City Council approves Heights Wal-Mart project

September 22, 2010 4:21:18 PM PDT
Houston City Council is moving forward with plans to bring a new Wal-Mart to the Heights. On Wednesday morning, members approved an agreement that will reimburse the developer for making improvements to the area around Yale and Koehler streets.

The 380 incentive agreement, as it is called, between the city and the developer Ainbinder easily passed. But those opposed to the project say they are willing to continue the fight to stop it. The vote passed with heavy support, but it was not a unanimous vote by City Council.

The final vote was 11 to 4 in favor of the city's proposed 380 agreement with developer Ainbinder for the 23-acre site at Yale, near Interstate 10 in the Heights. The anchor store of the development is a Wal-Mart, and many neighborhood residents have been vocally opposed to the plan.

The 380 agreement will provide reimbursement to the developer up to about $6 million for planned infrastructure improvements, including wider sidewalks, a jogging path and upgraded landscaping.

Supporters say anything would be better than the empty lot there now and they say the improvements will be great for nearby residents. However, some residents say they don't want a Wal-Mart in their backyard.

Mayor Annise Parker insists it's the best deal for the city.

"The developers could have put the bulldozers out there and done this without the 380 agreement months ago. They were doing it in order to work with us," Mayor Parker said.

Nearby neighbors don't see any potential benefits.

"This 380 agreement, this has become bigger than Wal-Mart. This has become an issue of public integrity," said Jeffrey Jackson.

He points out that Ainbinder has worked with the city for years on street and permitting issues to make sure their project has highway access, something the developer admits readily.

"We contracted to buy the land we now own in 2007 and part of the reason we're attracted to the area because we knew TxDOT was putting frontage roads," said Michael Ainbinder.

Ainbinder and his business partner also donated $5,000 each to Mayor Parker's campaign earlier this year.

"It's the appearance of pay to play here at the city," Jackson said.

But the mayor says all Houstonians will benefit from the road and drainage improvements that will be made surrounding this development, and that campaign contributions don't play any role.

"Other than the fact that it's one of the most incredibly insulting things anyone can say, and the fact that, I'm much more interested in people who supported me when I was a struggling candidate rather than the people who got on the late train," said Mayor Parker.

While the developer is ready to move forward, while some council members just didn't feel right about voting for it.

"The city was well represented by their staff and council. We think it's a good, fair deal that benefits the city," said Michael Ainbinder.

"I actually took a tour and looked at some of the streets back there and it didn't look like the capacity was there, so just having the community not in support of it, that's what did it for me," said Council Member James Rodriguez, who voted no.

This is not Rodriguez's district, but he voted no in support of Council Member Ed Gonzalez, whose district it is, along with a no vote from Council Members Melissa Noriega and Jolanda Jones.

The developer expects the project to be ready in the spring of 2012.


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