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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.

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2 Comments

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    I do think the issue of whether these 380 agreements are good deals or not needs to be handled separately from the issue of this particular 380 agreement.

  2. JJMB says:

    Re your statement “The Wal-Mart site is surrounded on all four sides by residences.” Well, those residences already have a railroad track running through, warehouses, an iron works, abandonned houses, empty lots, etc. This ain’t some cute little neighborhood with bungaloes. It looks pretty blighted. I would love to see a Google map with dots showing where all the petition signers live. I bet very few live within 4 blocks…..