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HEB

Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Beer delivered to your home

Who needs groceries, am I right?

Favor, founded in Austin in 2013, prides itself in delivering almost anything in under an hour. But until now, beer and wine — long the No. 1 request from customers — was among the missing.

Favor finalized all the proper permits and licenses to deliver beer and wine in late 2017 or early 2018. But it was the partnership with H-E-B — and the grocery company’s wide selection — that made the delivery service possible, [Jag Bath, Favor CEO and H-E-B chief digital officer] said.

Favor will offer H-E-B’s entire beer and wine selection with no minimum order size. Because every H-E-B store is tailored to its neighborhood, the selection will vary by city. Houston-area selections will include such craft brands as Buffalo Bayou Brewing, No Label Brewing, Lone Pint Brewery and 8th Wonder Brewery, and wines from the Texas Hill Country.

This isn’t the first beer delivery service in Houston. HopDrop launched late last year to provide local craft and hard-to-find beers.

Oftentimes, it delivers brews that are available only on draft.

HopDrop also provides on-demand delivery in under an hour. Customers place an order online, and a driver is dispatched to a partner bar. That bar fills a 32-ounce can, called a crowler, with beer and gives it to the driver for home delivery. HopDrop has partnered with bars throughout the Houston area, from Spring to Katy, from downtown Houston to Webster, to ensure customers receive their orders in less than an hour.

The delivery fee is $5.99 plus the cost of beer. HopDrop also offers a monthly subscription service that waives the delivery fee and provides customers same-day orders from any partner bars throughout the greater Houston area. This allows a customer in Katy to get beer from a bar in Spring.

Its focus on beers typically unavailable in grocery stores will differentiate HopDrop from the new delivery service provided by Favor, co-owner Steven Macalello said. He isn’t worried about the competition. In fact, he thinks it’s good publicity for beer delivery overall.

I get the market for home delivery of groceries. Not used it myself, but I see why people do. This one’s a little less clear to me – are there really that many people who need an on-draft microbrew brought to their door? Maybe that’s just a failure of imagination on my part. I guess if you’re the grocery-delivery consumer anyway, or maybe if you’re just grocery-delivery-curious, being able to add a six-pack to the order sweetens the deal. Is this something you would use?

Chron overview of Heights dry referendum

For an issue that directly affects a few thousand people, this sure had gotten a lot of attention.

[Bill] Baldwin is part of the “Keep the Heights Dry” movement, a group of individuals urging residents who live in the dry part of the Heights to vote against the city of Houston proposition that would allow the legal sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption.

If the proposition passes on Nov. 8, retailers like convenience and grocery stores would be able to sell beer and wine in a part of the Heights that has been dry since 1904. The change would not affect restaurants, which are able to sell alcohol by forming private clubs that their customers can join by providing their driver’s licenses.

Baldwin’s group is going up against the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, a political action committee formed earlier this year to push the reversal of the dry law.

Largely at stake is the proposed development of a new H-E-B on a former Fiesta site at 2300 N. Shepherd.

H-E-B wants to buy the property but said it needs to be able to sell wine and beer in order for the store to be economically feasible.

“From a business proposition, if I spend $25 or $30 million building a store I also need to make sure it can earn a fair return,” said Scott McClelland, Houston division president for H-E-B.

The San Antonio-based grocer has put more than $60,000 into the coalition, according to finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Baldwin, who lives in the Heights but outside the dry area, said the election is not about being against H-E-B but preserving the character of the neighborhood.

His group has been urging residents of the dry area to consider the issue apart from H-E-B.

He said more service stations and convenience stores could diminish property values of the homes around them.

“This election is not about H-E-B, it’s about changing the fabric about my community,” Baldwin said.

Honestly, there’s nothing here that you couldn’t learn from reading the dueling op-eds or listening to the interviews that I did with Baldwin and Reilley. The story did remind me that there used to a a tiny HEB – it was called an “HEB Pantry store” back in the day – in the Heights that no one went to because it didn’t have much in it. This whole debate is a little nuts because people in the greater Heights area have been begging to get a real HEB like the one in Montrose in the neighborhood, and if it weren’t for this oddball quirk of history, the announcement that there would be an HEB built on the site of the old Fiesta would be greeted with handsprings and huzzahs. But because we’re held hostage to the way some people viewed the demon rum a century ago, we’re stuck with this silly debate. Everyone in America is ready for the Presidential race to be over, I’m ready for this referendum to be settled.

The dry debate

The Chron hosted a mini-debate about the vote to change the Heights dry ordinance on its Monday op-ed pages. Bill Baldwin represented the status quo, for keeping the Heights (the original Heights) dry.

With the stark reality of land use as it is today, our deed restrictions are patchy, and most properties on high-traffic streets here are not restricted at all. In a city with no zoning, other typical neighborhoods have deed restrictions where the Heights does not. Undoubtedly, the dry area has successfully kept large operators such as Walmart, Target, Sprouts, Kroger and a Whole Foods concept on the way all outside of our historic borders. Eliminate that barrier and you make way for future big-box retailers, gas stations and convenience stores, along with their parking demands and high traffic.

You don’t build a fence to keep out the good neighbors; it’s for the bad ones. In this scenario, we still consider H-E-B a good neighbor, but I am concerned about operators without the reputation of H-E-B.

We don’t know exactly what will happen if we change the dry area, but we do know this: All around the city there is concern about the changing character of neighborhoods. Like the rest of the city, the Heights is wrestling with these issues of development and identity. How do we responsibly progress, increase property values and keep a sense of identity intrinsically tied to the community? In the Heights, the dry area has in many non-obvious ways functioned toward those ends. Keeping the Heights dry means also keeping it local and residential.

Steve Reilley spoke for the pro-change faction, to amend the historic dry ordinance to allow beer and wine sales for off-premise consumption, i.e., retail sales.

We need to alter this regulation in order to welcome locally oriented businesses into the community. Rest assured, this is a grassroots effort, and is not driven by businesses wanting to sell alcohol. More than 1,700 Heights voters signed the petition requesting the measure be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. Our effort has been criticized because of H-E-B’s involvement. H-E-B didn’t sign the petition – we did. And the Texas Constitution gives us the right to have this election because we want to preserve our neighborhood, increase consumer options, raise property values and increase walkability, as Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, the chairwoman of the Houston City Council Quality of Life Committee, recently noted that the repeal of this regulation will do.

Some have suggested that permitting the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption will lead to the opening of convenience stores along Heights Boulevard, negatively affecting the Heights’ character. High property costs in the area would inhibit such use. In addition, much of Heights Boulevard and most of the affected area falls within the Houston Heights East and Houston Heights South Historic Districts, which prohibits existing covered structures from being torn down and replaced with nonconforming structures, such as convenience stores. Moreover, various properties along Heights Boulevard and other parts of The Heights are subject to deed restrictions that preclude commercial use.

Some opponents to the proposition have unfortunately engaged in “scare tactics” by suggesting unrealistic harm will fall upon our neighborhood if Heights-area stores are permitted to sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption. This election has nothing to do with liquor stores, bars, strip clubs or chain restaurants. It will have no impact on restaurants that operate as private clubs to serve alcoholic beverages to patrons. Residents will not be able to sell beer, wine or liquor out of their homes. This activity is already prohibited by numerous state laws, county regulations and city ordinances.

I did interviews with both gentlemen about this – here’s Baldwin and here’s Reilley. The latter was done in June after the petitions were submitted and before there was any organized opposition, so that interview was more informational, since there were still a lot of questions about what this effort was and what it meant. Baldwin doesn’t really say anything in his piece that he didn’t say in the interview he did with me, while Reilley’s article necessarily includes some rebuttals of pro-dry talking points. If you are in the affected area and somehow haven’t yet decided which way to go on this referendum, the two opinion pieces and interviews should tell you all you need to know.

I have no idea which side will win. I won’t be surprised by either result. There’s been a lot of recent discussion of it on the Heights Kids mailing list, with a fairly even split between the factions; the few recent threads I’ve seen on Nestdoor were all started by pro-dry people. I’ve seen more pro-dry yard signs than I have seen pro-amend signs, but I’d say half of those signs are in yards that are not in the affected area. (A good bit of the discussion I’ve seen in both places has been about who actually gets to vote on this issue.) I’m pretty sure there will continue to be a lot of chatter about this after the election, whichever way it goes.

Interview with Bill Baldwin of Keep Heights Dry

heightsdry1

As you know, there will be a referendum on the ballot for a very limited electorate this year, to alter the existing ordinance that enforces a dry zone in the historic Houston Heights to allow the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption – for retailers, not for restaurants and bars, in other words. This referendum, formally known as City of Houston Proposition 1, was placed on the ballot by a petition drive led by the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which in turn was backed by HEB, which has announced its intention to open a store in the old Fiesta location on North Shepherd at 24th if this referendum passes. I did an interview with Steve Reilley of the HHBC back in June when petitions were still being circulated to clarify some questions about this. At the time, I noted that I was unaware of any organized opposition to this effort.

Well, formal opposition to this effort does exist, and it’s called Keep The Heights Dry. I’ve seen a few of their yard signs around the neighborhood in recent weeks. Their argument as you can see on that Facebook page is one part preservationist and one part neighborhood protection, and last week they reached out to me to see about doing an interview. Bill Baldwin, who has a real estate office on Heights Blvd at 16th Street, is one of the leaders of this opposition effort and the person I spoke to about it. Here’s the conversation:

Interviews and Q&As from the primaries are on my 2016 Election page. I will eventually get around to updating it to include links to fall interviews.

HEB confirms interest in Heights location

As rumored.

Residents have seen and heard speculation and rumors for months, wondering what the fate would be regarding H-E-B’s potential Heights move. Well wait no more.

After the rumor mill ran wild following the No-Dry Vote petition spearheaded by H-E-B and the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition earlier this year, president of the company’s Houston region Scott McClelland confirmed to The Leader in an interview that the company plans to open its new location at the site of the old Fiesta in the Heights, should voters elect to make that area “wet” in November. The official site announcement took place at the old Fiesta location on 23rd Street and North Shepherd Thursday morning.

A permanent move into the Heights remains predicated on the No Dry Vote passing, and it appears H-E-B as well as the Coalition are confident in its future success, as evidenced by Thursday morning’s proceedings.

Advocates such as Heights resident, local attorney and chair of the coalition Steve Reilley told The Leader in September that opening an H-E-B within the Heights would provide a boon for the economy along with the diversity in shopping options.

“There are a lot of people who would like to have a big grocery store within walking distance because they don’t have transportation or would like to have a job they can walk to in the Heights,” he said.

McClelland’s recent inboxes seem to say as much.

“Over the last five years I’ve probably gotten more requests for a store in the Heights than anywhere else in Houston,” he said.

See here for all previous blogging on this topic. The former Fiesta site has been talked about as a potential HEB ever since the original store was sold and demolished. As noted, this is all predicated on the dry law revision being passed. KUHF addresses that.

In August, the City Council voted to place a referendum on the ballot to lift the ban on the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption.

Steve Reilley leads the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which collected more than 1,700 signatures on a petition to overturn the ban. He, together with city council members and representatives from the retail industry, kicked off the official campaign for a yes vote.

They’ll have to convince at least half of the estimated 10,500 voters who live here.

Considering there is no organized opposition, this sounds like an easy task but Reilley says they’re not taking it for granted.

“In Houston/Harris County, a November ballot in a presidential year is very, very, very long,” he says. “And so this one is literally going to be the last thing, the bottom of the ballot on that November ballot, so we have to get the word out.”

He says there’s also some misinformation about what the ordinance would do. It doesn’t repeal the original law that established the ban but merely allows for beer and wine to be sold in stores.

I don’t know about organized opposition, but I have seen one yard sign advocating a No vote, so someone is working against it. I make the referendum a favorite to pass, but it’s unusual enough – and this is a weird enough year – that I wouldn’t feel too confident about that. The Chron, Swamplot, and the Houston Business Journal have more.

An update on the effort to make the Heights less dry

In which we learn there is indeed some opposition to this effort.

beer

A petition favored by grocery giant H-E-B to partially lift a 104-year-old ban on beer and wine sales in a dry part of the Heights could be headed for a vote this fall.

The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which was formed to push the effort to allow sales for off-premise consumption, reported it gathered more than 1,700 signatures in 21 days. By law, the coalition had 60 days to collect a minimum of 1,511 signatures. The measure now is awaiting certification by the city secretary’s office.

H-E-B, which has expressed strong interest in establishing a store in the area, gave proponents a boost by working with Austin-based political consulting firm Texas Petition Strategies for the signature drive.

[…]

Opponents say the ban – put in place shortly before Prohibition – has kept the neighborhood family-friendly and helps guard against unwanted development. A change could alter future development, local resident and real estate agent Bill Baldwin warned.

“It opens the door for waves of other commercial development that undermines the character of this historic neighborhood, when the reality is we could simply drive one extra mile to get out of the dry area, get what we need, and still be able to enjoy the amenities and quality of life that I and my neighbors love,” Baldwin said in an email. “I myself am willing to go that extra mile.”

The Houston Heights Association has not taken a position on the ban, he added.

[…]

There is a Kroger in the dry area at West 20th and Yale. By contrast, the Kroger on North Shepherd at 11th Street is in a wet area. It recently opened an in-store bar that sells draft beer and wine. Kroger is not participating in the petition effort.

Baldwin said such nearby access makes repeal unnecessary. He said the movement comes from people with commercial interests in a change.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I personally find the argument espoused by Baldwin to be specious. Even if this effort could lead to liquor stores being opened in the Heights – which as we know the Beverage Coalition denies – it strikes me as unlikely that anything but a high-end place could afford the rent. I figure the amenities that people like about the neighborhood include things like walkability and good schools, and I rather doubt that an HEB would be seen as a negative. That will be a discussion for the campaign, assuming the City Secretary validates that there were enough signatures turned in. We should know that soon enough.

Interview with Steve Reilley

By now you are aware of the effort to alter the historic regulations that keep the part of town that was once the independent city of the Houston Heights dry. The dry designation, in the area you see in the embedded picture – see here if you’d like a more modern context – was part of the annexation agreement between the Houston Heights and Houston. It could only be overturned by an election. Well, that election appears to be slated for this November, as a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition says it has collected enough signatures from relevant residents to put this on the November ballot. The issue has already attracted a great deal of attention, and no small amount of misinformation, from residents and folks nearby, some who want to keep things as they are and some who can’t wait to have an HEB built nearby. To try to clarify things and get some answers to my own questions about the process, I sat down for an interview with Steve Reilley, who is heading the effort for the HHBC. Reilley is an attorney and a resident of the affected area, and he was a Democratic candidate for civil court judge in 2010. Here’s what we talked about:

As I said, there is definitely some opposition to this, as well as some enthusiastic support, but as yet I am not aware of an organized effort to oppose the ballot measure. When I do learn of such a group or organization, I will reach out to them for an interview as well. What are your thoughts on this?

A brief summary of the effort to make the Heights less dry

The Heights Life provides a fact sheet:

beer

  • The petition is backed by HEB, who hired a law firm to handle the drive. Some of the canvassers, who are paid and may or may not be your neighbors or Heights residents, may not know about HEB, only the firm that hired them. Either way, it’s all about HEB.
  • The petition itself does NOT actually change anything about the existing law. The petition puts the issue on the ballot to be voted on in November.
  • You can only sign the petition and participate in the subsequent vote if you live in the dry zone.
  • The petition/future vote are for *off premise sales of beer and wine only.* This means you can buy beer or wine at the store and take it elsewhere. You will not be able to drink at the store.
  • The petition and vote will NOT ALLOW hard liquor sales.
  • Restaurants and bars will still have to get a club license to serve on-premise beer/wine/alcohol in their establishment.

There’s more, so go read the rest. The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition now has a Facebook page if you’re into that sort of thing. Note that my embedded graphic is an inaccurate representation of what’s at issue here, but I don’t feel like finding something else. As The Heights Life notes, there are already plans for an HEB on Washington Avenue, which is outside the dry zone. A Heights-based HEB would surely be in the spot of the now-shuttered Fiesta on Shepherd, just inside the northern boundary of the zone. This only happens if the vote to alter the off-premise sales restriction passes.

As Campos notes, there’s been a lot of discussion on Heights Kids and Nextdoor about the petition effort and what it means, not all of it (in my opinion) very accurate. I’m sure that is what prompted this post by THL, to help clear things up. I’m going to do my part for that shortly, as I plan to interview Steve Reilley of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC; there are a bunch of process-related questions I’d like answered, among other things. The HHBC has reportedly collected a sufficient number of petition signatures, so assuming they are verified, some number of voters will have another item on which to vote this November. If an opposition group should form for this, I’ll do my best to interview a representative from that group as well. In the meantime, this is what we’ve got.

More on the effort to make the Heights less dry

From the Chron:

beer

With the intention of building a new store in the Heights, H-E-B said Wednesday that it has been working with a political consulting firm in Austin to help change a law precluding beer and wine sales in a dry part of the historic Houston neighborhood.

The grocer said it has contracted with Texas Petition Strategies to collect signatures needed to secure a place on the November ballot where residents can vote to make beer and wine sales – for off-premise consumption – legal.

The effort has led to a petition drive by a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which has been seeking some 1,500 signatures needed.

H-E-B spokeswoman Cyndy Garza Roberts said a location in the Heights has been identified, but the company is still in negotiations on the site and commenting on specific details would be premature.

“We definitely want to be in the Heights, but in order to do so we need to make sure we provide those customers with the same quality products that they’re able to find at our other stores,” she said.

[…]

The group has 60 days to gather the signatures from residents who live in the area formerly known as the City of Houston Heights. Once the signatures are gathered, they will be verified by the City Secretary with Houston City Council then calling the election for November, according to a news release.

The signatures are being collected by a door-to-door effort and they can also be signed at area establishments, including Coltivare and Revival Market, said Hatch. The coalition has secured more than half of the signatures needed.

See here for the background. The one thing I know for sure is that a lot of Heights residents have been hoping for an HEB to be built in the neighborhood. I’d recommend playing that angle up, both in the signature-gathering and the election itself. I’ll be interested to see what if any opposition arises to this as well. Given the November date, turnout won’t be an issue.

Making the Heights a little less dry

From Swamplot:

beer

A GROUP CALLED the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC is hoping to bring about a vote on allowing beer and wine sales in the technically dry section of the Houston Heights. The group published a notice on May 5th announcing an application to the city to start collecting the petition signaturesrequired to get the measure on a local option ballot.

[…]

The group’s immediate goal isn’t to do away with all alcohol restrictions, and the proposed ballot measure wouldn’t get rid of the current private-club workaround frequently employed by area bars and restaurants. But the proposal would lift existing barriers for stores trying to sell beer and wine to becarried away elsewhere — an issue that forced the recently closed Fiesta Mart at N. Shepherd and 24th St. to install its traditionally-in-the-parking-lot Beverage Mart a full 4 blocks away on the corner with 28th St. (across the northern boundary of the zone).

Here’s a map of the dry area, which hasn’t slowed the proliferation of places to dine and imbibe in the Heights. Many of them are east of Oxford, which puts them outside the zone. Others, like the Down House, do the “private club” dodge, while Torchy’s on 19th inherited a grandfathered license from a defunct icehouse. When I first read this story, I thought it would be about repealing the ban for eateries and drinkeries, but apparently not. The Press has since given some clarification about who and what is behind this.

The chair of the [Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC] is an attorney named Steve Reilley, a founding partner of the Thompson & Reilley law firm. He says that the main impetus for this action is that the group simply wants to have “a nice grocery store in the neighborhood.” He pointed out the recent closing of the Fiesta location in the area and says that retailers are unwilling to expand or move in owing to the inability to sell beer and wine. “They can’t make the money without the beer and wine sales. We hope we are able to bring these stores in if we are able to alter the statute,” he said. “We want the same nice stores you see in other parts of town and [to] have them be economically viable in The Heights.”

H-E-B is one of the grocery store chains that are eyeing building a store in The Heights, but nothing definitive has happened on that yet, according to Swamplot. We asked Reilley if H-E-B was one of the members of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. “I believe they have definitely expressed interest in it and they’re definitely going to support this,” he said. “It is my understanding that if it passes, they are going to very likely move into The Heights. To that degree, yes, they’re part of it, and I believe they will be part of it going forward.” We left a message for H-E-B’s director of public affairs in Houston to see if the grocery store chain has any comment, and will update this article if we receive a response.

Reilley said other grocery chains are part of the special interest group but said he wasn’t able to confirm that. He referred us to John Hatch of Texas Petition Strategies of Austin, a company that has been hired to oversee collecting signatures and, if the issue makes it onto the ballot, stumping for a passing vote. We left a phone message for Hatch but have not yet received a call back.

The press release says, “TPS has conducted over 300 petition efforts in 170 different Texas communities, with more than an 83% the efforts passing — including efforts in Brazoria County, Lumberton, Lubbock, Dallas and Fort Worth.”

I gather from recent activity on the Heights Kids message board that people have been out knocking on doors to gather petition signatures, with an aim of having something on the ballot this November. I also gather that some folks are not clear on the details of this issue – specifically, why part of the Heights is “dry”, what exactly that means, and why there needs to be an election to change it. That may add to their challenge. A this subsequent comment notes that there are some potentially tricky legal issues involved as well, meaning that however this shakes out someone may wind up suing over whatever the result is. Any lawyers in the crowd want to comment on that? In any event, we’ll keep an eye on this. I live outside the “dry” zone, so I (presumably) wouldn’t get to vote on this. If you’ve been asked to sign a petition, leave a comment and let us know. More here from Swamplot.

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.

Bag ban update

Having survived legislative meddling, bag bans are back on the agenda in Texas cities.

plastic-bag

Six months after Austin’s ban on most disposable plastic and paper bags took effect at checkout counters across the city, political fights are raging in Laredo and Dallas to follow suit.

In Dallas, the debate over a single-use bag ban (for both paper and plastic bags that don’t have a certain amount of recyclable material) has led to allegations of false information within the City Council and is likely to drag on for months in that body’s Quality of Life committee. Still, many consider the fact that it’s being debated at all to be progress; in 2008, an ordinance on bags was proposed and quickly tabled.

The political environment may have changed further, now that the Texas Retailers Association has decided to drop its lawsuit against the city of Austin’s bag ban. The association had alleged the ordinance violated Texas’ Health and Safety Code.

“It could have had a chilling effect,” Jeremy Brown, and environmental law research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, said of the lawsuit. “You’re a city and you want to avoid litigation generally. Now that the lawsuit has been dropped, he said, “maybe there’s an impression of reduced political risk.”

[…]

In Laredo, an outright bag ban appears to be off the table. Instead, a “reduction ordinance” is more likely, and now the argument is over what form such a law might take. Should the city adopt a fee-per-bag structure, as was recently done in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, Md., where shoppers pay 5 cents per single-use bag? Or should it go the Brownsville route, where shoppers pay $1 for an unlimited number of bags? (In each of those cases, retailers keep a small portion of the fee, and the rest of the money goes to a public environmental cleanup fund.)

H-E-B is lobbying hard for the dollar/unlimited option. That’s because “if it’s a per-bag fee, each bag needs to be scanned,” said Linda Tovar, spokeswoman for the company’s border region corporate office. “So the time that it takes for a cashier to process and order will be longer than what a usual process may be.”

Environmental advocates say there’s no logic behind that mechanism. In Brownsville, the first Texas city to pass a single-use bag ordinance, officials hoped the $1 charge would be temporary, since it would provide an incentive for customers to bring their own reusable bags. But revenue from the fee has actually tripled from 2011 to 2012, suggesting habits weren’t changing and leading to allegations of a “slush fund” for the city, which has raised more than $2 million from the law.

Companies say they’d rather see voluntary programs and education campaigns, pointing out that a patchwork of different city ordinances are difficult to follow and encourage shoppers to cross city lines for cheaper bags. So far, though, such efforts have not had much success. Austin spent nearly $1 million on an education campaign for reusable bags before abandoning it, after failing to reach a declared goal of reducing plastic bag use by 50 percent.

I look forward to seeing how these fights play out. As you may have noticed, Houston is not currently among the cities contemplating this action. I feel pretty confident that it will eventually come up, so I’m hoping that the other cities that are dealing with it will have figured out the best way to do so. Got to be some benefit to trailing the pack, right? We’ll see.

Check this out

Scan while you shop, and other technological advances to get you checked out faster.

In February, San Antonio-based H-E-B invited customers to try out a new scanning “tunnel” for the first time at its McCreless Market location on South New Braunfels Avenue.

The company spent about three years developing the so-called Fast Scan technology, which lets cashiers at the end of the register focus on bagging the already-scanned items, said Jaren Shaw, H-E-B’s vice president of customer service. She said the company is in the “very early stages” of testing the checkout system and will wait to decide on expanding the concept.

“We were introduced to the concept of 360-degree item scanners in Europe a few years ago and have been watching the technology emerge since then,” Shaw said in a statement. “H-E-B took an inclusive approach and developed the checkout fixture based on feedback from customers” and employees.

[…]

Like H-E-B, Wal-Mart cited customer feedback as the catalyst behind the development of its mobile scanning app that it has piloted at more than 200 locations across the U.S.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer offers its Scan & Go service at stores in the Austin, Dallas and Houston areas.

There, shoppers can scan items on the Wal-Mart app, which then transfers the shopping list to one of the store’s self-checkout registers so customers can pay without re-scanning the products.

Wal-Mart plans to roll out the app to other mobile devices in the near future, spokeswoman Hardie said.

“We began testing the feature late last year in two markets, and so far this year, more than half of our customers have come back to use the technology a second time,” she said.

Recently, H-E-B has pulled the self-checkout registers from some stores.

“H-E-B’s top priority in checkout is to offer the best customer service while getting our customers through the line quickly,” spokeswoman Dya Campos said in an email. “We are not completely satisfied with the technology of self-checkout and the satisfaction of our customers as they interface with it.”

Eliminating self-checkout lanes follows a trend in other supermarkets. Wal-Mart is going the other way, with more reliance on self-checkout. That figures, since it means they can pay less on labor, which is the Wal-Mart way. That said, I like the idea of being able to scan purchases with one’s cellphone while shopping, so that when you’re done all you have to do is pay. Someday, that will be handled by your smartphone, too. I think that’s great as an option, but it’s not going to be for everyone, and it will be smart of retailers to give people more than one way to do it. What do you think?

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.

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?

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.

The HEB and the Wal-Mart

As we know, the site of the old Wilshire Village Apartments was bought by HEB a few months ago. Some area residents were not terribly thrilled at the idea of a new supermarket at that location and organized to have a voice in what happened there. Recently, HEB released a proposal for that site that addresses a number of the concerns that had been expressed, and everybody appears to be happy with what they’ve put forth. Makes you think that maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for such a happy ending for the “Heights” Wal-Mart. Stranger things have happened, right? So far, though, it’s not looking too good for that.

And in a somewhat related tangent, Prime Property and Swamplot have news about the other new Wal-Mart, the one that will be next to the Marq-E center on I-10 at Silber. Hard to believe I’ve survived all these years in this town without being a five-minute drive away from Wal-Mart, and by the end of next year there will be two such places, assuming all goes as planned. I think I’ll go renew my Costco membership to celebrate.

“HEB with a Montrose feel”

The West U Examiner gives us an update on the plans for an HEB where the Wilshire Village Apartments used to be.

Having recently closed its land deal for the property at Dunlavy and Alabama streets, H-E-B will be putting the finishing touches on three grocery store designs to be considered at the site.

The price paid for the property was not disclosed. There is no timetable yet for selecting a plan or to begin building at the site, spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts said.

During a meeting with the Neartown/Montrose Super Neighborhood in mid-May, H-E-B representatives said residents in the area and other concerned parties in the community would have an opportunity to voice preferences on the final design.

“Once we have them (the plans) ready, we will work with homeowners associations and (neighboring) St. Stephen’s Church,” Garza-Roberts said. “We are very confident they will be pleased. It’s going to be unique and compliment the Montrose feel.”

We’ll see what the neighbors, some of whom are quite skeptical about HEB’s plans, think of this. I’ve expressed some of the same concerns about this as I have about the “Heights” Wal-Mart. The HEB location is on streets that are at least somewhat better suited for the kind of traffic it’s likely to see, and it has the bonus of being near a future University Line rail stop, so the situations aren’t identical, but they are similar. If HEB can convince the locals that they can make this work in a way that won’t be too disruptive, maybe there’s hope for Wal-Mart as well. Maybe. I look forward to seeing what they have to show.

Where’s Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart has bought a tract of land near the Heights.

The store would be part of a larger development just south of Interstate 10 near the northwest intersection of Yale and Center.

[…]

A development site plan obtained by the Houston Chronicle shows a 152,015-square-foot Walmart flanked by a parking lot for 664 cars and additional retail spaces for a bank, fast-food restaurant and other stores.

[…]

Retail sources said the new Walmart likely would be one of the chain’s Supercenters, which average 185,000 square feet and combine full grocery and general merchandise, according to the company’s website.

In addition to serving residents in the Heights and other surrounding neighborhoods, the new store would seek customers from a growing population around the Washington Avenue corridor.

Swamplot and Prime Property have more on this. Here’s the question I have: How are people going to get to this place?

Google map view of the area

Google map view of the area

Here’s a link to that Google map; click the thumbnail for a larger image. The only real access to this site will be via Yale. The freight train tracks to the south completely cut off traffic except at Heights, Yale, and Patterson off to the west. Note that Bonner, the west end of this site, dead ends at the tracks. You can’t walk there from Heights Blvd except from Center. Koehler, to the north, only connects at Patterson. How are people going to get there?

You could, I suppose, connect the two pieces of Bonner, which would help. (Would the developer pay for that, I wonder?) You could also connect Bonner and maybe Bass Court to the eventual I-10 service road extension that will link Durham/Shepherd to Watson/Sawyer. (Note that as of today, you can only access Yale from I-10 on the westbound side.) I don’t know what the timeline is on any of these things, nor do I know if such connections are part of TxDOT’s plan. I do know that if you’re depending on Center Street to move traffic, I’d be worried. Center is a narrow little road on which traffic flow can be impeded by someone parking, and it’s used by a lot of trucks because of the various industrial sites that remain in the area. I figure the developers have a plan for all this, I just can’t quite picture it myself.

Finally, I have to wonder what the Super Neighborhood 22 folks think of this. It doesn’t seem to fit in with their vision for the Washington corridor. I’m getting an Ashby Highrise feeling about this. Typically, there’s already a Stop Heights Wal-Mart Facebook page. I don’t much care for Wal-Mart and don’t foresee myself shopping there – our Costco membership and the Target on Sawyer meet our needs quite nicely, thanks – but it doesn’t offend me that they’re looking at this parcel. I just don’t see how they’re going to make it work.

One more thing:

H-E-B said it recently made an offer on the Ainbinder parcel but was later informed that a counteroffer from Wal-Mart Stores was accepted, spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts said.

“We will continue to look for sites to bring an H-E-B to the Heights,” she said.

No question that there’s a crying need for a grocery store around there. If the Wal-Mart in question includes groceries, that may ameliorate the complaints somewhat. But the questions about how do you get there from here would remain had H-E-B won the bid. Marty Hajovsky and Nancy Sarnoff have more.

The Montrose Land Defense Coalition

That’s the name of the group that’s not so much fighting against the proposed HEB on the old Wilshire Village location as they are (in their own words) “concerned with the degree to which communities have a say in the development of land directly adjacent to their places of residence” and are seeking “a development solution for this valuable tract that will best benefit businesses and the communities that surround it”. I certainly support that, and I’ll say again that I don’t quite understand why HEB thinks that site would be a good one for one of their stores. So far at least, no politicians have gotten involved in this. I’ll be very interested to see how some of them respond to this, and at what point. Swamplot and Prime Property have more.

All your empty lots are belong to HEB

The empty lot that once housed the Wilshire Village apartments will be bought by HEB.

Cyndy Garza-Roberts, director of public affairs for H-E-B, said the company is studying the feasibility of the acquisition and didn’t have an estimated closing date.

Garza-Roberts also couldn’t say when a store might be built on the site, but she said the company has identified a need for one there.

“We feel there are customers in that area that H-E-B can serve,” she said.

I don’t quite get that. There’s a Fiesta right across the street, the Whole Foods on Kirby and Alabama and the Kroger on Montrose and Fairview are less than a mile away, and the new HEB at 59 and Buffalo Speedway is maybe a five minute drive, with another Kroger right across the street. It’s not like there’s a dearth of food-buying options in the area. They say they perceive a need, but I’m not sure why.

I do know that if I were still living in that area, I’d be more than a little concerned about the traffic this might generate. It would probably make a lot of sense from a throughput perspective to extend one or more of the currently cul-de-sac’ed streets just west of the property into the future parking lot, but I’m sure the residents of those cul-de-sacs would hate that idea with a passion. They’re not too happy with this as it is.

Maria-Elisa Heg recently formed the Montrose Land Defense Coalition to call attention to the property and attract investors who might be interested in buying it with the city of Houston for use as a public space.

The coalition says a major supermarket there could increase traffic and hurt area businesses.

Heg, who rents an apartment in the neighborhood, said she and other residents would prefer the land be turned into a park with a cafe and a small commercial space where artists could sell their work.

More on that here. I suppose on the bright side, if this thing does get built, it’ll also be a short walk away from the eventual Mandell light rail stop on Richmond, so perhaps they’ll get more of a pedestrian patronage than one might think. Beyond that, it’s still weird to me. We’ll see how it goes.

An open letter to HEB

Feed the Heights, which notes that HEB had a wildly successful debut of their new Buffalo Speedway store, implores them to do something similar for our neighborhood.

Grocery shopping in the Heights is getting better, but still needs some help. Fiesta on Shepherd is a great place to shop for every cut of meat imaginable, but lacks the quality in upper end cuts of meats and mainstream produce selections. Kroger has been doing a fairly poor job of servicing the area (the store on 20th is pathetic), but is at least attempting to improve the situation by revamping the tired store on 11th and Shepherd.

I know you can do much better. Your Bunker Hill location is one of my favorite places to shop. Prices seem fair, the store is clean, the selection is top notch, and you don’t need one of those annoying shopper cards in order to get the sale price. Quite frankly, I’m puzzled why a decision was made to open a store in the saturated 59 corridor, while other areas are grossly under-represented.

People have been complaining about the lack of a high-end grocery store in the Heights for years. There had been hope at one point that the Target on Sawyer would be a Super Target, but that didn’t happen. It is a little strange that there are four fairly similar stores within about a mile of Buffalo Speedway and 59 – the HEB and the Kroger that are right across the street from each other, plus Randalls locations on Bissonnet and Weslayan, and Westheimer at Shepherd; heck, HEB’s Central Market isn’t all that far from there, either – but nothing remotely like any of them in the Heights. I don’t quite understand the marketing logic of that.