Another Break for the Wal: Pt. 2
by Andrea Afra
We live in a city where the residents watch daily as our history is demolished; where lack of zoning has created a gangsta’s paradise for the developer who has the funds to sweeten the mayor’s pot; where the suburbs sprawl in Roman proportions and the people’s efforts to create a thriving metropolis are snuffed out by the very representatives they elect. Everything and everyone has its price in Houston, and Walmart has sniffed out our weakest politicians like hyenas on wounded antelope. Now they are moving in for the big kill.
Having conquered Exurbia and Suburbia nationwide, the big box bonanza has its eyes set on untapped urban markets and using property developer Ainbinder as its middleman, it outbidded H.E.B. and recently secured its first urban store in Houston at the taxpayers’ expense. The quintessential diss has now been served. Mayor Parker and the majority of our city council agreed to a deal through Ainbinder who plans to build a suburban styled shopping complex with Walmart as the anchor store north of Washington Avenue at Yale and Koehler, at the threshold of Houston’s Historic Heights.
Per the ‘Infrastructure Development and Financing Agreement’:
WHEREAS, certain public works and improvements, including water, sewer, drainage, road improvements, and traffic signals must be developed to serve the Project, and WHEREAS, the City recognizes the positive economic impact that the Project will bring to the City through timely development and diversification of the economy, elimination of unemployment and underemployment, and WHEREAS, the City has established a program in accordance with Article III, Chapter 52-a of the Texas Constitution and Chapter 380 of the Texas Local Government Code (“Chapter 380”) under which the City has the authority to use public funds for the public purposes of promoting local economic development and stimulating business and commercial activity within the City…
To phrase this all more succinctly, you and I will officially be footing a $6 million tab to help open a Walmart in the Heights that will be built by a developer who claims on their website that their Cinco Ranch shopping center with tenants such as Fantastic Sam’s and Discount Tire is a “Historical Project.” The vast majority of Ainbinder’s clients are suburban based big box stores and large scale retailers including HEB, Best Buy, Academy, and K-Mart, as well as chain banks and stores such as Starbucks, nearly all of which would have been more welcome than Walmart. In the end, after Walmart purchases 16 of the 23 acres Ainbinder is building on, it won’t just be the residents who oppose the agreement who will be funding their foe’s development, but companies that will be hurt by Walmart’s overseas factory prices, like Blue Line Bike Labs in the Heights, who will now have to compete with the $50 slave wage produced bicycles offered at Walmart around the corner.
Slated for completion in 2013, Hermes Architects’ renderings of Ainbinder’s vision for the ‘Washington Heights’ development look like Sugar Land ate Cinco Ranch and regurgitated the results in watercolor. Subliminal messages abound. With less than 20 cars in the parking lot of one the main renderings of the store, our worries of traffic problems should be abated. In order to dissuade those who think the development won’t contribute to the community or that Walmart attracts crime, there is a picture of two women, one jogging and one riding a bike, a mother and child holding hands, but there’s also a man just standing under a tree looking totally creepy as he watches the ladies passing by. Along with the Walmart, there are four spaces for retail lease and one for a bank. There is even a spot for a restaurant, as leasing company Moody Ramblin hopes that the property will attract ‘chef driven restaurants’ and doesn’t seem to think it odd that upscale diners might not look highly upon sipping a 2005 Chateaux Margaux by the light of a Walmart sign.
Those that appear to be in favor of the Walmart have made petty comments about the opposition being composed of elitist snobs, which belies their ignorance to the kind of people who live, work and play in the Heights and surrounding areas. Many also argue that the project isn’t even in the Heights, but it is written very plainly in Exhibit D’s ‘Economic Impact Area’ of the 380 Agreement that 19 of the lots being developed are indeed ‘all of the Houston Heights’. While the Heights’ residents will be most effected by the project, the landmark neighborhood is a place that the entire city can boast of being their own, a charming and thriving little bit of living history that has been hard fought for since its very inception. Building a Walmart in what amounts to the foyer of a historic community, as well as representing the northern entrance to Montrose, Midtown, and the West End, is a ridiculously regressive notion that offers zilch to fostering urban growth, and contrary to the Agreement’s claim that there will be a positive economic impact, there have been no studies to prove this. Unless you count Ainbinder’s election ‘victory’ gift of $10,000 to Mayor Parker, the public won’t be seeing any returns on their investment until the $6 million plus interest is repaid to the developer.
As our mayor hems and haws under the facade of lack of zoning and the laws of capitalism, let’s look to Helotes, “We Fought the Wal and the Wal lost” Texas, a small town north of San Antonio, and its 2005 defeat of the opening of a new Walmart on their prominent Scenic Loop, which they didn’t see fit for such a store. When their current mayor and council members seemed to be on the way to allowing Walmart to build in spite of the citizens’ objections, they voted them all out of office. Landowner Balous Miller sued the city and the local heritage association, but the newly elected Mayor Jon Allan said, “Developers are using vested rights to force developments onto communities. Our charge is to protect communities…We have the right to make decisions and place the needs of community above an individual who wants to make gobs of money without concern for how it might affect the community around him.”
In retrospect, it seems ironic that a tiny hill country town mayor had more huevos than the nation’s first openly gay woman to be elected mayor, who is acting quite unprogressive-like for being in charge fourth largest city in the country. It isn’t progressive to be bedding down with Walmart, a company who is in the midst of the largest gender discrimination class action lawsuit in history which was filed by its own female employees who have been fighting for equal pay and advancement since the first opened. It isn’t very forward-thinking to allow suburban themed developments in the metropolitan area or to offer public money for a corporation whose imports displace 200,000 American jobs, while backing corporate welfare for Walmart’s expansion to the inner loop under the unproven claim that it will help unemployment.
In the future, we will all pay closer attention to the relationships between those who have proven their control over our city and would put their own fiscal growth before the people’s best interest.
Keep this in mind during the next elections.
“The short memories of American voters is what keeps our politicians in office” – Will Rogers
Published- FPH 10.2010