Over strong neighborhood objections, City Council this morning passed a package of economic development incentives worth more than $6 million for the developer of a future Walmart store near the Heights.
City Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck offered two amendments to the agreement with Ainbinder Co., strictly limiting the potential taxpayer reimbursements to the company to $6,050,000 for public improvements that include landscaping, a bike trail, and widening, repaving and improving drainage on many of the streets that will surround the Walmart.
Four Council members – Noriega, Jones, Rodriguez, and Gonzalez – voted against the 380, while everyone voted for Clutterbuck’s sensible amendments. Given that Ed Gonzalez represents the district the Wal-Mart is in, I’m a bit surprised that there weren’t more No votes, but the Mayor’s influence is always strong in these matters.
More from CultureMap:
Mayor Annise Parker said that the city is in separate negotiations with Walmart to try to establish an operating agreement that would address additional community concerns not covered by the 380.
“We are going to continue to negotiate with Walmart,” Parker said in a post-Council Meeting press conference. “It’s not the end of the process; it’s the end of the 380 agreement.”
Negotiations between the Walmart developers and the city will continue over lighting, access and security. Parker said it should take 60 days to conclude those negotiations.
“We want to set a standard with Walmart about what we expect,” she said. Still, Parker admitted, “We don’t have any leverage, we don’t have an ordinance … These are voluntary things we’re negotiating with someone who wants to be a good corporate citizen.”
Here’s the memo the Mayor wrote regarding the 380 and the separate negotiations with Wal-Mart, and here’s the attachment referenced in the memo. Some of these things I know are things Wal-Mart already does elsewhere, but the ones that are specific to drainage and “tree islands” are both welcome and were requested by RUDH. I think if you can work in an agreement for the store to not have 24-hour operating hours and some more pedestrian and bike-friendly pieces, you may have the basis for something most people can live with. I still think it’s the wrong location for a Wal-Mart, and I’m certainly not the only person to think that.
In terms of vision, Washington Heights shopping center remains regrettably lacking in ideas. It is a suburban box and strip clad in slightly better materials than the typical Walmart, which seem to be the building’s only acknowledgment that it occupies a significant site. The disconnection of the architecture from its context comes through strongly in the developer’s renderings, which seem to portray a project in the middle of the Katy Prairie, rather than Houston’s inner-loop. The site plan reveals a tolerance for waste that serves as a painful reminder as to how little land close to the center of the city is valued.
Ultimately, Washington Heights is suburban-style development on an urban site, which over the long term will be another dysfunctional patch in the urban fabric of Houston. Is it better than an abandoned steel fabrication site? Probably. Does it improve Houston in any way beyond expanding the tax base, providing a few more jobs and additional (arguably redundant) retail? Probably not. Could this development have been planned in such a way as to yield a much more progressive product—one that Houstonians could feel good about contributing their tax dollars to? Absolutely.
I clearly haven’t spent enough time looking at the site renderings, because my reaction to the one in that Offcite post was to guffaw. Go ahead, try to guess where I-10 is in that design, never mind Yale Street.
I think with the points the Mayor has outlined, especially if there is continued feedback from RUDH and Super Neighborhood 22 and other stakeholders, the potential is there for it to be a lot less wrong. The main concern here is that I don’t know what actual leverage the city has with Wal-Mart. They’re not party to the 380 agreement, and it’s not clear to me that you can get anything from them other than their word of honor that they’ll do their best to try to accommodate, for what that’s worth. I should also note that RUDH is not happy with the vote on the 380 agreement, which they thought was “rushed” and which “[put] the developer’s interests above those of the public’s”. They plan to remain engaged, though, so maybe that will help put some pressure on Wal-Mart to agree to what is now being asked of them. It may not be that much, but it’s what we’ve got. Hair Balls has more.