Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Big Time Meeting with City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, and Ainbinder ...

I was given the opportunity to sit in on a meeting with Ainbinder folks, and Councilman Gonzalez as a concerned citizen.  The meeting was extremely informative.  Here are the notes: 

-Meeting Attendees were a mix of Heights, and Greater Heights neighborhood leaders, Councilman Gonzalez, Jesse Dickerman, and Mr. Bart Duckworth, and Mr. Michael Ainbinder of Ainbinder Development, and me ... because, They are building a walmart on my street ... 

Mr. Duckworth of Ainbinder opened the meeting with the following points
-Ainbinder is happy to talk to the community at this point
-They apologized for the way the information got out to the community, and has been disseminated
-They are confident a deal is imminent, although it is not yet complete.  Legally, they cannot state Walmart, but it is Walmart.  They indicated all talks with other major parties and/or potential buyers have ceased.
-They are confident that this is a matter of 1-3 weeks from being complete
-Ainbinder has owned the land for 3 years
-This has been in the final planning stages for months
-They realize that there is a community concern
-The retail customer (Walmart), intends and wants to meet with the community
-Smaller scale meetings are presently appropriate for the time being
-They want to ensure that the project is the correct size/scale/Aesthetics for the community
-That the project is not a 'typical suburban' project and has the proper aesthetics has been their #1 concern

A Q&A Session was then opened up, and the conversation continued with this Q&A session for the better part of nearly an hour.  Important points from the Q&A are: 
-Uncertainty does not help 'panic' in the community
-Ainbinder wants to make an effort to calm any uncertainty
-The Community leaders need to be able to ensure their neighborhoods that they've done their best to bring up the fears and concerns to the City, and the Developers
-Traffic, flooding, crime, and a general distaste for the Walmart brand are all real concerns
-These meetings will not be the only meetings
-They are planning a series of meeting with the community once the deal has been finalized
-The retailer (Walmart) wants to meet with the community
-Ainbinder does not agree that Walmart = an increase in area crime
-The community is urged to look deeper into their research on Walmart related facts
-They want to let Walmart address the concerns that the community has with Walmart; Ainbinder's role in this is develop the retail plot of land as a whole
-There is a deep concern around the area neighborhoods of how this will end up looking aesthetically
-Ainbinder assured that once the public sees the plans/renderings, then they are confident that some will be convinced 
-Ainbinder feels that this development on the whole has the chance to transform the entire area for the good
-There is no decision on how this will look just yet, but they expect renderings in about 3 weeks
-Aesthetics = #1 concern of the developer; Retail anchor must 'fit' into the entire retail plot design
-There is a set 'warehouse' type of architecture; they noted the 'Core' apartments, and 'Berger Iron Works' on the corner plot of land.  They intend to keep that type of neighborhood feel to the development
-It was described as a more modern warehouse/urban type of feel
-The retail anchor (walmart) has had no resistance to these requests
-Ainbinder assured that the infrastructure of the land, and surrounding, would be brought up to appropriate specs to support. 

At this point of the Q&A, Michael Ainbinder joined the conversation.  Both Mr. Duckworth, and Mr. Ainbinder continued to field and answer questions: 
-Ainbinder confirmed that the apartments on Heights (Across from the WE Multi Service Center) are presently under contract to Ainbinder, and they expect the contract to close in the Fall of 2010.   That land will become part of the development overall
-The vision for the area is to be redeveloped into a district with a similar feel to it all
-HEB was talked to, but it is no longer a possibility
-They are unlikely to return to talks with HEB
-The total development will be 24 acres; 15 acres of it will be Walmart
-The old 'Sons of Hermann' site is not included in the development.  This is being developed by Bobby Orr.
-There is no plan for hi-rise, or mid-rise development
-Ainbinder/City are in the process of finishing traffic studies now
-Streets around the property will be widened/improved
-They are including plans to improve the Yale St. Bridge just south of I-10; they acknowledged that the bridges need to be renovated
-They are treating Heights Blvd. as a signature street in the development, central to Houston
-They are presently in the middle of all of the improvement plans
-Ainbinder has no information on delivery truck routes/planning/times
-Specifically, Yale, Koehler, Bass, and Bonner will need to be improved/widened.  The current plan is to improve Koehler street up to Bonner, and Bass st. up to Bonner
-They are confident that the plan will decrease flooding in the West End
-There will be green spaces included in the plan; specifics are not finalized
-Concerning traffic studies; they have not defined how far back into the West End they are studying, nor onto/into what streets
-The plans do not call for water detention areas
-They did not have answers for whether White Oak Bayou can handle overflows upstream

-Concerning opinions on Walmart
     -Ainbinder's opinion is that Walmart is not so different from Target in the area (Studewood/I-10)
     -They sell competing products
     -There will be a full grocery in the building
     -They asked the community to try to give Walmart a chance to prove themselves
     -The development will surpass codes for parking

-Ainbinder clarified that Walmart will have 15 acres of the 24 acre site; they suggested the public look to the 4-5 acre site 'Center at River Oaks' as  proof of their commitment to the neighborhood.
-They asked the public to have confidence in the city, and the developer, to make the correct decisions
-They understand that there are opinions, that they won't satisfy all of them, and wished they had more time to have a better announcement of the project.
-Their goal is add a needed shopping center to the neighborhood.

-Ainbinder has restricted the design so that Walmart cannot change the aesthetics
-They will control future aesthetic enhancements
-Most of Ainbinder developments have been suburban projects
-Walmart will own their parcel of the land (15 acres)

-Walmart has been exploring mature tree planting as well for the parking areas/landscaping
-Walmart has more 'green concept stores'

-Ainbinder's motivation is for it to look different than other Walmarts

-The Timeline for this project is for an opening to happen in the 1st or 2nd quarter of 2012
-14-18 months will be used for infrastructure improvements, and some parallel construction

Councilman Gonzalez said a few words on the goals of listening to the community:
-Councilman Gonzalez committed to having more community meetings
-It is hard for City Council to dictate to business how to operate
-He is keeping in mind that this type of development is positive for the neighborhood on the whole
-He will advocate for the community
-Community needs to Drive reaction to Walmart
-He will advocate for Aesthetics
-The further goal of meetings is to provide correct information at a community level
-The information delivery must be effective
-They do not know the final look of the project
-His goal is to move FW together with the community

Mr. Duckworth, and Mr. Ainbinder then fielded a few closing questions
-Ainbinder has not done a demographic study; this should be the responsibility of Walmart
-I-10 and Silber site (Next to Marquee) is getting a new Walmart as well
-Ainbinder is focused on meeting requirements for lighting, transportation, and aesthetics
-Walmart will be the right party to address concerns at the appropriate time
-Sidewalks will be over sized
-Goal is to hear what the public wants, with the understanding that they can't change everything, and that this won't be the only time to respond
-Traffic flow concerns will be answered
-Bridges, and historical preservation investments are the top concern
-Aesthetics and fitting in are the most important

-Aesthetics are the top priority - Ainbinder believes that this will have a more modern, urban feel, and that the public will like it because of it.  They said on numerous occasions that they feel the public will change its mind once they see renderings of the development.   Trees, green spaces, and different materials across the entire development makes Ainbinder confident of the public accepting this project.

-Infrastructure - Improvements immediately around the development are in the plans, but it was clear that Ainbinder has not completed studies on how it will effect the surrounding areas, including the Heights, Washington Ave, and West End. 

-Councilman Gonzalez has known about the development for some months now, and he is taking a 'wait and see' approach.  It does not sound, at all, as if anyone has taken into consideration the effect on the West End it will have, and thoroughfares that will be used to get into, and around the development. 

-Ainbinder seems as if they are trying to get this finalized as quick as possible, and that Walmart will be the tenant.  I read into this as, this information got out way too quick, and now its PR cleanup duty, while trying to push finalization

-I'm dissapointed that no one in the city has been more vocal, or even responded to the public ... nearly 3000 people on StoptheHeightsWalMart FB Page, and barely even a mention in the news ... 


  1. Many of the 3000 people on the petition are from out of state. Union organizers have attack plans on WalMart because they are not a union shop. This is common for when WalMarts open.

  2. Thanks anonymous. I'm not union, I'm not a union organizer, I don't know any. The page is not a petition as far as I understand. I'm just a guy thats not really happy about a walmart being built on my street.

  3. And I guess, if you're posting anonymously, who has more to hide here?

    Not saying, just saying ...

  4. Thanks for this post and for your continued involvement in helping to protect our urban neighborhood! I've copied to our 700 family neighborhood group and have provided them with your blog address also.

  5. Thank you for hosting this site and providing us with feedback from the community meetings. Your site is more informative on the Walmart build than any thing else I have found.

  6. Thanks for reading. Started this just to kind of give out my own impressions, and take notes as the thing develops. Happy to see some other folks getting something worthwhile from it.

  7. This doesn't sound bad. Of course I would prefer to have something more upscale constructed on the lot, but it looks like the street front will have smaller boutique style spaces obstructing the Wal-Mart from immediate view.

    Also, as a Rice Military resident, I'm concerned about the parking issue on Washington Ave. There is no question that a 600+ car lot will improve street parking situation on Friday and Saturday nights.

  8. Thanks for these notes. Not too happy-making.