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Unveiled: New Washington Heights project to bring retail, restaurants — and, oh yes, a Walmart to Houston Inner Loop

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A Walmart has been proposed for the southwest corner of Yale and Koehler. Photo by Ralph Bivins

Restaurants and stores on Heights Boulevard, along with new pathways and landscaping on the boulevard’s esplanade, will be part of Ainbinder Company’s Walmart-anchored retail development in the Inner Loop of Houston, the developer of the project said Friday.

The project, called Washington Heights, is planned for 23 acres near the southwest corner of Yale Street and Koehler, just south of Interstate 10 and the Heights community. Much of the project will be located on industrial land vacant land that formerly was the site of a Trinity Industries steel fabrication plant.

“We are going to take this land from a factory site to a fairly upscale development,” said developer Bart Duckworth, principal in the Houston-based Ainbinder firm.

Washington Heights will also spread onto land Ainbinder is acquiring on Heights Boulevard, south of the freeway. An old apartment project there will be demolished to make way for the new retail space, Duckworth said.

A number of citizens and community activists have opposed the Walmart, citing concerns about crime and the impact the 24-hour Walmart could have on neighborhood redevelopment.

The Washington Heights plan, reviewed by CultureMap in an exclusive preview, indicates that the Walmart architecture is more subdued. Gone is the traditional blue, red and gray exterior that has marked Walmart's presence around the nation. This Walmart will feature more browns and show an effort to break up the stark "big box" look with architectural detailing. The plans show ample parking lot and storefront landscaping with tree plantings that exceed the norm, Duckworth said.

Duckworth said Wal-mart Stores signed an agreement to build the store less than a month ago and plans for the project have been developed and designed since then. Ainbinder is setting up meetings with community leaders and hopes to arrange a public meeting to make a presentation to the public next week, Duckworth said. The plans are expected to be unveiled at that time.

Real estate broker Lance Gilliam of the retail division of Moody Rambin Interests has been handling the project.

Gilliam hopes to attract chef-driven restaurants, local boutiques and non-chain outlets to the retail space on Yale and Heights Boulevard, as an extension of the restaurant development that has occurred along Washington Avenue in recent years.

“We have really made an effort to reach out to the Houston, and also to Texas cities including, Austin, to see who that is out there would best serve this community,” Gilliam said. “We want shops that are unique and add to the community.”

Earlier this year, HEB was considering buying the site for a grocery store, but HEB was reportedly outbid for the deal by Wal-mart Stores.

The Walmart will cover 15 acres of the land, with the remainder being used for smaller stores and restaurants. The project is just a few blocks north of Washington Avenue, in an area known as the West End. If all goes as planned, Ainbinder expects to break ground on instructure early in 2011 and have retailers openings in 2012, Duckworth said.

Ainbinder is seeking an agreement with city officials to make public improvements to the area on city owned property, Duckworth said.

Under the proposal, Ainbinder would spend $6 million to widen and expand streets around the project, beautify nearby bridges, improve drainage, build new sidewalks, and create a crushed rock path and landscaping in the esplanade of Heights Boulevard, he said. Ainbinder would be reimbursed for the public improvements over time as the project reached completion and occupancy goals, in a government sponsored program that has been used for other projects around the state, Duckworth said.

Ainbinder began purchasing the land in 2007. The Trinity Industrial factory on the site was demolished and a railroad spur that was on the property was removed. Ainbinder spent several million dollars to remove contaminated dirt, under government supervision, from the site, Duckworth said.

He said there was no ground water contamination from the Walmart site, which is bounded by the railroad tracks on the south, Bonner Street on the west, Koehler on the north and Yale on the east. The Berger Iron Works factory, which is not owned by Ainbinder, is adjacent to the Walmart site and it will remain on the property, Duckworth said.

Walmart’s trucks will enter the store property off of Koehler Street, next to Berger Iron Works. 

Ainbinder Co. has developed a number of shopping centers anchored by retailers including Kroger, HEB, Best Buy and other major retailers in Texas and other states. Ainbinder developed the RiverPark Shopping Center on U.S. Highway 59 at the Grand Parkway, the HEB Plaza on 61st Street in Galveston and the Kroger Meyerland Shopping Center at South Post Oak and West Bellfort.

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