Opponents of the Heights-area Walmart project filled the large room at George R. Brown in a surge of red. Mayor Annise Parker greeted the public, beginning with what felt like a graceful apology. Walmart representatives sat on the left side of the room, braced for the pending attack.
A representative of The Ainbinder Company (the Houston-based developer of the project) sat with his fist curled, holding his cheek up against his crossed leg. He knew it was going to be a long night.
“We’re going to stay here tonight until the last question is answered,” Parker said.
The show kicked off with a presentation on what city infrastructure in the proposed area could use repair through a 380 (a tax reimbursement program) Agreement and Ordinance #99-674, which would provide a loan to The Ainbinder Company to polish the picture. In all, the city could reimburse Ainbinder as much as $6 million for public infrastructure costs.
The 380 agreements, as established by the Texas Local Government Code, allow cities to refund projected sales-tax income.
Road work designed to address traffic concerns would include extensions to Yale, Kohler and other streets in the area. Drainage and food truck delivery times were also discussed.
None of this was about to keep the naysayers at bay. Once Michael C. Ainbinder, chairman and CEO of The Ainbinder Company, took the stage, the booing commenced. Still, Ainbinder kept his cool.
He opened with a joke: “Before a couple weeks ago, none of you knew who we were and to be honest, we were a lot happier then.”
Ainbinder went down a list, stating that his company is in fact very much in touch with community members of the Heights — as was first reported on CultureMap.com.
The list of the community organizations that the Walmart project has reached out to include: Super Neighborhood 22, West End Civic Club, Bass Street Townhomes Association, Bonner Street Homeowner Association, Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council (SN 15), Clark Pines Civic Association, Houston Heights Association, Greater Heights Area Chamber of Commerce, Montie Beach Civic Club, Woodland Heights Civic Association, Bayou Preservation Association, Center for New Urbanism, Citizen’s Transportation Coalition, Washington on Westcott Roundabout Initiative and the White Oak Bayou Association.
There was lots of jeering from the crowd in between Ainbinder's sentences. In the middle of Ainbinder's presentation, Parker got up to remind Houstonians of their manners.
The most unpopular person in the room continued to detail the commercial Eden he hopes to create with the abandoned steel mill site — the irony! Odd how things used to be made in this country, now we just sell them here.
Then, Jeff McAllister, senior vice president for Texas Walmart stores, stepped up to bat. According to McAllister, Walmart is one of the largest employers in Texas with over 145,000 "associates." He highlighted the company's college education program, which allows Walmart employees in college to receive college credit while on the job. McAllister also said that Walmart is the largest cash philanthropist in the country.
Later, the mayor took back the podium and asked everyone to remember the lawsuit that the protests against the Ashby high-rise cost the city (the developers eventually sued Houston for $40 million).
“We want to do a better job of getting together with developers early in the process to avoid being sued,” Parker said.
During the Q&A, one Heights resident brought up an interesting scenario. What if the city denies The Ainbinder Company the tax reimbursement through the 380 Agreement and the resulting Houston taxpayer money? Would they still build it?
The answer from Michael Ainbinder was, “Yes.” Except, without the 380 Agreement, they wouldn’t have to play nice. They wouldn’t have to make any improvements to the drainage, traffic or plant as many promised trees around the lot.
Kathy Reich is a resident of the Heights. Reich wore a red Southern Methodist University shirt she bought for a dollar at the Value Village on Shepherd. She says Walmart would just be nuisance.
“Thirty years ago when this area needed a Walmart they wouldn’t build it, but now that they can take advantage of the tax break it’s a money-maker,” Reich said.
Byron Young of the Brooksmith community says he wouldn’t have a problem with the development if it were an H-E-B.
"I don't care how pretty they make it look, within the week my feet will start sticking to the floors," Young said.
What about the socio-economic part about all of this? Javier Perez of the National Hispanic Professional Organization (NHPO) says most of the huff and puff comes out of just blatant racism.
“We’re here representing the silent majority,” Perez said. “Latinos have been living in the Heights longer than its current residents. There wasn’t any problem when Target moved in. Two blocks away from the location they want to build on, every place along the strip is a bar.”
Heights resident Sid Edmonds of the East Sunset Heights Association thinks the city should make a strong push for the 380 Agreement to be plastered into the development.
“People should be careful of what they wish for,” Edmonds said.
In closing, the mayor announced that another open meeting will be scheduled for next Thursday, where she hopes community discussion on the Walmart development in The Heights will continue.