Friday, December 17, 2010

"More Better Located"

KHOU ran a story today on San Felipe Park, located very near downtown off of Allen Parkway, and look who made it into the story!?!  Its our old friend Andy Icken with our grammar lesson of the day! (Watch at 1:20) in the video ...

"A similar park, more better located within the neighborhood."

Basically the city is (surprise!) not doing what they said they were going to do, and decided to sell a park instead of fixing it up.  I'm not astonished that people are ticked off about this.  Its just something else this year that the city, and this guy, have been involved in where public mistrust is compounded, and the city hasn't communicated well. But, you don't have to take my word for it ...

At :35 Left in the video, we have this:

"Tell Annise (Parker) to go back and get that $6 million she gave to Walmart and leave our park alone, fix it, so our kids will have somewhere to play," said Johnson.

Could be a good idea!  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ralph Bivins is Not A Part of Bel Biv Devoe is a pretty nice looking website about stuff in Houston.  They generally mix social, with real estate, dining, and general goings on around the city.  Hence, the 'culture' in culturemap, I suppose.   
They've also had some stories here and there along the way up about our now storied, controversial, and seemingly epic debate regarding 'The Heights Walmart'.
So, ahead of the first public meeting we had a few months ago, CultureMap got a look at the plans for the development, and made a big deal out of it; they even called the article 'Unveiled'.  What they didn't tell anyone was that the developer had meetings with some folks in the neighborhood ahead of the article, and they were showing their plans around for several days prior.  Thus, it wasn't really 'unveiled', it was just sort of up on the internet. 
Anyway, so Ralph Bivins (no relation to New Edition and Bel Biv Devoe fame, Michael Bivins ... at least not that I'm aware of, but I haven't asked him directly ... ) wrote this article just before Thanksgiving on stuff he was thankful for.  His top item was the Walmart ... because after all, it does make sense that he is thankful for a Walmart.  According to his website, he's had over a 25 year career writing about real estate, and he has a picture of him shaking hands with Donald Trump, so it makes perfect sense that not only is he really important and can decide whats good for my neighborhood, but also that he would be overly thankful for a Walmart.  If that really is the case, then I hope Mr. Bivins will venture in 2011 to get out more.

So here's what he wrote: 

The great thing about running a for profit 'digital magazine' is that you are there to make Money, thus journalistic integrity is not a huge priority ... otherwise, why have a Sales Department. 
Please don't misunderstand me; I like CultureMap.  Its got big pictures, bright colors, and lots of people writing about stuff going on all over Houston ... its just that this Ralph Bivins guy kind of shows up to write an article once in awhile, and attempts to make a one story, sprawling store, which could be built in just about any suburban location, into some kind of fairy tale dreamland like something out of a Katy Perry video, almost haphazardly mentioning the Walmart in the title of the article.

A handful of articles later, and he returns around Thanksgiving ... just to remind everyone that we (those of us that live in the West End) should be grateful for whats given to us in regards to the Walmart.  His last sentence is the most telling:

"Ainbinder's Walmart project won't be a Highland Village or the Galleria, but at least the site is cleaner now from an environmental standpoint."

My question then is ... why not?  Why can't it be a Highland Village?  Why can't it be Uptown Park?  Why do we have to settle for what Mr. Bivins, Bart, Mike, Lance, and Mayor Walmart are pushing to spoon feed everybody (And make the taxpayers pay for).

I mean, cmon now?  Is this something worth celebrating?  To get that land clear, Ainbinder was going to have to clean it anyway ... he knew that, since the site's been on the TCEQ List for years, so thats a wash.  And is there any reason that we should really welcome uninspired, sprawling one story development in the urban core funded with public money, when there are examples of how a site could be better utilized that are successful and new? 

I'm sorry, but if the Mayor is going to give away public money, I want the most out of it.

I'll tell you this much ... Ain, Binder (yes, I know its one guy), Walmart, etc, they're most likely gearing up for another big PR push soon. They've been quiet for far too long now, and I would imagine they would prefer to try to not lose more money or time.  Beyond that, its almost 2011 ... and 2011 is an election year here in our fine city.  The mayor promised an operating agreement months ago, and still nothing.  While it would not be wise to keep something like this hidden from the public, I wouldn't put it past this administration, given their track record in sharing with the public.   Of course, who knows what will happen if they keep on ticking people off. 

Which brings us back to Mr. Bivins and his mediocre commentary on a less than stellar design that he is thankful for.  My tendency is to want great things out of life.  We compete to win, not just to play the game.  Unless Mr. Bivins is a fan of participant ribbons, and finisher t-shirts, versus 1st place trophies and grand prizes, I would imagine he would want the same but I may be wrong.

And thats what this amounts to right now ... this development is a participant ribbon, at best.

Thanks for doing what you were going to do anyway.  Thanks for 'designing' a one story strip mall.  There's a reason why boo's were followed by laughter at the presentation of this development at the first public meeting ... because there's nothing special about it.  You can color the bricks any color you want, you can put down pavers in the parking lot, you can make the lights neon, energy/carbon negative, and have them sprout jelly beans three times a day ... its still a sprawling, one story design in the middle of a neighborhood.  You don't need victorian homes, mountain springs, or open fields of wildflowers to decide what is and is not appropriate for a neighborhood.  A one story building with a parking lot out front, and dumpsters out back, with no regard for space or size, is the cheapest type of building to build.  And thats what this is about ... spending the least amount of money to maximize profit.  That means that homeowners in our neighborhoods, and taxpayers all over Houston, get the shaft to the benefit of a private developer, and the biggest retailer in the world.  Way to go Ainbinder for planning a doozy of a common big box.

Greatness isn't easy, and its not always economical.  Unfortunately, this part of Houston isn't going to realize greatness for a long, long time if this thing gets built.  Mediocrity on the other hand, is a common path thats well worn ... just ask Mr. Bivins ... here's your participant ribbon.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Houston is Running Out of Money

The Chronicle ran an article today about how much money the City of Houston doesn't have ... 

"In many ways, for the remainder of fiscal 2011, which ends in June, and the coming budget year, that is just the beginning. A draft of the fiscal 2012 budget, which begins in July, shows a projected shortfall of at least $118 million. For fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2015, the shortfall is an estimated $542 million."

Its even reported that some of City Council is getting a little bit 'miffed' at 'the administration.'

"The feeling is, we're going in the wrong direction," (Councilmember) Clutterbuck said.

Here's a bit more light to shed on the situation ... 

"The city has reeled for several years as revenues from sales and property taxes have declined, even exceeding worst case scenarios."

So, the City Council (Except for Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Jones, and Noriega), voted, under pressure from Mayor Parker's Office, to give a Tax Incentive, based on property and Ad valorum tax, to the biggest company in the universe ... I know, I know ... I'm a broken record, blah blah. 

But cmon now ... is this really positive public management and good decision making coming out?  All this did was take out money that could have potentially been counted on, in calendar year 2012 (The developer is aiming to open in 2012), and enable private enterprise to make more money ... at the expense of taxpayers, and now the budget of the city ... 

But hell ... in the face of $100 Million + shortfall, whats another $6 million anyway, right? 

Monday, November 8, 2010

The 'Community Action Network' Sent Out an Email

Subscribers of the 'Walmart Community Action Network' newsletter received an email in October.  The email had a subject of an article in it which read: 

Houston council OKs Heights Walmart agreement -- Houston Business Journal -- Walmart's plans to build in the Houston Heights area were approved this week!

So, Walmart claimed the 380 agreement, and called in the Heights Walmart ... The link in the email takes you to this breif news heading.   I love how it says 'Over Strong Neighborhood Objections.'  Thats funny.  Gosh, I had no idea the plans were already approved!  And I thought we had a whole permitting process and stuff to go through.  Gee willikers!

(The development has not been permitted yet, to my knowledge)

Also buried deep in the CAN (acronym!)website is the voting portion of the site ... sorry I'm a week or two late on this, but here you go anyway.  Will be interesting to see how involved they get in Houston this year ... big year coming up for the City of Houston.

Stuff Blows Up At A Walmart in Houston

News from a few days ago ...

A bottle apparently exploded at a Walmart in West Houston.   If this is the one that I'm thinking of, then I believe its in a pretty nice part of town.  Its right near Royal Oaks, and is a pretty big Supercenter.

My guess is, just some kids screwing around, but who knows ... I'm not the police.  News story says that it was placed somewhere out of site from any surveillance cameras, which makes it a bit 'fishy'.  Not saying that not having a store opened 24 hours would prevent this sort of thing, but late night hijinks would most likely be somewhat mitigated at a store that wasn't open 24 / 7.  Yes, I realize this was done at 1130pm.

Just thoughts people ...

Friday, October 29, 2010

NorthCross Walmart (Austin) Opened - Has Big Brown Bricks

NorthCross Walmart, the one that's also had some community controversy surrounding it, opened recently in Austin.  The full story is here.

It is brown.

It has big brown bricks.

Look Familiar

You can decide ... 

Beyond that, its important to note this tidbit of the article:

In a statement Monday, Jason Meeker, the spokesman for RG4N, as it is known, said the group is working to build lines of communication with the store manager "to address unresolved community concerns about traffic, truck routes, crime and disabled access."

Four years and two lawsuits later, and there are still concerns about some of the same things that this community has brought up ... Traffic, Truck Routes, Crime ... That tells me that we have got a lot of work to do here in Houston. 

Walmart Opened A Store in Houston

Photo from PR Newswire

The lesser discussed (on this blog) Walmart at 45 and Crosstimbers (just up the road to the North of the Washington Heights Development) opened this week.  

According to PR Newswire: 

HOUSTON, Oct. 25 /PRNewswire/ -- Northline Commons in North Houston will kick off the holiday shopping season with the Grand Opening of the new Walmart located adjacent to the center. "We're delighted to welcome Walmart to Northline Commons," stated Eugene O'Brien, Vice President of Berenson Associates, Inc., owner/developers of Northline Commons. Walmart, located at Northline Commons, will be open to customers at 8:00 a.m., Wednesday, October 27.
U.S. Congressman Gene Green (TX-29) and Dr. Laura G. Murillo, President and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, will speak at a Ribbon-Cutting ceremony hosted by the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, October 27.

... And not on the list of people at the opening, as far as I could tell, Mayor Annise Parker, or any City Council Members ... 

Also not mentioned, an operating agreement with Walmart.  As Mayor Parker discussed in City Council, there are three planned openings within the city (in close proximity to eachother; at least within a 10 minute drive of the Washington Heights Development), and they were working on treating all developments/stores fairly.  

Does that mean the much promised operating agreement hasn't, or worse, isn't going to materialize?  

Tune in next week kids! 

And another thing ... I hate it when its 'The Holiday Season' for shopping, and its not even Halloween yet.  Did you know that River Oaks shopping center on West Gray and Shepherd already has its Christmas decorations out?  Cmon Houston ... it was 90 degrees outside yesterday, and we have snowflakes on the Starbucks ... Is anyone else bothered by this? 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lance Gilliam Said a Bunch of Stuff About the Walmart

I went to an interesting panel discussion on Wednesday over lunch.  The discussion was geared towards discussing the role of Houston's limited public sector planning or regulatory intervention (no zoning), and how effective its been for development and the creation of 'great places' within and around Houston.  The panel include the following three participants:

Bob Eury, President
Central Houston, Inc.

Lance Gilliam, Managing Director
Moody Rambin Retail

Joshua Sanders, Executive Director
Houstonians for Responsible Growth

Anyone thats a fan of the whole Walmart discussion should probably be familiar with Lance Gilliam.  He's heading up the retail leasing for Moody Rambin on the project.    

So obviously, I was really curious what would be said.  I took a bunch of notes on the whole discussion, so here it goes.  And if any one of y'all (Mr. Eury, Mr. Sanders, Mr. Gilliam) don't feel my notes are accurate, you're welcome to contact me, and I'll make updates/corrections.

21 Oct 2010 - Planning Panel Discussion
There was an introduction to all three panel members, and all three had a chance to speak and make an opening statement

Bob Eury(BE) -
-Austin is Weird / Houston is Different
-Houston = Tremendous economic opportunities, and Energy is not the only fuel of these opportunities
-Developers do not have many physical barriers, and have a great freeway system to build in and around
-Houston's present zoning/lack thereof, may be challenged over the next century
-the Market is shifting towards an increase in intrest for more compact developments
-Houston & Dallas Walkscore = 51 // Austin = 49
-It is hard to achieve greatness in development without more regulations
-The struggle will be with how Houston regulates moving forward
-The Post Midtown Development is a positive mixed use vision
-Adding the suburban styled CVS across the street means the vision extension breaks down
-Lack of regulation means that the vision cannot be continued block to block
-Walls in Downtown mean that Houston's Downtown is not pedestrian friendly
-Houston is so big and accessible, that regulations in one area mean that developers just look elsewhere to develop how they want to develop
-An increase in complexity makes Houston greater
-Developers presently feel that they don't have to develop unless the city 'gives' them something
-Vacant buildings detract from the City Plan
-There is  presently not a lot of cooperation with developers to collaborate on projects
-To be great, Houston will need more regulation

Lance Gilliam (LG)-
-Loves Houston, and Lives inside the loop
-He applies the rules that are given for his clients
-Likes more rules
-Houston needs more rules, and the rules need to apply uniformly
-LG's clients tend to exceed the rules set forth by the city
-We are presently in the Best & Worst of times
-Public + private partnerships are important
-We need rules to govern those partnerships
-What standards of rules are given, he is happy to apply
-Houston on the whole needs more rules

Josh Sanders (JS)-
-Houston = Unique development
-There is a difference between Public Planning, and Private Planning
-Houston has increased performance standards
-System in Houston is not perfect
-Feels that there will be new rules, but we must be careful about how the rules are written
-Traditional zoning may not fit with Houston / Rules for Houston will need to be special
-We have a Clean Slate for moving forward
-Houston = Affordability & Opportunity
-Houston's system is already the best model in the country
-Houston's system needs to be perfected

At this point in time, the moderator setup the panel to answer three general questions or discussion points, and discuss their individual perspectives on them. 

DISCUSSION POINT 1 - Do Parties exaggerate the costs involved with changing models or increasing regulations?

JS - 
-Regarding CVS in Midtown-
-CVS bought the land for use now, and as an investment for 10 years from now
-Midtown CVS Model works for now, and can be improved on for later if needed
-Regulation can stifle growth, however
-It depends primarily on public involvement how much is effected

-Houston does exaggerate costs
-CVS is also up the street in Downtown Houston with a different model already (Not suburban drive up)
-There is a market in CVS' location for a drugstore
-Thus, if regulation was in place, you would still have a drugstore there
-If CVS sets the bar as they have, then others only have to match, not exceed
-No bar set, then its easy to build the standard, suburban drive up model, as they have

-Costs are grossly exaggerated
-Retail Development Client Tasks (Including Bentonville) are that a retail store meets the rules, and serves the customers
-In a 'recent case', the retailer wished that there were far more rules in place
-Lighting for this development is going to be better than anything in all of Houston
-No Offsite Signage is fine, and fine personally with LG
-The concern is that without regulation, the same rules don't apply to all developments
-HQ's for a retailer views the rules as a goal
-If the rules are not even, then HQ says that they are at a disadvantage against other developments

-More regulations can equal in increase in rent rates, which can effect a development

-Increase regulation effects on rent = depends on what the regulation is before it affects costs
-Bigger retail companies love rules

DISCUSSION POINT 2 - Ashby, Walmart, HEB Montrose Controversies; are NIMBY issues Unavoidable?

-Community input = Inevitable and Appropriate
-Stronger Rules make getting along with the community much easier
-Walmart is glad to implement suggestions for the WH Development
-If a community can become comfortable, then the development will be ok
-If a development is percieved as intrusive, then it is difficult

-Designs and Developments get better as they are vetted
-How do you vet?
-380 Agreement opens up the developer to vetting
-Without a 380, the developer is only subject to permitting
-Public Works, then, becomes the only oversight
-For Many people, change is not easy
-For the most part, however, change works out fine in the long run
-Will the public sector stop a development?
-'Stopping' a development means that the public dictates how to use the land
-Mayor says that she can't 'stop' Walmart

-The Walmart development is a big challenge to the developer (Ainbinder)
-It is hard for anyone to listen when they're getting yelled at
-They have learned a lot during this process
-Public Input overall is a good thing
-The Walmart process has been painful, but a good thing for the development

-380 = Public Money
-If there's Public Money, then expect a Public outcry
-Houston can do better to manage Public Policies on Developments
-Public involvement means an increase in cost
-Negotiations cost money / Can be problematic
-There are cases of Developers paying off Zoning boards frequently
-Public Sector involvement and performance standards can be improved.

DISCUSSION POINT 3 - Can Houston achieve Great Walkable places without an increase in regulation?

-Can't do it without increase regulations
-Presently, In order to do a big walkable, mixed use development, then a developer must essentially own everything
-Overlaying regulations on established/dynamic areas is difficult to implement
-Presently, good developments happen in pockets, but don't connect presently

-Agrees with BE

-It is a 'Quality of Place' issue
-There are certain factors in changing growth that developers don't have control over
-The City of Houston currently has no responsibility for the pedestrian realm (sidewalks, etc)
-There are opportunities for localized regulations- TIRZ/MUD/Management Districts - effective at localizing government
-Local level Planning exists in districts

At this point, the discussion opened up to some Q & A from the audience.  I've tried to summarize the questions as best as possible. 

Q - Walkable Places; Rice Village, 19th Street (Heights).  Is there any strategic considerations, placemaking considerations, or process' in place?  Is there anything coming? 

-'Urban Corridors' in Houston = Small improvement
-Work on the Houston Parking ordinance will do a great deal to improve
-Relaxing the parking ordinance will increase options for Urban Developments
-The present regulations (parking) are outdated

-CoH is very late on fixing the parking ordinance
-Public Policy needs to lead parking ordinance changes
-Streetscape - There is a presently a model, but outside of model(New designs), there is no ordinance
-CoH needs funding for streets & Sidewalks now (Prop 1 helps)

-Parking directly effects walkability
-Incentives should be in place (hopefully) to encourage such developments with increased walkability
-LG Hopes that it happens soon
-Simples, most tangible thing to help developments become more walkable are potential changes in the parking ordinance

Q - Mixed Use; CVS Midtown, Walmart (West End/Heights) - Should the City incentivize Multi Use Mixed developments? 

-This is a 'painful' conversation
-Washington Heights (Walmart) was intended to be a mixed use development
-It started out as a different development than what its turned into
-'Mixed Use' in Houston is presently very difficult due to the market
-Presently, around 1.3mil sq. ft of space on hold for mixed use
-Developers own the land, have plans, but the projects are on hold
-Generalized estimates; Rent = 10% of sales / for 1.3 Mil sq. ft, an increase of $650Mil in new revenue in for the project (Sales generated) is needed to support such developments
-Thats difficult to achieve
-LG Wishes that the land would support mixed development
-Decision on Walmart = Market dictated entirely
-Design = Decision for today's needs
-Parking Garage for Walmart = Money/Expense about even as a flat parking lot on the Wash. Heights project
-Hopefully, Houston will change to demanding more of an urban/walkable model, but the market is not there yet.

Q - What is the panel's perspective on efforts to change the city's infrastructure?

JS - 
-Developments need Traffic Impact Analysis'
-The City can also conduct TIA
-How/Who pays for mitigating needs to be regulated
-Presently, Costs increase to the private develop, to the benefit of the public

-Pain/Memory from Houston Congestion in the 80's = Still prevalent
-Houston = hysteria from moving service levels on roads; Example B to E, etc.
-Congestion = Increase of flexibility and creativity on all parties
-Little bit more congestion may not be a bad thing regarding how developments are designed

Q - Do Retailers Like Restrictions?  Should it be that Developers and Retailers own the land, so they can do what they will? 

-Developers do a ton of market research before deciding on projects
-Developers do take into consideration what the community wants

-Houston likes to drive
-When Perceptions change on driving in Houston, then design will change
-As long as rules apply evenly, then ok

So that was about it.  My personal conclusions were, that it was an interesting discussion for someone like me who's affected by such a development.  Having never personally met Mr. Gilliam, I can't say I'm surprised by some of his comments.  The reality of financials of such a business can be simplified; when you have more pad space, more opportunities, and positive buzz, you can make more money - thats what a potentially high quality, mixed use development has the potential to provide.  1 story, flat Suburban pad site design ... well, there's not much to get excited about there, and I have to believe that it will translate, in some form or fashion, to lost revenues in the leasing area. 


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Been Away ...

Just a quick note ... Sorry, but I've been away on business, and not attending to my blog these past few weeks ... then I got sick ... so, I've got some things to post on, which will be coming in the next few days.  RUDH held our first public meeting last Monday night where some great information has been put out to the public.

To the commentors on the posts - A - Thanks for reading, and B - No, I'm not prohibiting your comments from being posted, I've really just been away.

I'll be back soon, with a visit from some special friends as well!

Friday, October 1, 2010

This Sure Sounds Familiar ...

Not that I really want to get off topic here, but good gawd, dropping big details for big votes with little time to do much about it is kind of becoming the go to action for Mayor Parker ...

Off the Kuff posted this article about Prop 1, which is the drainage initiative for taxpayers to vote on whether to use their money to improve public infrastructure (WTF?), namely drainage, etc.

(can't quite think of how this could have been something else recently ... hmmmm ... )

As the Chron Reported: 

Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt has teamed up with anti-tax advocate Bruce Hotze and conservative activist Norman Adams, significant players in a previously successful effort to scuttle a drainage fee during the Lee Brown administration.
They reformed the “No Rain Tax” PAC, Bettencourt said, and expect to raise enough money to run radio ads and phone banks against the measure.
Bettencourt said it was “preposterous” that the details about how the program would be implemented have yet to emerge with the vote only five weeks away.
“This is an open-ended blank check from the taxpayers,” he said.

Gosh, this sounds nothing like another 'Blank Check' that was recently discussed by City Council.

In all honesty, I don't have much to say on Prop 1.  Yes, I want my neighborhood to drain properly, but I don't see how this is going to be a real benefit to be honest.  The mayor should spend less time campaigning for prop 1, and more time improving drainage standards so that, in my case, a giant parking lot won't increase runoff everywhere in my neighborhood.

But what do I know. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Yale = 1 Lane is Totally Fine

Admittedly, I hadn't noticed this before, but under the Public Infrstructure improvements section of the Washington Heights Development site, here's point 6 -

'6 - Northbound Left Turn Lane on Yale Street at Koehler.'

So, the city has commented that Yale is a 4 lane road, and can't be widened due to the RR Underpass to the south, and I-10 overpass to the north.  But I guess when Walmart comes to town, its quite alright to restrict the additional traffic that will be encouraged to come to the development traveling on those 4 lanes + the already existing 10K+ cars traveling up & down Yale daily, onto 1 Lane ... and then give them public money to do it ...

Just thinking of some simple math ... 4 lanes / 2 = 2 Lanes, and then 2 Lanes - 1 for a turning lane = 1 Lane left ... gee willikers, thats 1 lane.

And So It Begins ...

Its the Strip Center Sell Off of Height Boulevard! 

Here's a pic from the newest sign on the edge of the 'Development.'  This is on the West Side of Heights, just south of the little known Ainbinder property, occupying the land in between Yale and Heights Blvd.

A quick search of the name 'Megan Rombeau' and 'Houston' pulls up ORR Commercial .  The sign boasts '40,000 Square Feet, Coming Soon'.  152K + 40K = A lot of retail stuff ... and thats not including this other stuff  just to the north of it.  But I guess the historic transformation of the heights is in full effect, given that it may at least compliment the other strip centers on Heights blvd.

At least there is not another 380 incentivizing Another strip center on heights ... yet ...

And yes, we know ... 'Its not even in the heights' ... someone should start thinking of telling that to developers themselves.

I guess its good that the city is paying $6mil for a jogging trail ... now joggers can run back and forth in front of 2 Strip malls.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Washington Heights Walmart - Not a 'New Design' has posted images of their newer style architecture.

Here you go:


Look Familiar? 

Sure looks as if Houston is getting a development that is "unique and that adds to the community."

Obviously very, very 'unique'.

Friday, September 17, 2010

So Here's What Happened on Wednesday At The Mayor's Office ...

On Wednesday, we were received by Mayor Parker, Councilman Gonzalez, Mr. Andy Icken, and Mr. Adam Harris.

We presented our Development Recommendations to the city, along with the complete list of Community Feedback that was received by emails, and collected by us in person at Civic group meetings and at gatherings.

We had some back and forth discussion, some clarifications of points etc.  We clearly stated to the city that we want a development to happen.  We also clearly stated that there were concerns that could be helped if they were tied into the 380.  A few minutes in, we simply asked kind of a general question, 'Assuming that we were able to come to an agreement on items for the community, how much of this could be tied into the 380?'

My personal impression of the discussion that followed was that it was going to be difficult to get changes made.  Mr. Icken clarified that they had already chosen to update the drainage requirement and not simply 'grandfather' the old site's requirements after conversations with Kevin Shanley of the Bayou Preservation Association, so there's a bit of a win.

So, we started going down the list, looking at how the city could discuss with the developer to bring in some more elements of mixed use urbanism.  If something like this changes, then its a win, as it gets the development away from strip center type design as it is now.  We talked about the possibility of creating 'architectural walls' by placing the parking behind the businesses on the Koehler side, and certainly on the Heights Blvd portion of the development.  An example of this would be to incorporate some of the elements in this drawing, courtesy of SWA Group:

We had a good exchange about a higher utilization of the site, and provided Andrew Burleson's example of a very high utilization of the site.  

The purpose of this is not to propose apartments, etc, but to show just about how much can be put on that site if the developer was choosing to limit a big box design, and if the city was truly trying to maximize its potential return.  

The idea behind this is, if there's going to be an investment in the public good (the 380), make sure its the highest and best use of such an incentive to maximize all sorts of tax returns; sales, property, you name it.  A suburban big box with a giganormous parking lot just isn't. 

We then talked about some of the LID recommendations, and this is good stuff.  We then presented the Mckinney, TX Walmart, which Mr. Icken seemed extremely interested in.  The idea behind the McKinney WM is that they've tried to create the most eco friendly Big Box store on the face of the planet, and its a national case study.  We're Houston, the energy capital of the universe, so something like that belongs here, especially considering the new Houston Green movement.  

Mayor Parker was very interested in the infrastructure concerns, so we moved onto that list next.  Here's the list that I'm talking about: 

• Widened sidewalks, with Oak or Sycamore shade-bearing street trees of 4” or
greater caliper, surrounding and connecting the development to all West End
neighborhood streets and to all existing pedestrian/bike trails.
• Upgrade all West End streets by widening (where appropriate) and installing
curbs and gutters.
• Extend East & West from Yale/Heights Boulevard to Shepherd & Durham Drive
o Nolda (Chester/Smith Addressed with I-10 Feeder)
o Marina/Inker
o Spencer
o Eigel
o Koehler/Maxie
o Eli
o Schuler
o Allen St
• Extending North and South from I-10 to the Railroad tracks/Crossing
o Bonner Street
o Thompson St.
o Patterson St
o Fowler
o Parker
• Hide or otherwise bury power lines.
o Suggest: aerial utility lines – to include phone + cable.
• Bass Street Considerations:
o No truck entrance.
o No divided median at the entrance to the development. Homeowners
and emergency response vehicles must retain access approaching from
either North, or South.
o Alternate: No Access from Bass Street. No Connection to the Feeder Road.
o Bass Street should not be ‘encouraged’ as an entrance to the north of the
• Consider refurbishing/utilizing old Rail Road Bridge north of Koehler/West of
Yale as new pedestrian walk/bike trail to encourage connection to ‘Heights
Bike Trail’.
o TxDOT does plan to remove some of this structure (either the concrete or
wood portion) as part of the current frontage road and bridge project. The
380 would be taking out what TxDOT leaves

Mr. Icken asked about making the roads in the West End one way as a way to mitigate traffic.  We all agreed this would be a difficult process that would need to include the West End Civic Club in the decision making, as it would most impact the residents there.  

I strongly expressed, however, that regardless, there would be a pickup in the amount of traffic, and that all streets would need to be addressed.  As most streets in the West End are roughly between 18'-25', an extra 2' of paving, curbs, and parking only one one side of the street would help to alleviate.  The city seemed to accept this as a reasonable approach. 

At about this time, Mayor Parker had to leave; she had sat with us for roughly 45 minutes (our meeting was only scheduled to be 30).  Mr. Icken, CM Gonzalez, and Mr. Harris sat with us for another hour or so, and we continued to discuss, nearly point by point, the infrastructure list, and community impact concerns. 

The biggest points that we asked for were:
-Traffic mitigation solutions
-Limiting the operating hours of the store (Austin did it, why can't we?)
-Limiting the size/scale of the store (Austin also did it, why can't we?)

Mr. Harris extended a compliment at the level of organization that RUDH has taken on.  Mr. Icken asked for a couple of days to get back to us with some details.   At the end, I again asked how much of this could be tied into the 380; that would give teeth to the proposal, and guarantee that the public benefit would be served.  Mr. Icken responded that it would be something that Mayor Parker would have to decide. 

As of this afternoon (Friday), Councilman Gonzalez said that Mr. Icken's team was working on an update.  Its a bit after 5 as I finish this up, and I don't have anything just yet.  I wrote Mr. Harris, and Mr. Icken respectively, both yesterday and today, and have not had a response. 

I guess we're about to find out if the City really is willing to listen and try to serve the people.  At the very least, by the time we show up at Council on Tuesday, we'll have some answers as to how this is going to really go down next week. 

We've answered the Mayor's request.  We've provided thorough, supported recommendations, and collected community input.  The volunteers working with RUDH have put in countless hours at this point in not only bringing this to the public's attention, but in doing our best to truly advocate in support of a Responsible Development. 

Today, I sent a letter to all of the council members, as well as Mr Ainbinder and Mr. Duckworth with all of our recommendations and considerations.  No answers there either.  I also followed up with a call to all Council Members, without any returns (except for CM Gonzalez). 

The weekend is here now, and we've put it all out there ... Its their move now ... 

Going Down the List

Lisa Falkenberg, who I've never met or talked to other than in one email, wrote this piece the other day.

My apologies for not getting a chance to address sooner; I've actually been trying to work on something meaningful that benefits everyone in our community, so answering socio-economic discrimination innuendos hasn't been highest on my priorities of 'venting outrage on blogs.'  (You don't have to click on it ... I just linked it back to this blog - I am very outraged)  (that was kind of passive aggressive sarcasm). 

Anyway, I guess we can just kind of go point by point here, so here we go: 

The blue protest signs peering through iron gates of faceless town homes a few blocks away don't come this far down Koehler Street.

If they want a sign, they can email, and I'll get them one.  Typically, we ask for a donation, but it doesn't matter if you can donate or not. 

I've made a point not to be 'faceless' since as close to day 1 as possible.  I called Walmart directly to ask questions, I attended my local civic club and super neighborhood meetings to listen and get more information, and I called my councilman, and was invited to an early meeting with the developer and other local civic members to talk more about the development.  Thats where I met Michael Ainbinder for the first time.  At the conclusion of that meeting, and perhaps his memory will be foggy by this time, I shook his hand, and told him that I understood that he had made an investment in that property, and that I had also made an investment in my home, and would do whatever I needed to to protect my investment.  Maybe he didn't believe me, I don't know.  Anyway ... 

Along the way, I and others in our organization  have met numerous other reporters, given dozens of interviews to the media, and have made numerous visits to other local area civic clubs and homeowners associations to be out there in our community to answer questions, both for and against.  If I missed you at any of these engagements, then my apologies.  

Down here, where mostly tenant shacks and aging frame houses line frayed ribbons of shoulderless streets, you won't find many of the folks who are signing coffee shop petitions, or venting outrage on blogs, or donning red T-shirts at raucous City Council meetings.

I actually wore a red polo to the first meeting.  But beyond that, you make an important point very eloquently ... 'frayed ribbons of shoulderless streets' ... I completely agree.  Thats why on Wednesday, in our meeting directly with the mayor, we advocated for further improvements to our neighborhood overall (See page 9).  Unfortunately, you don't find those things in the present form of the 380.

What you do find is a private entity benefiting from public money at a ridiculous profit for right of ways.  This is just one of the concerns we've put out there about the agreement overall.  See page 7, where we state: 

The City is obligated to pay Ainbinder 1.035 million for the acquisition of the right of way for the
Koehler extension. That is a cost of 58.08 per sq ft. The county tax authority has appraised the
land at the Heights Plaza apartments at 22.50 per sq ft! Improved property in the area generally
has a market value of 38 per sq ft. The profit Ainbinder is making on this sale is astronomical. If
Ainbinder is not willing to significantly reduce this amount, the City should eliminate this from the
380 agreement and take the land by eminent domain. The City is potentially overpaying by half
a million for this acquisition.

Essh ... who wins there?  The public?  

You'll find folks like Betty Allen, a truck driver in an army green Dickey's button-down who grew up in this corner of Houston's West End neighborhood and has owned her white 1,200-square foot house for a quarter of a century.
For the past two years, Allen says, she's been out of work and on worker's comp due to a back injury, and she's learned what it's like to struggle after many years on a comfortable trucker's salary.
In many ways, she lives in a different world from the young, newcomer hipsters walking fluffy dogs and sealing their polished SUVs each evening behind seamless garage doors.
And when it comes to the proposed Walmart a block down her street, Allen has a little different perspective than some of her more vocal neighbors.
"I've been living here for 58 years, and I wish it would come on," she says.
She says she's not the only one. Many of her neighbors, especially the seniors living on fixed incomes, aren't as worried about the traffic and the crime that Walmart opponents predict will accompany the new development as they are finding an affordable place to shop, she says.

I've been to the West End Civic Club meetings.  I've walked the blocks, done the mailers for the neighborhood.  We've collected and delivered the community's suggestions to the mayor.    And lets just be honest here; while I'm happy that the mayor came to my house last weekend, and we had a good serious talk about the roads in the neighborhood (which benefits everybody), we've realistically gathered more feedback to help the city than one block walk on a Saturday could have.  Again, it was to support a responsible development. 

Koehler (Its overgrown ...we call 311 all the time). 

"The poor people, that's one way they can pull up," Allen says. "The little money they have left they can put it toward rent or something."
She and others who want to shop at Walmart now have to drive 10 miles up 290 or almost as far up Gulf Freeway.

Obviously, not for long with the 3 pronged Walmart approach within a 6 mile radius.  But beyond that, its not needed.  Here (again) is the economic study that was made wholly possible by supporters of RUDH.  And while some criticize the study, the city nor the developer have really not had an answer ... because they know the specifics of the study are correct, and applicable.  The reason why we went to Civic Economics is because of their body of work, which has included in the past, Walmart.

And lets not kid ourselves here.  Walmart is no savior of the universe.  Even critics agree, they're not even the cheapest game in town anymore, despite their ad campaigns.  

Good for neighbors
Farther up the road, 50-year-old welder Alfonso Casillas had a similar sentiment: "The store esta bueno for me," he said with a laugh. "The people who live in this neighborhood, they need Walmart. The ones who are against it, they don't need it. They can go to the Galleria or other places."
Casillas, who said he'd lived in the area 30 years and rented his West End duplex for five years, seemed perplexed by the controversy: "Los blancos," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know what their problem is."
Lately, Mr. Casillas, neither do I.

Here's where I get perplexed.  If a reporter wants to make a statement like this, then do it.  There's no reason to rely on innuendo.  I know what the perception is ... yes, we've heard it.  Thats part of what happens when you go public.  You get called nasty names, you're judged, mocked, ridiculed, etc ... I've been told that I'm going to hell for speaking out for my neighborhood (that was fun). 

I don't take this stuff personally ... really, I don't.  Anyone that actually sits down to talk to me can figure that out pretty quickly.  I just kind of sort of don't get it when folks don't ask comprehensive questions.

Here's my thing though ... where's Ainbinder in this.  Where's the city?  Why is it that Ainbinder gets a free pass.  These guys exist to make a profit.  These guys don't develop land for free ... they're not doing this as a favor to you, or to the neighborhood.  If Ainbinder wanted to be so kind, they would refurbish all of the older homes in the neighborhood, and donate them to those less fortunate ... it would still be cheaper than the 380.  
Put this in perspective; they want to sell the land to a retailer to make a profit, and they want to use public money to help them do it (See above comment).  I don't care where on earth you come from, as its written, its not a fiscally responsible deal, and the public gets promises ... and how many promises has this city seen broken from government, much less corporations.   

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.

Maybe if you visited the StopHeightsWalmart website you might have found far more substance than what you've chosen to include.  Hell, we even have a link for a super eco WM Store that was built in McKinney (A suburb of Dallas - and in all fairness, this just went up on the 16th).  Just about anything is going to be better than the standard design they've presented.  (really Ainbinder?  15 cars in a WM parking lot in the middle of the day?  C'mon now).  Nothing groundbreaking, just more of the same ... 

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.

Ask Ainbinder why thats the case, or the city for that matter.  We've called 311 on their overgrown drainage ditches numerous times, yet no one's making them do anything about it. 

Improvements promised

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.

... and legal fees, and land at double the value, and drainage retention that they would have to put in anyway that won't go to the city's control because it will still be on the WM Land ... yadda yadda yadda ... I'm sure you've read the 380 front to back.  In case you haven't, again, here you go ... 

Ah shucks, I don't want to ruin the fun of actually making an effort to read a document that we just threw together without any real work on it or anything, but in case you don't have the time to go download it, etc, so here we go ... 

SECTION 2 – Responsible Considerations and Recommendations
• Typically, developers are responsible for infrastructure upgrades that will only serve the
development. Infrastructure upgrades that are for the public are typically funded by the
municipality, if such funds are available. And anything in between the two is usually split between
the municipality and the developer based on negotiations over whether the improvement is more
or less for the developer’s benefit than the public. This 380 agreement throws that all to the wind
and obligates tax payers to fund everything regardless of whether it is solely for the purpose of the
development. At the very least, the City should determine what improvements are solely for the
benefit of the developer and require the developer to pay for those improvements. This would
mean that the cart has to go back behind the horse. The developer should be required to have
approved plans before the 380 agreement is negotiated so we can know for certain what
infrastructure improvements will actually be required and what improvements the developer
should have to fund.
• The developer’s obligations under the agreement are illusory. At best, this is an executory
contract. In the simplest terms, that is a contract where no one is obligated unless one party
performs (ex. if you mow my lawn, I will pay you $10). The developer is not obligated to build
anything and, if the developer does build, is only obligated to put up 75,000 sq ft of retail, with at
least one anchor tenant. As noted above, the developer should be required to commit to
building the entire project in order to be entitled to any public money. Anything short would put
the tax payers at risk for insufficient tax generation from the development.
• The developer’s obligation to build infrastructure improvements is partially illusory. The developer
has discretion to nix any infrastructure improvements that are not required by permitting and
code. Thus, if the infrastructure upgrades go over budget, the developer has the right to throw
out the esplanade improvements, improvements to West Side Park and the bridge improvements
as these are not needed for the development. The developer should be required to complete all
• The requirement to issue bonds and pay within 15 months of the opening of the anchor is a typical
provision in an agreement with a Municipal Utility District (“MUD”). MUDs have the ability to issue
bonds without needing tax payer approval. The City of Houston does not. Thus, this provision is
inappropriate and potentially a major liability for the City if the development fails and there is no
tax revenue. The developer should bear the risk of repayment solely out of tax revenues. The
City’s repayment obligation should be limited to 10 years (as required by ordinance) and to tax
revenue collected.
• The developer is able to bill the city for its attorney’s fees and time incurred in preparing and
negotiating the 380 agreement with the City. This will be part of the “Soft Costs” and
“Contingencies” in the itemized list. More importantly, 20% for soft costs and contingencies is
grossly inflated. 15% is considered very high in the industry. Furthermore, the City has its own staff
that can handle the supervision of the project instead of paying Ainbinder a hefty profit to have
his people do the work. The City knows how to build roads. The percentage for soft costs should
be cut to at least 15%. This would save the City almost a half million dollars. If City staff worked
the project, the percentage could arguably be dropped to 10%, saving tax payers almost a
million dollars.

• The interest reimbursement is a terrible deal for tax payers. Interest is only limited by State usury
laws, which do not apply to many National lenders. More troubling, Ainbinder could simply loan
the money to himself by having his development company loan money to the special purpose
LLC. Given that the cap on bond finance charges is 5%, the developer could potentially charge
double that rate. Over ten years, this could cost the City 1.6 million dollars! The developer should
bear the cost of financing. The developer is getting timely improvements at the tax payer’s
expense. The developer needs to have some skin in this game. It would also incentivize the
developer to build more and faster to maximize tax repayment. At the very least, the interest rate
should be capped at 5%.
• The total amount of the contract is capped at 6.05 million. However, the City Development
Director has absolute discretion to increase this amount by agreement with the developer. This is
a blank check! The contract cap should be absolute. The developer has no incentive to stay on
budget. If the developer cannot build on budget, the developer should have to come back to
City Council for a supplemental agreement.
• The City is obligated to pay Ainbinder 1.035 million for the acquisition of the right of way for the
Koehler extension. That is a cost of 58.08 per sq ft. The county tax authority has appraised the
land at the Heights Plaza apartments at 22.50 per sq ft! Improved property in the area generally
has a market value of 38 per sq ft. The profit Ainbinder is making on this sale is astronomical. If
Ainbinder is not willing to significantly reduce this amount, the City should eliminate this from the
380 agreement and take the land by eminent domain. The City is potentially overpaying by half
a million for this acquisition.
• The contract states that it controls over any conflicts any City ordinance or regulation. This
provision is backward. City ordinances should control over any conflicts with the contract. The
City should never contract away compliance with its ordinances.
• Ainbinder should not be reimbursed for on site drainage improvements. This is nothing more than a
transfer of public money to private hands. Furthermore, the cost for this is roughly equivalent to
the cost of improving the esplanade, bridges and park. Thus, the City has given the developer
dollar for dollar what the community gets, except that the tax payers pay for all of it.
• For all the tax payer money being spent for infrastructure improvements that solely benefit the
development, the developer has no real obligation to do anything on site. The developer is
merely asked to “endeavor” to build in the architectural style of the Heights. This requirement is
virtually unenforceable. The developer should be required to submit architectural plans to the
HAHC for approval and should be required to build 100% according to those plans. Also, for all
that the developer is getting from the tax payers, the developer should be required to do much
more on site than an appropriate facade. There should be enforceable requirements for low
impact development practices, trees, green space, walkways and so on. RUDH has submitted to
the City what it believes should be incorporated in the 380 agreement.
• The City has no protection in case the developer becomes insolvent and has only partially
completed improvements. The City should be granted a first priority lien on the development for
the cost of completing any improvements that the developer may fail to complete for any
• Finally, the Chronicle’s editorial in support of the 380 agreement incorrectly claimed that the
operating agreement with Walmart was part of the 380 agreement. It should be. Otherwise, the
operating agreement has no real teeth. Walmart should be a signatory to the 380 agreement
with monetary penalties to be taken out of tax reimbursements for failure to abide by the
operating agreement.

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.

This is getting to be one of my favorite arguments ... why didn't you oppose the Target on Shearn ... thats a simple answer ... because then my blog name wouldn't have made sense.

Civic engagement is a good thing, and the cause my fellow Heights residents are rallying around may improve the project, and strengthen their neighborly bonds in such a unique corner of Houston.
But as the volume rises, let's remember that not everyone is against the so-called Heights Walmart, especially those who need it. 

Lets also remember that its easy to lob criticism from behind a computer screen ... but it takes a bit more effort to actually make some recommendations that are good for the community and our city.

I'm actually not a heights resident ... as the blog name states, I live on Koehler street, which is in the West End.  But I've met a lot of people in all this that I'm really happy to have met, and that I hope we'll be able to maintain lasting friendships with.  Thats been the best part of all of this ... I've actually discovered a community that has a concern for whats happening around them, and doesn't sit around and wait.

We've asked for the city to defer the 380 ... use it to make sure everybody gets something ... as it is right now, there's no teeth, no enforcement.  Take a look at that list we gave to the mayor.  Look at what's detailed there and presented.  There's something for everybody.  SWA Group was kind enough to help with a concept idea (shown above) ... and it includes a big box design. 

The blogosphere is one thing, but these are issues, big issues that will effect us, and the city, for years to come.  Lets stick to the substance that makes a difference here.