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Andy Icken

A tax break where?

I don’t quite understand this.

The Houston City Council on Wednesday will consider giving up to $1 million in tax rebates to a Costco store that would be built outside city limits.

City officials say the proposed 151,600-square-foot warehouse and liquor store, in the 23600 block of Katy Freeway, will act as a catalyst for further development in the area around Interstate 10 and the Grand Parkway, and generate tax revenues the city otherwise would not collect.

[…]

The 14 acres Costco is under contract to buy is in Cimarron Municipal Utility District, with which the city cut a special-purpose annexation deal in 2003. Under the agreement, the city and utility district split the revenues of a 1-cent sales tax collected within the district’s boundaries. The city provides only animal control services there, and property owners pay no city property taxes.

[…]

Without the incentive, Chief Development Officer Andy Icken said, the company likely would have picked a tract it had under contract a mile west of the utility district, near Katy Mills Mall, where no revenue would have been generated for the city.

Icken said the city expects to collect $8 million in sales tax revenues from the store during the life of its annexation agreement, after rebates. The rebates will come from sales taxes generated by the store, and will be used to reimburse Costco for infrastructure work, mainly a road connecting it to the I-10 feeder road. The Cimarron district will pay for soil work to make the site suitable for construction.

Combined, Costco would be reimbursed about $2.5 million. Costco representatives declined to comment on the project or the rebates.

Councilwoman Melissa Noriega said she has concerns about the proposal, but has not decided how she will vote. “It seems like Costco is an awfully big, well-funded company to need that kind of infrastructure assistance,” she said. “Having said that, I know we want to incentivize the kind of retail they produce for the tax rolls.”

I get wanting to have the place built in an area that benefits the city. The usual arguments about this kind of subsidy relocating retail activity instead of increasing it is a bit less concerning when the location of the retail activity is the point. While it is unquestionably true that something is going to be built at this location, given the upcoming Grand Parkway expansion, I get wanting to make it happen sooner, since the city’s revenue sharing deal with the Cimarron MUD expires in 2033, and I get wanting to ensure that what does get built is of top quality. But yeah, I don’t really see why a large well-funded company like Costco needs the incentive. I’m sure they know which location is best for them, and I don’t know how much difference a relatively minor tax break will make to their bottom line. Council should be very skeptical of this.

How do you say “J’accuse!” in Korean?

Here we go again with the Korea kerfuffle.

CM Helena Brown

City Councilwoman Helena Brown on Tuesday accused Mayor Annise Parker of sabotaging her recent taxpayer-funded trip to Asia to promote direct air service between Seoul and Houston.

Brown joined Houston Airport Director Mario Diaz in visits to Beijing and Taipei early this month but did not meet with Korean airline officials. The itinerary originally included meetings in Seoul, but those were canceled shortly before the trip because Korean airline executives would not be available, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor.

According to a statement issued by Brown’s office on Tuesday, “the mayor did everything possible to undermine and sabotage the planned trip. Mayor Parker had no intention to cooperate in any capacity with CM Brown’s efforts to serve the constituents, as Mayor Parker continues to place political expediency above the responsibilities of public office to the great disservice of the Asian community and the Houston community as a whole.”

Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans responded, “Council Member Brown’s trip to Asia was handled the same as any other trip. The mayor’s assistant for international trade and development was assigned to help and provide support. The mayor even offered to help the council member in rescheduling the trip once Asiana Airlines sent notice it would be unable to accommodate a meeting.”

Emails obtained by the Chronicle indicate that members of the mayor’s administration provided Brown with an itinerary, assisted her with a visa application, selected and wrapped gifts to present to Asian dignitaries, made travel arrangements and prepared a briefing binder. The mayor also personally approved Brown’s travel authorization that estimated more than $16,000 for expenses.

Here’s the full statement from CM Brown. I have not seen any further response from the Mayor to this, nor have I seen any statement from others singled out by CM Brown, namely Andy Icken and Mario Diaz, so you’ll have to judge the allegations by your own evaluation of Brown’s veracity and reliability. (Turns out Mayor Parker is out of town, so well played on the timing.) One could attempt to be charitable to all involved and chalk this up as a series of miscommunications, but then one would have to note the irony of CM Brown, who dodges meetings with Mayor Parker and whose preferred means of expression is the written statement, complaining about other people not adequately communicating with her.

More details on the city’s crime lab plan

It’s starting to come into focus.

An independent crime lab could cost nearly 20 percent more than the current police-run operation, a high-level Parker administration official told a City Council committee this week.

Andy Icken, the mayor’s chief development officer, who is overseeing the project, said the annual budget of $22.8 million could rise to $27 million in its first years after its separation from the police department as it attempts to tackle a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits.

I don’t know about you, but I’d consider it money well spent to reduce that backlog of untested rape kits. As noted in the story, the crime lab isn’t being touted as a money-saver, but obviously the price tag is always an issue. I would think that as long as future costs are not projected to rise too much, this should not be insurmountable.

On Monday, Icken and [City Attorney David] Feldman unveiled what the board would look like. It would have five members: someone who understands the judicial system, someone with law enforcement experience, a criminal defense attorney, a forensics expert and someone with a finance background.

The Parker administration is looking for those people now and plans to come to the council in April with the local government corporation plan and five board nominees.

This structure would still allow the city to join forces with the county in their spiffy new building if the governance issue can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Since the county’s lab has excess capacity, if not an excess of cash, that might help reduce that rape kit backlog faster, which in turn might help keep the cost down. I have to believe the city and county will eventually work that out – it just makes too much sense not to. Stranger things have happened, though.

The Dynamo Stadium rebate plan

Well, this is interesting.

The city is poised to strike a 30-year deal giving back $3 million in projected sales tax to the Houston Dynamo as they prepare to construct their $60 million stadium.

City officials say the tax rebate always has been a part of the deal that kept the team from leaving Houston, one that will make the city and county owners of a new sports stadium for which they did not have to pay.

The rebate will amount to $3 million over 30 years, said Houston Chief Development Officer Andy Icken, a primary negotiator for the city on the deal.

“This was viewed as a trade-off to get this much public infusion for a stadium that, in the end, is getting donated to us,” Icken said. “We were never going to go into this unless there was a substantial private investment in the project.”

Icken said the deal mirrors sales tax rebates the city gave the Houston Texans when it negotiated over the future Reliant Stadium.

[…]

Icken denied that the rebate is a new element of the deal, pointing to a December memo he sent City Council members in which he said council would be asked to vote “to reimburse the team for a portion of sales and liquor taxes collected by the operations of the stadium.”

Councilman Mike Sullivan, who voted for the main elements of the deal struck last year between the city and Harris County, said he did not recall any discussion of such a rebate. “I think this evolved as negotiations have taken place with the city and the county, and we’re really just now seeing the changes,” he said.

First I’ve heard of it, too. It’s not really clear to me what this is about. It’s still the case that the Dynamo are spending the vast majority of the money to build the stadium, and it’s still the case that the deal is a good one overall, but the timing on this is lousy. The only thing I can say in its favor is that at least it came out before tomorrow’s Council vote.

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.

Design guide versus transit corridors ordinance

Not sure what to make of this just yet.

Fallout from the long-dormant Ashby high-rise development emerged Wednesday as a potential obstacle to the city’s effort to promote walkable, urban-style development along Metro’s planned light-rail lines.

Neighborhood opposition to the Ashby project, a planned 23-story mixed-use tower whose developers continue to await a permit almost two years after they first applied, inspired changes to an obscure city document known as the Infrastructure Design Manual. The changes include a review process intended to prevent high-density developments from worsening traffic congestion on surrounding streets.

City Council members and speakers at a public hearing Wednesday said certain provisions in the design manual conflict with the goals of the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance. Councilwomen Toni Lawrence and Pam Holm threatened to withhold support from the ordinance, seen by many as a vital first step in creating walkable urbanism in Houston, unless the conflict was resolved.

“Urban corridors and transit streets are getting caught in the trap they set for Ashby,” said Kendall Miller, president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a group seeking to limit new regulations on Houston’s real estate industry.

[…]

Chapter 15 was added to the design manual in the aftermath of the Ashby controversy, but it simply put into writing procedures that the city already followed, said Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering.

Icken said he will work with Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, to add language to the transit corridors ordinance clarifying that reduced automobile traffic is likely along corridors where people will be riding trains. That should reduce the need for any traffic mitigation, Icken said.

But Miller, of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said he remains concerned that Chapter 15 of the design manual gives Public Works personnel too much discretion to require developers to take costly steps to offset traffic impacts. Those costs and lack of predictability could discourage investment in transit corridors and elsewhere, Miller said.

Holm agreed.

“Many of these standards have been put in place to deal with a specific project,” she said, referring to the Ashby high-rise, “and it gives too much decision-making to one person as opposed to setting standards. It is in conflict with the goal of what we’re trying to do with this ordinance as a city.”

I’m not going to take Kendall Miller’s word for it – I think he’s more likely to be concern-trolling than anything else. I’d like to know what folks like Christof Spieler, Andrew Burleson, or David Crossley have to say about this. Having said that, the point that a bunch of us have made all along regarding the Ashby highrise is that the problem with it wasn’t traffic but scale – it just didn’t fit into the surrounding area. Until that is truly acknowledged and dealt with, there’s a real possibility of unintended consequences like this.