The ongoing struggle between the Montrose community and H-E-B over the design of an impending supermarket entered a new stage Saturday when Scott McClelland, president of H-E-B in Houston, presented renderings of three potential store designs at at a meeting of the Neartown Civic Association.
Area residents filled a community meeting room at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church to hear the pitch and cast their votes on either The Pavilion, The Sawtooth or The Wave. Their decision will change the landscape of the Montrose community.
McClelland addressed key issues that had come up in six months of discussions with area residents. Greenery rose to the top of those concerns, as the former site of Wilshire Village counts multiple sprawling oak trees.
"Trees are important and we don't want a concrete jungle or big box store," McClelland said.
He said he consulted with Trees for Houston in addition to conducting a tree survey. Each tree has been calibrated by inches, and if it's not among the 10 old-growth trees that are being saved, H-E-B will plant a tree of equal width in another part of Montrose, ensuring no net change in the number of neighborhood trees, he said. Many of the trees on the lot are already diseased or dead, but six pods of tree groupings will be salvaged as islands in the parking lot, with the largest connected to the store with a cement pathway.
The back of the building will face toward West Alabama, with a 29-foot-deep space with trees and a 5-foot sidewalk between the structure and the street. H-E-B considers it a concession to the community, but as METRO's Christof Spieler noted, that width is the bare minimum for two people to walk side-by-side. The sidewalk follows an awkward, windy course that's more fitting for a suburban park than as an efficient conduit for urban pedestrians.
"A good sidewalk is a lot more than pavement," Spieler toldCultureMap. "It's all the trees that give you shade, green space that makes you feel more comfortable, and it's even the sections between the trees."
He pointed out that the trees should be moved to between the sidewalk and street, creating a protective barrier between foot traffic and cars.
"H-E-B has been very conscientous in the architecture, but not so much in urban design," he added, noting that there is still time for minor changes to be made.
"What I'm so gratetful for is the way H-E-B placed the building, pulling it away from the street," Menil Collection associate director and Montrose resident Emily Todd told CultureMap. "And that green strip is really going to make such a difference. We fought for that in Midtown so much, and nobody would ever listen."
The focus on green carries inside the store. H-E-B director of planning and design Bill Triplett said the store will be only the second H-E-B location in the Houston area to be LEED certified for environmental design. The San Antonio architecture firm Lake/Flato has designed ways to allow sunlight into the building to reduce energy costs, and it will also rack up green points by composting organic waste, recycling building materials and recycling construction waste.
"What I love about what H-E-B is trying to do is make it one of the greenest stores in their portfolio," said city of Houston director of sustainability Laura Spanjian, a Montrose resident who attended the meeting to cast her vote. She added, "They're committed to becoming LEED-certified, and I really appreciate it. We had a great dialogue, and we're going to continue that to make it one of the greenest stores."
How the new store will impact the Montrose grid's traffic congestion was also on voters' minds.
"In a lot of the stores we plan, traffic equals cars," Triplett said, "but in this case, traffic is also pedestrian, bicycle and delivery trucks."
McClelland said that that Dunlavy between Richmond and Alabama will be widened and the light at Alabama and Dunlavy will be reconfigured to allow for left turns. Instead of delivering goods to the store on the typical 40 foot tractor trailers, H-E-B will implement smaller, neighborhood-friendly 28 foot trucks, he said.
At the meeting, McClelland painted a portrait of a grocery store-cum-neighborhood hub, including a 9,000-sq.-ft., fully landscaped patio with a fountain. There will also be a bandstand and a movie screen to engage local talent. He's currently in talks with local coffee purveyors to enhance the community appeal. A Central Market "Cafe on the Run" section of the store will be located near the entrance, encouraging visitors to linger. Adjacent to the patio is an event plaza, which will normally function as parking spaces, but can be sectioned off at two ends on weekends, effectively doubling the size of the patio for an artisans market or festivals.
Shannon Simpson, a Heights resident who will assume the role as the store's director, said a full-time community director will be hired for the store. This person will serve as a liaison to Montrose, organizing music events and cooperating with local schools. It's just one more measure by H-E-B to integrate itself within the local community, SImpson said.
Spanjian emphasized her enthusiasm for the store's community ammenities: "It's going to be great: the movie theater, the cafe, the greenery, the place for a band and community meetings. It's really going to be able to bring people to interact, and that's what I think Houstonians are craving. They're craving more places where they can be together in a beautiful setting, and that's one of the things that this store is going to bring to the neighborhood."
Following his address, McClelland spoke individually with area residents as attendees perused the proposals and filled out their ballots. He addressed concerns about flooding, water retention and traffic, and noted a distinct distaste for the inclusion of color in the building's siding. While certain suggestions such as installing a green roof may not become a reality, he was receptive to simple requests.
"Someone came up and said she bikes around a lot and could use an air pump near the bike racks," he recalled. "That's an easy one — done."
The meeting's turnout was impressive, giving a face to the community debate that has otherwise been limited to blogs and meetings of the Montrose Land Defense Coalition. And while the room was filled with lively conversation on which of the three proposals was most aesthetically pleasing, some residents remained dubious about the event.
"These aren't three different architectural proposals; they're three different roofs," architectural historian and Rice University professor Stephen Fox said.
Several attendees chose not to vote because they considered the three proposals too indecipherably similar.
Was Saturday's vote an empty gesture of sympathy to an activist neighborhood, or a genuine move by H-E-B to understand its customers?
"We always go in and interact with a community when developing a store," said McClelland of the family-owned company, adding with a sigh, "but the level to which we've done it here is something different."
The results from today's vote will be revealed next Thursday. Want to get your opinion heard on the plans? Vote on which design H-E-B should go with in our CulturePoll.