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?

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25 Responses to Falkenberg’s Wal-Mart strawman

  1. chasman says:

    you outdid even your own good self on this one. thanks for spending the time that you did. the post was most helpful and enlightening. and, for what it’s worth, i think you’re right on target (absolutely no pun intended) at all points.

  2. Ron in Houston says:

    Talk about strawmen – calling her article “bizarre” because you disagree with it is more than a bit unfair.

    I’ve been following this because you have. I don’t have a dog in the fight. I live in Clear Lake. I agree pretty much agree with everything Falkenberg says. There is nothing “bizarre” about anything she says.

    I get what you’re saying about the Target and Walmart locations being apples and oranges. What I think Falkenberg is saying, (which is a point I made) is that there is a distinct “we hate Walmart” tone to the debate.

    Anyway, it has been interesting for this Clear Lake guy to watch so many folks get their noses greatly twisted out of joint.

  3. Ron, I guess I didn’t make myself clear enough. My issue with Falkenberg’s column is that she didn’t actually engage any of the arguments being made by the anti-Wal-Mart folks. She argued against stuff they’re not saying, and against stuff that has nothing to do with the debate. That’s a classic straw man.

  4. Anne Baumgardner says:

    An excellent, well-written piece. As someone who works closely with urban planners, landscape architects, architects and engineers – I can confidently state that those of in the Heights proper will indeed feel impacts.

    Traffic volumes of either 10K (National Transportation Inst. figures) or 22K (Walmart figures) will flow into the area on a daily basis. Walmart has confirmed that +30% will enter from the North via Yale and other parallel streets. This pushes existing commuter and residential traffic to Studewood (less likely Heights, due to the rail crossing). Studewood runs astride Woodland Heights. Children on trikes, families walking, cyclists – no bike lanes, no pedestrian crosswalks with lights — you can see the potential for safety issues. That said, it will be at a crawl during rush hour due to volumes, so it will likely be pollution and road rage during those peak times.

    Crime is also an issue. The City is on a hiring freeze – no police officers will be added to the roll. The Heights is currently divying itself up to hire constable programs that will patrol specific areas. Woodland Heights was reported (in the Chronicle) to have spiked in crime due to the presence of constables in surrounding neighborhoods and their lack of a constable. Using Walmart Dunvale as an example — a local WM that is in the top 10 nationally for crime in their parking lot — this store puts out 4 calls a day to police, for the parking lot alone. This is a cause and effect situation. The buildings are concrete tilt-up, no views in/out, which dimishes security because folks can’t see what’s going on, there is no active security in the parking lots, the parking lots are expansive and they operate 25 hours a day – which essentially takes them out of comparison with similar retailers (Kmart, Target, etc.) and puts them in with the likes of 7/11, which sees a lot of aggravated assaults and petty crimes. Walmart’s design and security policies make this a lucrative place for criminals to work. Which brings it back to the Heights, the West End and surrounding neighborhoods. If there are a finite amount of police – who will be responding to issues in our neighborhood — likely, an increase in issues due to the influx of traffic/people — when the police are responding to a significant increase in calls at the Walmart parking lot?

    And we haven’t even touched upon losing small retailers due to a behemoth coming in, driving competition down and increasing their prices after the walk-able businesses fall away. That’s the business model — and it works, but not to our community’s benefit.

    There may be a distinct “We have Walmart” tone to some folks’ opinions – and that’s legitimate. But what is also legitimate is that local residents want a sustainable development that will serve the community over the long term. What we don’t need is Falkenberg stereotyping us all as elitist los blancos. If she’d have done the minimum – scroll through the faces/names on the Facebook page, she’d see for herself — it’s a veritable stew of humanity. We really are just the regular ol’ people.

    And, finally, I thoroughly enjoyed this:
    “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.

    I’ll add you to my regular reading list!

  5. IHB2 says:

    “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”

    Costco was certainly “sensitive” to community concerns with its Richmond Ave/Weslayan location – discarding a desirable and walkable “mixed use” development plan in favor of the same old big box, massive parking lot with pad structures.

    Oh yeah, and demanding the rerouting of the University Line down Cummins rather than further west, forcing a pricy, complicated, and controversial elevation across 59 rather than give up left turn entry to its parking lot.

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  7. Anne Baumgardner says:

    Charles – I want to correct a citation I made in my response to your post. (Note to self: don’t respond to blogs with toddler in attack mode.)

    The 10K traffic volume figure is derived from a study by the Institute of Transportation Engineers Trip Generation Rates, 8th Edition and the Walmart 22K reference came from their recent CNBC documentary — here is the trailer where the reference is made at 2:14 http://www.cnbc.com/id/15840232?video=1237618469&play=1.

    Also, the proposed Walmart would operate 24 hours a day, not 25…though, it just might feel like that for those who live in the West End.

  8. jt says:

    I’m not following this very closely, so perhaps someone could answer what is probably a basic question that has been hashed to death already…

    What other developments are realistically on-tap for this site? I recall reading that HEB got outbid, but surely they’d have a big parking lot and similar traffic/crime effects. Is there anyone seriously considering a giant mixed-use walkable development here?

  9. Larry Cockrell says:

    Falkenberg said in her article that right now people have to drive more than 10 miles to the closest WalMart which is on 290. What she failed to mention is that there is a new Walmart under construction about 4 miles from the proposed Heights WalMart and another being built about the same distance away on the North Freeway. And there is already a WalMart at West Rd and the North Freeway. How many WalMarts do you need within 8 miles of each other???

  10. Debbie Russell says:

    Great piece, Charles. You hit upon all of my objections. I don’t feel that I am being classist…I grew up in a small town where the only shopping option became Walmart. I never really thought about it, but now that I look back a lot of the small businesses in this little town closed within a year or so of Walmart opening.

    Anne, thank you for a very informative comment.

  11. Worried says:

    This is a great write-up. Thanks for pointing out what should be SUPER obvious to anyone reading that terrible article. It basically left out everything and addressed nothing actually raised. I also really wish council would consider Burleson’s points – they are extrememly thoughtful and valid and should be explored by the city if they were to move forward responsibly. We could be missing out on a lot of value for that area.

  12. Bob Derr says:

    Although people have made a lot of fuss about a “Heights” Walmart, make no mistake… Walmart is targeting many other inner-loop areas as well. We’ll see how other neighborhoods like what Walmart will be bringing to their own backyards!

  13. Pam Kalinec says:

    What no one has memtioned is that the WalMart will be open 24/7. That’s what most object to. Target closes at 10:00 pm.

  14. will says:

    You’ve gotta be kidding me with the Target comparison. You actually think that the same snooty “Heights” and near Heights residents wouldn’t be complaining if the Wal Mart were being built where the Target is now?

    If this was really about traffic and crime, why aren’t they crying to shut down the bars on Washington?

  15. Well, Will, if they came in with the same “gimme money or we’ll build something really crummy” attitude, then yes I’m sure people would be upset. Wouldn’t you be?

    Oh, and last I checked, in most cases where there’s been conflict between bar owners on Washington and homeowners, the bars were there first. If there had always been a Wal-Mart at this site, then sure, complaining about it after moving next door to it would be silly. But that’s not the case. Thanks for playing.

    JT – The only other possibility I am aware of was an HEB. As noted in this link, HEB has been quite proactive about responding to neighborhood concerns, which is most definitely not the case here. They’re also not seeking public funds for infrastructure improvements.

  16. Stefanie Silvano says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this piece. Despite what the members of the Lisa ‘Falkeneers’ Club of this world have been saying, THIS is the piece that makes sense.

  17. Matt Zeis says:

    Kuff, how is it that the Chron consistently skirts the central issues with all their available resources, but you hit the nail on the head. This article is truly a great piece of journalism. Outstanding work!

  18. will says:

    No, the bars weren’t there first. Well, it depends, but they are a relatively recent development.

    A lot of them are the product of the last few years. There might be isolated complaints, but I don’t see a “Stop the Douchification of West End” page on facebook.

    Ainbinder hasn’t said that the aesthetic improvements are completely contingent on the 380. What the Mayor herself has said was that the 380 is essential to having any leverage over the development.

    This isn’t about their “give me money” attitude. This isn’t “stop the ‘Heights’ 380 agreement.” This is about singling out a single vendor and a few dozen people from areas that have nothing to do with the Heights trying to impose personal taste.

    The words “Wal” and “Mart” naturally bring forward these types of people, whether it was going up at Koehler or Sawyer.

    Good writing, though. I do like reading both sides of the debate.

  19. Aurelia Askew says:

    An excellent article. Thank you for such a well researched and balanced analysis of an issue that is affecting so many of us.

  20. Jules says:

    This is from the 380 Agreement:

    A preliminary list of the Improvements is set forth in Exhibit “C”, which
    may be modified by the Developer at any time to modify, add, or remove

    Sounds like Ainbinder can add or subtract anything they want at any time.

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  23. Don says:

    I have been following all of this for several weeks. I even attended the meeting at GRB to see exactly what all the excitement was about. I was amazed to see people that had such hate in their tone when referring to Wal-Mart as if it had done something personal to them. What did the company do to any of you to make you opposed not to development or even big box but Wal-Mart? I live in an old bungalow and love the character and charm of the Heights but I am also realistic. The huge old two story that was on the west side of Heights boulevard and 14th I believe with the upstairs screened in sleeping porch, went down in two days and the home that replaced it does not have half the character of the original. I am amazed as I watch one historic home after another fall to developers and two or more go up in their place. How is that development any different and why is no one protesting it in the same manner?
    The truth is that the Heights/Montrose area has a large population that will benefit from a Wal-Mart being so close. Ever notice the number of people that rely on public transportation or even bikes, live in smaller older apartments or homes and are on fixed incomes that can benefit from having this store close to them? Do you know what its like to take the bus to even the future locations and how many times you have to change back and forth to get there?
    As for crime, I have lived here since 1997 and I am sorry to say that we already have that here in our neighborhood. In my first house, they stole my garden statuary from within my fence, here in my second home, I have had my lawnmower and bikes stolen on separate occasions overnight from my garage and both times I was home. This past winter, I accidentally left my laptop in my car in a case on the front floor when I came home late at night and the next morning walked out to see my window shattered and it was gone. My car was not parked on the street but in my driveway. I occasionally see graffiti sprayed on fences and buildings here in the area and did we not have an arsonist last year as well that no one could seem to catch?
    As for shutting down the Mom and Pop stores? Its funny that Yale Pharmacy is still open even though CVS built a new location and now Walgreen’s is following suit right across from each other. What about the empty buildings on 20th and North Main and at 11th and studewood to name a few that certainly do not show well and have been empty for a while? On Yale there are vacant lots and buildings that look terrible and where is the protest for those property owners? There are few competitors in the Heights that will compete with Wal-Mart except for the other chains already located here and what is wrong with competition amongst them if we all benefit from the lower prices?
    Its easy to target the company as evil, its the largest company in the world and when your number one, everyone else is after your spot. Many people only focus on the negatives and refuse to be objective when change does happen. I will throw out a few ideas that do or will affect everyone of us. $4 dollar generic prescriptions, they started it and others have followed suit saving millions upon millions annually for all of us. When others talk about sustainability, Wal-Mart has been praised as the industry leader for example with their 0 waste initiative, including reducing the amount of product/packaging that goes into many household products we buy, changing out lighting in the stores to high efficiency and LED, using skylights and recycling plastic, metal and paper from within the stores. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars and merchandise donated to the schools, community groups and charities that we live in. Look and see how much local Wal-Mart associates and customers raised for Herman Hospital’s Children’s Miracle Network over the last two decades.
    When Katrina hit the gulf coast, who was praised for beating the government to New Orleans and other hard hit areas handing out food, water and other supplies to the public and opening small store formats in tents on their parking lots to meet the needs of the public? When Rita and Ike hit here locally, people were lined up at the doors waiting for stores to reopen. Did you know when 09/11 occurred that Wal-Mart also sent truck after truck to ground 0 to supply volunteers and emergency personnel with basic needs?
    Finally as for “dead end jobs,” ask the management teams where did they start in the company and see what the majority will tell you? The great news is that today each of us still have a choice of where to spend our money, do we have the right to tell others where they can spend theirs?

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  25. Robert Nagle says:

    I think you have misread the piece.

    Falkenberg is reporting on how some lower income people are not as irate about Walmart moving in as the vocal group of people protesting it. I think she is right that many lower income adults perceive Walmart as offering cheaper prices and having it in their neighborhood would be a convenience. She is probably right that low-skilled workers look at Walmart as a source of job opportunities.

    I am not a fan of Walmart (I rarely shop there). And I’ve noticed that it forces neighborhood supermarkets to cater to high end customers (so as not to go head-to-head with Walmart). In Alief where I live there’s a Walmart on Kirkwood and Westheimer, an HEB across the street and a giant black hole of affordable supermarkets within a 5-10 square mile radius. (I think there is a connection). The Walmart jobs are low-paying. But they are jobs.

    I think if you polled a group of nearby Heights residents with household incomes between 30,000 and 40,000, a large number would be delighted to have Walmart less than a mile away.

    For me, the best way you can refute Falkenberg’s argument is to show that lower and middle income families 1)are opposed to this construction or 2)they stand to lose economically from this construction or 3)their numbers are low in that Heights area.

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