councilman Ed Gonzalez, whose District H includes the area in which the Walmart is planned, also was discussed by staff in the e-mails.

As opposition to the project from community groups grew in late July, Icken asked Deputy Finance Director Tim Douglass, the city’s lead negotiator on the 380 agreement, to describe Gonzalez’s stance.

Douglass replied, “Ed is getting a little squishy. Says he’s getting bombarded with complaints. … Ed needs a little hand holding from MAP (Mayor Annise Parker) … he feels like he’s carrying the load on this.”

[…]

Icken said city officials met numerous times with community leaders to address their concerns, including two large meetings called by Parker. Those meetings better represent the city than remarks made in e-mails, he said.

“E-mails just have a way of capturing a thought at the moment, and I think I would simply say that the actions we took in terms of meeting with people and meeting with the community at large best speak to the overall attitude the city had,” Icken said. “And, obviously, in the end, the decision on whether that agreement was passed is one made by City Council and not by staff.”

Hey, Andy and Tim, I just sent an email to all of my effete neighbors saying that you’re a couple of jerks who are clearly too immature to be allowed to interact with the public. But don’t worry, that was just a thought captured at that moment. I’m sure it won’t affect your perception of the overall attitude we have about how the city handled this situation. Swamplot, Campos, and Nonsequiteuse have more.

What if they built it someplace else?

For better or worse, the argument against the Washington Heights Wal-Mart mostly boils down to the fact that it’s an inappropriate location for a suburban-style big-box store. There are also concerns about traffic, and about the nature of Wal-Mart, both in terms of its business practices and its 24/7 operations, all of which have helped generate the pushback from residents in the area. The argument for Wal-Mart, beyond the basic belief that developers should be mostly free to develop what they want where they want, is that the city and the immediate area would benefit economically from its presence, as a provider of jobs and of affordable merchandise. The vacant lot sitting there now isn’t doing anyone any good, and there are people nearby who would like to shop and work there. There are nuances and variations and whatnot to each argument, but that’s more or less what they come down to.

If you agree that these are the main points, then you might observe that the Yale/Koehler property isn’t the only vacant lot in this part of town. What if Ainbinder or some other developer had picked a different location for a Wal-Mart? I got to wondering about that. Here’s the result of that little thought experiment:

Empty lot #1: Sonoma/Bolsover

Of the places I have in mind, this is the hardest to imagine being proposed as a Wal-Mart site, never mind one actually being built there. None of the streets that surround it are capable of handling the kind of traffic a Wal-Mart generates. There are many large retailers nearby – high-end grocers Rice Epicurean at Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway, Kroger Signature and HEB on Buffalo Speedway between Bissonnet and Westpark; CVS stores on Kirby in the Rice Village and at 59, and on Greenbriar at Holcombe. The immediate area is relatively wealthy, so both the customer base and the pool of potential employees is smaller. They would likely be at least as hostile to the idea of a Wal-Mart as they were to the Sonoma project and to the Ashby highrise. Other than it being a vacant lot, I can’t think of a good reason why a Wal-Mart would ever be proposed there.

Empty lot #2: The Stables

Conversely, this seems like the best fit. With access from Main and Greenbriar, traffic would be much less of an issue. Lots of apartments nearby, in the mid- and lower-income ranges, so there should be a solid customer and employee base. Extra points for being close to the light rail line, making it easier for employees to get there via transit. It’s mostly surrounded by Medical Center structures (more potential customers), with the only adjoining neighborhood being north of Main Street, so there would likely be little political pushback. There are similar retailers nearby – the Fiesta at Old Spanish Trail and Kirby, the CVS at Main and Kirby, and the Target at Main just west of Kirby are all within walking distance – but Wal-Mart didn’t get where it is by shrinking from a little competition. Whatever traffic issues there are would annoy me – I’m mostly thinking of people turning left on Greenbriar as they pass Main heading south – but beyond that I can’t think of a strong reason against it. This location just makes sense.

Empty lot #3: Allen House/Regent Square

Possibly the largest lot on my list, though it’s split by West Dallas, so that would present some challenges. Mostly good access from Dallas and Dunlavy, plus eastbound on Allen Parkway; entering from or exiting to the west on Allen Parkway would almost certainly require adding a traffic light, which is of course an abomination. There’s some nearby retail – a Kroger Signature at Gray and Woodhead, the future Whole Foods at Dallas and Waugh, just across the street from a CVS – but not that much. There’s a fair amount of low-income housing in the immediate area, and I’d bet The Center would be interested in possible employment opportunities for the people they serve. On the other hand, this location is also right next door to River Oaks, and they might not be too hot to have a Wal-Mart right there.

Empty lot #4: Robinson Warehouse

The only lot among the four that wasn’t originally intended to be some kind of high rise/mixed use development. About a half mile away from Empty Lot #3, so all of the same things apply to it, though it’s farther from River Oaks and closer to many apartments and lower income housing east of Montrose/Studemont. Easier access, from Dallas, Montrose, and the existing intersection/traffic light at Montrose and Allen Parkway, but possibly the largest impact on traffic, as both Montrose and Dallas get mighty busy at rush hour.

So there you have it. Obviously, none of these sites were bought (and none of the then-existing structures demolished) with the idea of putting up a big-box store. But with all of them being fallow for three years or more, possibly much more as things stand, who knows what might happen. The question is, whatever your opinion may be of the Washington Heights Wal-Mart proposal or the now-approved 380 agreement, what would your reaction be if that same project were to be suddenly relocated to one of these places? Discuss in the comments.

Council approves the Wal-Mart 380 agreement

No surprise.

Over strong neighborhood objections, City Council this morning passed a package of economic development incentives worth more than $6 million for the developer of a future Walmart store near the Heights.

City Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck offered two amendments to the agreement with Ainbinder Co., strictly limiting the potential taxpayer reimbursements to the company to $6,050,000 for public improvements that include landscaping, a bike trail, and widening, repaving and improving drainage on many of the streets that will surround the Walmart.

Four Council members – Noriega, Jones, Rodriguez, and Gonzalez – voted against the 380, while everyone voted for Clutterbuck’s sensible amendments. Given that Ed Gonzalez represents the district the Wal-Mart is in, I’m a bit surprised that there weren’t more No votes, but the Mayor’s influence is always strong in these matters.

More from CultureMap:

Mayor Annise Parker said that the city is in separate negotiations with Walmart to try to establish an operating agreement that would address additional community concerns not covered by the 380.

“We are going to continue to negotiate with Walmart,” Parker said in a post-Council Meeting press conference. “It’s not the end of the process; it’s the end of the 380 agreement.”

Negotiations between the Walmart developers and the city will continue over lighting, access and security. Parker said it should take 60 days to conclude those negotiations.

“We want to set a standard with Walmart about what we expect,” she said. Still, Parker admitted, “We don’t have any leverage, we don’t have an ordinance … These are voluntary things we’re negotiating with someone who wants to be a good corporate citizen.”

Here’s the memo the Mayor wrote regarding the 380 and the separate negotiations with Wal-Mart, and here’s the attachment referenced in the memo. Some of these things I know are things Wal-Mart already does elsewhere, but the ones that are specific to drainage and “tree islands” are both welcome and were requested by RUDH. I think if you can work in an agreement for the store to not have 24-hour operating hours and some more pedestrian and bike-friendly pieces, you may have the basis for something most people can live with. I still think it’s the wrong location for a Wal-Mart, and I’m certainly not the only person to think that.

In terms of vision, Washington Heights shopping center remains regrettably lacking in ideas. It is a suburban box and strip clad in slightly better materials than the typical Walmart, which seem to be the building’s only acknowledgment that it occupies a significant site. The disconnection of the architecture from its context comes through strongly in the developer’s renderings, which seem to portray a project in the middle of the Katy Prairie, rather than Houston’s inner-loop. The site plan reveals a tolerance for waste that serves as a painful reminder as to how little land close to the center of the city is valued.

[…]

Ultimately, Washington Heights is suburban-style development on an urban site, which over the long term will be another dysfunctional patch in the urban fabric of Houston. Is it better than an abandoned steel fabrication site? Probably. Does it improve Houston in any way beyond expanding the tax base, providing a few more jobs and additional (arguably redundant) retail? Probably not. Could this development have been planned in such a way as to yield a much more progressive product—one that Houstonians could feel good about contributing their tax dollars to? Absolutely.

I clearly haven’t spent enough time looking at the site renderings, because my reaction to the one in that Offcite post was to guffaw. Go ahead, try to guess where I-10 is in that design, never mind Yale Street.

I think with the points the Mayor has outlined, especially if there is continued feedback from RUDH and Super Neighborhood 22 and other stakeholders, the potential is there for it to be a lot less wrong. The main concern here is that I don’t know what actual leverage the city has with Wal-Mart. They’re not party to the 380 agreement, and it’s not clear to me that you can get anything from them other than their word of honor that they’ll do their best to try to accommodate, for what that’s worth. I should also note that RUDH is not happy with the vote on the 380 agreement, which they thought was “rushed” and which “[put] the developer’s interests above those of the public’s”. They plan to remain engaged, though, so maybe that will help put some pressure on Wal-Mart to agree to what is now being asked of them. It may not be that much, but it’s what we’ve got. Hair Balls has more.

RUDH recommendations to the city

Whether you think the Stop Heights Wal-Mart effort is a righteous cause or the annoying whine of a bunch of fancypants elitists, I recommend you go check out this post to read the recommendations made by Responsible Urban Development for Houston to the city for how they would like to see the site get developed. Here, from there overall recommendations, are their specific goals:

• A more groundbreaking, innovative site design, which is original and productive and does not set a dangerous policy precedent with regard to “very ordinary” private developments within the City of Houston.
• A significantly better utilization of the site, and thus, a correction of the current potential major financial opportunity loss and neutral or negative Economic Impact.
• A development plan which addresses the concerns of area residents, home owners and local business owners.
• A revised 380 agreement which meets the requests of the public and provides a responsible compromise in order to promote achieving goals for all parties.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. If you read through it all carefully, you might even conclude that it’s quite possible to build a Wal-Mart as the anchor to this development and still meet these goals. That would require Ainbinder and Wal-Mart to think a little differently, but I don’t see anything wrong with that.

A Chron story about these recommendations, which were presented to the city on Wednesday, is here. Nick Urbano describes the meeting they had with Mayor Parker, Andy Icken, Council Member Gonzalez, and Mayor Parker’s deputy chief of staff Adam Harris. It sounds like things went pretty well for them, but we won’t really know until the next Council meeting. On a related note, Urbano, who lives right there on Koehler Street, responds to Lisa Falkenberg, and Andrew Burleson responds to a troll. Enjoy!

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.

Falkenberg’s Wal-Mart strawman

Where to even begin with this bizarre Lisa Falkenberg column?

I’ll probably get banned from my favorite Heights coffee house for saying so, and it’s not that I’m a fan of Walmart. Some of their business practices led me years ago to avoid shopping there if I can avoid it. I’m fortunate enough to have that luxury.

But the campaign to stop developers from building the Walmart-anchored shopping center at Koehler and Yale seems more out of touch the louder it gets.

We keep hearing from the folks waving the “Stop Heights Wal-Mart!” signs that the development doesn’t jibe with the Heights vibe. I’m not entirely sure what this means anyway in the context of a our zoning-free, free-market-free-for-all crazy quilt of an urban landscape.

But I’m almost certain that some of the other structures nearby — that looker of a climate-controlled self storage facility, for instance — don’t meet the definition, either. And the site in its current state certainly doesn’t: it’s an overgrown lot enclosed in a razor wire-rimmed fence sprouting with a fringe of runaway weeds.

Then there’s the fact that the site isn’t even in the Heights. It’s the West End, or what’s become the Washington Corridor, or Super Neighborhood 22, if you will, but not the Heights. We’re not talking about tree-lined streets of reborn bungalows and mom-and-pops. The area has been industrial for decades, at least according to long-timers like Sarah Hunt at San Jacinto Stone, across the street from the site.

She supports the Walmart, too, by the way. Finally, she says, someone to mow the grass regularly, in addition to all the other improvements developer Ainbinder Co. is proposing: a bike and pedestrian trial, widening and repaving streets, improving drainage, among others.

The refrains from the anti-Walmart folks seem to center around traffic, and trucks and crime and light pollution and China. And I’m sure there are some valid points in there somewhere, although I know the Target on Shearn Street has been known to draw a few cars, emit a little light and sell one or two products from China. Yet, a quick check of the Chronicle archives revealed hardly a blip of opposition when it was built several years ago.

I’ll stipulate that calling this area part of “the Heights” is silly. I’ve been saying that from the beginning. I’ll also agree that whatever ultimately gets developed on this site will have little to no actual impact on what we all agree really is “the Heights”. But look, if you’re going to call out “the Heights” for their hysteria over something that is not in fact in their back yard, you might also note that the developer has christened this location Washington Heights – they like that name so much they registered the domain – so it’s not just the protesters who want you to associate this with that part of town. If “Heights” is going to be a brand as much as it is a neighborhood, then you ought to expect the owners of that brand to be a little protective of it.

Falkenberg talks of the jobs a Wal-Mart would bring, and how much nicer it will be than the vacant, overgrown lot that sits there now. While we can debate about how much economic benefit the city might derive from a Wal-Mart, I will certainly agree that a Wal-Mart would provide a lot more jobs than the vacant lot currently does. If the only choices in this debate were between building a Wal-Mart and leaving the vacant lot as it is, I’d have to concede the economic argument in favor of the Wal-Mart. But, see, the Wal-Mart opponents aren’t advocating for the vacant lot. They want something other than a Wal-Mart, something that they think will be a better fit for the dense urban area immediately around it than a big box store with oceans of parking spaces. This is why the non-profit they’ve set up to raise money for their fight is called Responsible Urban Development for Houston, and not Snooty Heights Residents For The Preservation Of Unmowed Vacant Lots or something like that. It’s why the Stop Heights Wal-Mart group, which is one of the projects that RUDH is supporting, is now soliciting input about what development there should look like. It’s easy to argue that a Wal-Mart would be better than a vacant lot. It’s a lot harder to make the case that a Wal-Mart would be better than anything else that might reasonably and rationally be built there. When Falkenberg wants to make that argument, I’ll be happy to hear her out.

Oh, and let’s not forget the two other Wal-Marts that will be built within a five-mile radius of the Washington Heights location, one at I-10 and Silber and the other at I-45 and Crosstimbers. We will soon be awash in new Wal-Mart locations, not that Falkenberg bothered to mention that. Note that nobody is objecting to either of those locations, either. Perhaps the fact that they’re much more suitable for big box development has something to do with that.

Finally, Falkenberg brings up the comparison to the Target on Sawyer Street, and wonders why no one got their panties in a wad over that. Let me make three points about this:

1. First, as I said before, the two areas really aren’t comparable. The Wal-Mart site is surrounded by residences and residential streets. There was almost none of that for the Target. The residential lofts that are there now were built after the Target was completed. (Those lofts are called “Sawyer Heights”, by the way. See what I mean about branding?) As such, there was almost no one who was directly affected by the construction, so there was little hue and cry about it. In addition, the main access road to the Target, Sawyer Street, was lightly used as a route for passengers vehicles. A few people used it as a cut-through to downtown, but it was and it remains generally unattractive for that because 1) it’s only one lane each way once you get past the Target; 2) there are two active at-grade freight rail tracks that often block your way, and 3) the main vehicular traffic otherwise has always been 18-wheelers, as befitting the industrial area this is in, and if you don’t get stuck waiting for a train you might get stuck behind a semi backing into or pulling out of a loading dock. Yale Street, on the other hand, is already a busy thoroughfare, and unlike Sawyer the Wal-Mart location would also be dependent on smaller residential streets like Koehler and Bonner for access. Finally, as my wife reminds me, the Sawyer developer held open meetings about their proposed development early on without being prodded, and was a lot more receptive to feedback about things like what other retailers were desirable for the site. Nobody knew there was a Wal-Mart coming until it was reported in the Chronicle, and Ainbinder hasn’t exactly been a model of public engagement.

2. Falkenberg never once mentions the 380 agreement, which Council will take up (and surely tag) today. If approved, which I expect it to be, this will provide public reimbursement to developer Ainbinder for various agreed-upon infrastructure improvements. Perhaps if Falkenberg had spent a few minutes perusing the Stop Heights Wal-Mart Facebook page, she might have realized that it’s the idea of city tax dollars going into Ainbinder’s pockets for this that really has people pissed off. (A link to her column has been posted on that page, and several people have commented saying they sent her email pointing that out, so hopefully by now she is aware of this.) I’m one of those people who believes that Ainbinder and Wal-Mart cannot be stopped and that the best possible outcome is to wring as much out of them via the 380 as possible, but I certainly understand the anger over this, and for Falkenberg to not even mention it in her column borders on malpractice. This is another crucial difference between the Wal-Mart and the Target, which as far as I know – I’ve yet to see anyone report on it – was built without any kind of city incentives. That Sunday Chron story about Mayor Parker’s aggressive use of 380s certainly suggests that Target’s developers got no such deal. For sure, they did the absolute minimum in terms of infrastructure there, which is what Ainbinder has been threatening to do if we don’t fork over the cash. Again, I don’t oppose the concept of dangling a carrot like a 380 in front of a developer for something like this, but Ainbinder’s publicly expressed attitude, which can be summed up as “We’re going to build this thing you don’t like anyway, so give us everything we’re demanding or we’ll build something you’ll really hate”, almost makes one nostalgic for Weingarten Realty. Compare Ainbinder’s hands-out approach to that of HEB, the runner-up in the bidding process, which has expressed a willingness to spend its own money to make a proposed new development more agreeable to the neighbors, and the picture is complete.

3. I’ve already touched on this, but it bears repeating: What’s being opposed here is not development of that vacant lot, but a specific kind of development, one that opponents fear will not fit in with the surrounding neighborhood. The Super Neighborhood 22 folks have a vision and a plan for their neighborhood. How will a Wal-Mart at that location affect their vision? (I should note that as of this publication, SN22 has not taken an official stance on the Washington Heights development, and that I do not in any way speak for them.) As Andrew Burleson has shown, putting suburban-style big box development next to walkable urban development negatively affects the latter. Again, this wasn’t an issue at the Target site because it doesn’t abut any neighborhoods. Maybe in the future, when the old industrial stuff is cleared out and residential development moves (more) in, so that “Sawyer Heights” becomes connected to the Old Sixth Ward, we’ll regret the missed opportunity that the Target development represents, but who knows when or if that may happen. Washington Heights is happening now, and it’s in conflict with what many residents want for that area. In theory, the 380 agreement could be used to mitigate most or all of these concerns, but as it stands now it appears to do very little of that, which just adds to the frustration and resentment about it.

All right, I think I’ve run out of steam. The funny thing is, I do agree with Falkenberg that “the Heights” is playing an outsized role in this debate, and that we ought to be paying closer attention to what the folks who actually live near this development think about it. (Such as, you know, Nick Urbano.) I agree there’s an element of class in all of this – it’s not at all hard for me to imagine a Costco being treated much more deferentially, for instance; of course, it’s also not hard for me to imagine a Costco being much more sensitive to the community. I agree that this is an opportunity for the city to get some much-needed infrastructure improvements done, though to shoehorn in a point I couldn’t quite get to above, it sure seems like there’s plenty of room for them to have gotten more out of this. (See this, for example; I’ll have more on it later.) It would be nice if Falkenberg would agree to discuss the actual project at hand and not a bunch of irrelevancies. How about it, Lisa?

The 380 agreement

Here’s the proposed 380 agreement between the city and Ainbinder for the site now known as “Washington Heights”. It’s all fairly dense legalese, and I confess my eyes glazed over while reading it. If there’s something in here that’s unexpected or unusual, I’ll have to leave it to someone with greater fortitude than I have to find it.

On a related note, the Sunday Chron has a story about the proliferation of 380 agreements under the Parker administration.

Unlike her predecessor, Mayor Annise Parker has taken an aggressive approach to creating incentives for various kinds of business expansion.

Parker defends her administration’s approach to creating such incentives, saying it gives the city powerful leverage to control development in the nation’s largest metropolis without zoning.

“We have very few tools that bring a developer in and allow us to work on the front end on projects,” she said. “We’re always playing catch-up.”

For at least two of the projects, however, critics have abounded, especially in neighborhoods. Many question why a high-end home developer or a developer paving the way for a corporation with the resources and global power of Wal-Mart Stores would ever need help from the taxpayer, especially as the city continues to face great uncertainty amid a dour economic climate.

Jonathan C.C. Day, a lawyer who lives and works near the Walmart site, questioned whether the $6 million in infrastructure improvements the city will pay for in the development deal will pay for anything the community really needs.

“What are we getting for $6 million?” he asked. “At the end of the day, I think people recognize that Walmart can build a store there if they want. But how easy are we going to make it for people and trucks and traffic to get to their site?”

Mr. Day is the only critic named and quoted in the story – the other projects for which 380s have been used or contemplated are barely mentioned – so other than the Stop Heights Wal-Mart folks, it’s hard to say from whom Mayor Parker is defending her administration’s use of these things. It’s also hard to say how much of the pushback is specific to the fact that these incentives will be used to build something for which there is so much intense dislike, and how much is criticism of the concept of a 380 agreement as opposed to a TIRZ or some other development goodie.

The Chron also tells us that not everybody hates the idea of that Wal-Mart.

“On my block I have a lot of blue-collar workers,” [Patricia] Wunderlich said. “They’re very hard-working folks. Some of them would like the opportunity to have a second job at Wal-Mart.”

Wunderlich said she is sympathetic to the concerns of residents who live next door to the planned 24-acre retail development at Yale and Koehler streets, but said a Wal-Mart would benefit many in the Heights area. Others in the area share that view.

“I don’t think it’s the majority that are complaining about it,” said Sixth Ward resident Chris Greene. “I just think they’re the noisiest.”

Opponents of the project, Greene said, are basing their concerns on negative stereotypes of Wal-Mart, noting that there was little opposition when a Target was built at 2580 Shearn.

“If it’s going to be developed anyway, then I think that Wal-Mart is a good store to go in,” Greene said. “It’s going to provide a lot of jobs for people.”

Absent any detailed polling information, it’s hard to say for sure how supporters really stack up against opponents. But there is a reason why it’s the squeaky wheels that tend to get the grease. If you want people to believe that there are more supporters out there, you might consider getting some of them to show up on Facebook so they won’t be outnumbered three hundred to one by opponents. I’m just saying.

As for the comparison to Target, it’s really apples and oranges. The Wal-Mart site is surrounded on all four sides by residences, and the street that will be most used to get to it is already heavily trafficked. The Target site is bounded by I-10 on one side, which separates it from the closest neighborhood, and has almost no residences near it; the Sawyer Heights building was constructed after Target opened. And even with all that, there were and are people who didn’t want a suburban-style big box store in that urban area. The opposition was much less intense and much more muted because almost no one lived right next door to it. It’s as simple as that.

Anyway, the 380 agreement for this development is on the Council agenda for tomorrow, though it’s sure to be tagged for a week. And the anti-Wal-Mart forces haven’t given up.

The city has drafted a 13-page agreement now on paper between the city of Houston and those who want to develop the Washington Heights project. It spells out how, if approved, the city would use more than $6 million in economic development funds to reimburse the developer, Ainbinder Heights, for infrastructure improvements around the site at Yale and Koehler streets.

“Do that on your own dollar,” said Nicholas Urbano with Responsible Urban Development for Houston. “Don’t take the public money to do it.”

Even though those improvements could mean wider streets and sidewalks, upgraded landscaping, and a limestone walking path on Heights Boulevard, opponents say there are still significant issues of concern. Wal-Mart, they say, has historically not proven to be a good neighbor elsewhere.

“It’s going to create a number of problems which have already been discussed in press; traffic, crime, drainage, just all kinds of disruption to the neighborhood’s life,” said Eileen Crowley Reed, who is opposed to the agreement.

We know that the reaction of Ainbinder to sentiments like these has been to figuratively twirl their mustache and say “Okay, go ahead and don’t give us any reimbursements for this project you don’t like, we’ll just go ahead and build something you won’t like even more!” To some extent I believe them – they’re not going to plant trees or fix up that railroad overpass if they don’t have to – but to some extent I don’t. I mean, if the streets are too narrow and too prone to flooding after construction if they do the barest minimum, that’ll ultimately affect Wal-Mart’s bottom line, and I feel confident that they won’t want that to happen. The question to me is whether there’s an outcome that’s acceptable to the Wal-Mart opponents other than capitulation, and if so whether there’s a path to it or not. I don’t know that I’d have the guts to play chicken to the bitter end.

Finally, Mayor Parker, CMs Gonzalez and Costello, and various others paid a visit to the author of the They Are Building A Wal-Mart On My Street blog to discuss the status of the project.

SN22 public forum and panel discussion about the Wal-Mart

From the inbox:

OPPORTUNITIES AND INCENTIVES FOR RETAIL DEVELOPMENT IN THE URBAN CORE: A PUBLIC FORUM AND PANEL DISCUSSION PLANNED IN LIGHT OF MAYOR PARKER’S INTENT TO PROVIDE TAX INCENTIVES FOR A SHOPPING CENTER ON YALE STREET AT KOEHLER (HEIGHTS WALMART)

(Houston) – On Monday evening, September 13, 2010, the Washington Avenue-Memorial Park Super Neighborhood (SN 22) will host a public forum and panel discussion titled: Opportunities and Incentives for Retail Development in the Urban Core. This event will be held in lieu of SN 22’s regular monthly meeting from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at the Council on Alcohol and Drugs – Houston, 303 Jackson Hill, Houston, Texas 77007.

Mayor Parker has recently hosted two public meetings to address the Ainbinder Company’s plans to develop a retail center on Yale Street at Koehler anchored by a 24-hour Walmart Supercenter, and the city’s intent to facilitate the development by providing the Ainbinder Company a “380 Agreement.” The “380 Agreement” would allow the city to use tax revenues generated by the development to reimburse the Ainbinder Company for improvements to public infrastructure. The first public meeting was held on August 25th, and the second public meeting was held on September 1st. Mayor Parker expects to bring the proposed “380 Agreement” to City Council for a vote next week.

The City of Houston has established a website with links to the August 25th presentations: http://www.houstontx.gov/koehler/index.html

Walmart’s plans for the Supercenter and the Ainbinder Company’s plans for infrastructure improvements are also available at a website established by Ainbinder Company: http://www.washingtonheightsdistrict.com.

Community opposition to these plans and to the city’s intent to enter a “380 Agreement” with Ainbinder Company is being organized by a recently created non-profit organization, Responsible Urban Development for Houston (RUD): http://www.stopheightswalmart.org.

The goal of the public forum and panel discussion is to clarify how such developments can be planned and directed to produce positive results for all, including the developers, the retailers, the surrounding communities, and the city. The confirmed participants are:

Moderator: Keiji Asakura, Asakura Robinson Company, LLC

Panelists: Andrew Burleson—Congress for New Urbanism; Robin Holzer—Citizens Transportation Coalition; David Robinson—Neartown/Montrose Super Neighborhood (SN 14); Kevin Shanley and Kinder Baumgardner—SWA Group; Reid Wilson—Wilson, Cribbs & Goren, PC

Recorder: Ellen Morrison, Better Houston

What: Public Forum and Panel Discussion: Opportunities and Incentives for Retail Development in the Urban Core
When: Monday, September 13, 2010 from 6:00-8:00 PM
Where: Council on Alcohol and Drugs – Houston, 303 Jackson Hill, Houston, Texas 77007

Where SN 22 is located: SN 22 extends from the western edge of downtown on the east to Loop 610 on the west. Buffalo and White Oak Bayous create the north and south boundaries of the SN 22 group of neighborhoods: Camp Logan, Cottage Grove, Crestwood/Glen Cove, First Ward, Magnolia Grove, Memorial-Heights, Rice Military, Sixth Ward, West End, and Woodcrest.

Be there if you can.

Another Wal-Mart meeting

There was another meeting about the proposed Wal-Mart on Wednesday, this time for residents only.

[I]n the second public meeting in eight days addressing concerns over the Walmart-Ainbinder Company development, the city’s proposed 380 Agreement with the developers took center stage.

The 380 Agreement is a statewide compensation program, which would reimburse the developer building the Walmart (Ainbinder) up to $6 million through city tax money for infrastructure such as widening roads and increasing drainage.

“I’m not going to defend it,” Parker said to a troubled crowd. “I don’t shop at Walmart.”

During the Q&A portion of the meeting residents kept harping on traffic. One Heights resident asked why City Council would even consider talking about the project before all of the research on traffic is done.

Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of public works at the City of Houston, said, “If we’re wrong, we’re wrong. We’ll go back and make some adjustments.”

Hair Balls adds an interesting angle.

[Deputy Director of Public Works Andy] Icken stressed that the agreement is with developer Ainbinder and has nothing to do with Walmart. The money that is reimbursed comes from property taxes generated after the development, whether or not Walmart is a tenant, is up and running for one year.

The reimbursement money would be paid out during a ten-year period.

The idea of using 380 agreements is fairly new and rarely implemented in Houston, and this Ainbinder project would be only the fifth to use one. The future HEB development at West Alabama and Dunlavy, for example, will not be built with a 380.

Icken said, however, that he would like to strike a separate deal specially for Walmart that would regulate things like which roads delivery trucks can use to enter and exit the property. Those details, of course, will have to be finalized in future contracts.

“I think it’s appropriate to have that agreement with Walmart,” Icken said. “Citizens here have made some good points.”

I like the sound of that. If you believe, as some do, that this is going to happen no matter what, then getting the best deal possible has to be the goal. I know some people don’t like to hear that, and I don’t blame them, but it surely can’t hurt to have an endgame strategy in mind. Be that as it may, the Chron has the counter argument to that:

They stand with Mayor Parker

Dropping the 380 agreement will not make Wal-Mart go away, she said; it would result in the Wal-Mart being built without community input and with fewer amenities around the site.

The negotiations, Parker said, have been used to secure improvements in the area in anticipation of new exit ramps off Interstate 10 onto Yale Street, as well as to address lighting in the Wal-Mart parking lot and traffic on Koehler Street, among other items.

“Those are the kinds of discussions that would be extremely helpful,” she said. “That’s why we’re here. You’re telling me, ‘We want Wal-Mart to go away.’ Tell me what to ask for.”

That argument didn’t persuade some residents, among them Nick Urbano of Responsible Urban Development for Houston, a nonprofit formed by residents opposed to the project.

“They’re bluffing,” Urbano said, referring to Ainbinder. “(The designs) they’ve thrown out there they’re going to build anyway, so why are we giving them money for it?”

Parker disagreed with that assessment.

“They’re not going to redo the bridge over White Oak Bayou. They’re not going to do the enhancements on Heights Boulevard,” she said. “Those are not part of the development. They have no requirement to do that. Why would they?”

I respect the “hell no” forces. I don’t think they’re going to prevail, however. I wonder what will happen when some of them start to conclude that.

Hair Balls also noted and made some fun of this study, done by Austin-based Civic Economics and commissioned by Responsible Urban Development for Houston, which disputes all of the justifications for giving incentives such as a 380 agreement for this development. I thought it was fascinating. One bit that stood out to me:

While a more complete market study would be necessary to making absolute statements in this regard, we cannot conclude that the Supercenter proposal would increase retail sales and sales tax revenues in Houston by any significant amount.

Wal-Mart projects $870,000 in sales taxes to be collected at the store, but it makes no attempt to quantify how much, if any, of that revenue would be new to the city rather than diverted from the abundance of competitors in the area. The same can be said of the 300 jobs projected. If sales are simply diverted from other stores in the market, a comparable number of jobs will be lost elsewhere. In fact, if those losses are incurred by locally-owned merchants, the net change in jobs in the city will likely be negative.

We therefore believe any development incentives provided would represent lost revenues, money the city would otherwise receive with or without this project.

This sounds an awful lot like what Andrew Zimbalist says about public financing for sports stadia – that they don’t really generate new economic activity, they just relocate it. I presume there are some conditions under which there is a net gain – the study suggests one such scenario, which is for a Wal-Mart to be located in “underserved and relatively poorer sections of the city”, such as “sites to the south and southeast of downtown”. Their maps make it clear that there’s a large area that is essentially free of large retailers and grocery stores. I don’t know that a 380 agreement, which isn’t often used in Houston, is the right tool for that, and just saying it doesn’t change the fact that Ainbinder has this land and intends to do something with it. The point they’re making is that we should be wary of claims about sales tax revenues, especially if we just consider revenues generated by Wal-Mart in a vacuum.

Of course, Ainbinder could be reimbursed by increased property values in the area, if sales taxes aren’t an appropriate measure. Some folks who currently live near the site are betting against that. Honestly, that’s what I’ll be watching for. The study didn’t discuss this at all, unfortunately.

Finally, there’s this:

Does this store address underserved markets?

It does not. Indeed, Maps 3 through 5 illustrate that west central Houston is well served by a wide variety of retailers.

As described above, the area already enjoys short drive times to discount stores, with two additional Wal-Mart proposals just outside Loop 610 to the north and west promising even greater convenience and competition in that sector. South central and southeast Houston may well be described as underserved by large-format discount stores, but this proposal does nothing to alleviate that condition.

I agree that while points south and east are truly underserved, though again that isn’t Ainbinder’s concern, these maps don’t really contradict the thesis that the area right around Yale and Washington has few options. Look at Map 5, for grocery stores. The nearest ones are the Kroger at 11th and Shepherd and the Fiesta at 14th and Studewood to the north, and the Randall’s at Westheimer and Shepherd and the Disco Kroger at Montrose and Hawthorne to the south. (For now, anyway. The eventual arrival of the Whole Foods on Waugh at West Dallas will change that, at least at the high end. You’re still out of luck if what you seek is toiletries and paper goods and low-to-moderate prices.) As someone who drives through this area every day, I sure wouldn’t claim any of them are five minutes from that site, certainly not in weekday traffic. It’s no mystery why many of the people who are opposing the Wal-Mart were especially disappointed to hear that HEB had lost out in the bidding. I’m one of those who’d have preferred an HEB to a Wal-Mart, and I think the point about relocating economic activity from other parts of the city rather than increasing economic activity overall is a strong one, but I suspect a lot of people will find it convenient to buy their groceries there.