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.