Houston, TX. & Chicago, IL. Urban Sprawl On the March
The urban sprawl wars continue this week, as the Chicago, Illinois City Council approved the third Wal-Mart for the windy city, and officials in Houston threw public welfare at a Wal-Mart superstore in the Heights neighborhood of Houston.
In Chicago, the city council voted 41-4 to approve a third Wal-Mart location: a 143,000 s.f. store in the Chatham neighborhood. On assurances that Wal-Mart will pay its workers $8.75 an hour (25 cents above Chicago's minimum wage), the city council is now approving sprawl without even a debate.
Wal-Mart is now scouting out as many as 20 additional locations -- realizing that they better get their stores in the ground now that the political winds are behind their back, and before the windy city blows back against them.
Mayor Richard Daley, who has drunk deep the Wal-Mart Kool-Aid, made the remarkable statement quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times this week that "No one questions Wal-Mart in the suburban area." After all the battles and scars Wal-Mart has suffered in suburban America, including small Illinois communities, Mayor Daley has missed the narrative, like someone who walks in at the end of Gone With the Wind and tries to recreate the plot line.
Meanwhile, Chicago city officials might learn something from their colleagues in Houston, Texas, where another Wal-Mart superstore controversy is raging -- and this one has little to do with the minimum wage.
Houston is a glimpse of what Chicago now only dreams to be: a mecca for Chinese imports. Houston has at least 15 stores within the city's limits, including six supercenters. But the latest proposal for the "Heights" neighborhood in Houston has the common folk rising up, and there is no organized labor to prod them on.
Houston Heights describes itself as a "diverse small-town community in the heart of Houston where neighbors and businesses thrive, children learn and play, and history lives." For the past 37 years, the community has had a Houston Heights Association, a nonprofit organization formed to encourage and promote the enhancement of the Houston Heights community. This group is going to have its hands full unless it plans to sit on the sidelines during the upcoming Wal-Mart battle.
According to the Houston Chronicle. Wal-Mart wants to build just outside of the Heights, in what the newspaper calls the retailer's "most urban location" in the Houston area. Wal-Mart has indicated this year that it will focus its resources on breaking into urban areas like this one in Houston. "We are always looking for opportunities to serve our customers in Houston," a company spokesman told the Chronicle.
Wal-Mart's site plan shows a 152,015 s,f store, but the company would not reveal more about its plans. These urban superstores, in Chicago and Houston, are scaled down somewhat from their suburban cousins, but are still far larger than the 80,000 s.f. superstores that the company has built in several other locations.
Part of the site Wal-Mart wants was once an industrial plant. According to the Chronicle, the regional grocery chain H-E-B had made an offer for the site -- but they were outbid by Wal-Mart.
This week, the Houston Chronicle reports that Wal-Mart Stores is under contract with a developer to purchase 16 acres of land. The announcement of the deal came only two days after neighbors of the store protested the plan before the Houston City Council.
The Council members apparently applauded the residents for "their proactive efforts and passion for their neighborhood," but then told residents that there was nothing the city can do. As one neighbor told Sprawl-Busters, "Houston has no zoning."
The company that owns the land, the Ainbinder Company, was even offered public welfare to build this project. According to the Chronicle, city officials are throwing tax breaks at the developer, despite the neighbor's opposition to the plan. It's one thing to tell residents you can't stop sprawl -- but its quite another thing to pay for it with public monies. A specific subsidy level was not discussed, but staff to Houston Mayor Annise Parker told the newspaper that the city can use future revenue from the project to help the developer pay for the cost of widening local streets so they can bear more traffic generated by this huge project.
What you can do: To keep the residents of Houston calm, the Mayor has announced that she will set up a committee of residents and businesses to give neighbors a vehicle for blowing off steam.
The Mayor wanted to be clear that this community group's purpose would be "not to stop the project, but to make sure that whatever goes in there, that at least we attempt to negotiate mitigations to potential neighborhood impacts."
Meanwhile, a handful of neighbors who were willing to fight not only Wal-Mart, but City Hall too, spoke out against the project this week, citing the increasd traffic, the increased crime, and the changes this project will wreak on this unique neighborhood.
A Wal-Mart representative issued a statement which said that the superstore would use "low pollution lighting" and work with the local police on a security plan for the store.
A Houston blogger, ironically printed in the Chicago Sun-Times, pointed out that the superstore doesn't fit in with the area known in Houston as "Super Neighborhood 22." "It doesn't seem to fit in with their vision for the Washington corridor."
A "Stop Heights Wal-Mart" page has been set up by neighbors on Facebook -- but Facebook never stopped a Wal-Mart.
Another blogger in Houston on Culture Maps warned Wal-Mart that they are walking into a fight. "Well listen here, Wal-Mart," wrote blogger Caroline Gallay, "you should heed the advice of Vizzini in The Princess Bride: 'Never fight a land war in Asia.' It would be a classic blunder. I know I'm not alone in my disdain for a company with a history of treating its workers horrendously, a cloying smiley-face mascot and products that aren't often anything to be proud of. Next to BP, Wal-Mart may be the most hated company in America."
Gallay says she's lived in the Heights her entire life -- except for a sabatical for college -- "and in a neighborhood that values its independent coffee joints, unique boutiques and restaurants; fights hard for preservation; and has residents that sport bumper stickers like 'Friends don't let friends go to Starbucks,' I can tell you that Wal-Mart's corporate icon isn't going to get a friendly welcome."
"I'd bet money that no one who lives [in the Heights] will make themselves a patron. Even if convenience did persuade us to abandon our principles, we've got a massive Target just over I-10 on Shearn Street, and my family has always driven to the Costco on Richmond Avenue for the groceries Target lacks (when we want to buy in bulk). Most days we just head over to Houston's largest Kroger on 11th Street and Shepherd."
"The way I see it, Gallay concluded, "Wal-Mart's not offering a community that wouldn't be caught dead there anything they don't already have."
Readers are urged to email Houston Mayor Annise Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Parker, Can you see how incompatible a Wal-Mart supercenter is with the character and land uses in The Heights?
Houston already has half a dozen Wal-Mart superstores. It's not difficult to get cheap Chinese products from Houston-area Wal-Martsd already. Large single story superstores do not make sense in an urban area. The suburban stores that Wal-Mart has built are bad enough -- but bringing them into an urban market is even worse.
All this proposed superstore will do is cannibalize its own superstores already in Houston, and not really create new jobs or revenue for the city. One study by the consultant Retail Forward indicated that for every one Wal-Mart superstore that is built, two area grocery stores will fail. Houston is already saturated with superstores.
This latest Wal-Mart proposal should be denied for being incompatible with the surrounding land uses.
If the Ainbinder Company and Wal-Mart cannot afford to pay for this project on their own, the city has no business offering tax breaks or public welfare of any kind. These are wealthy companies. We don't need to be giving more rich people public bail outs. Let the Walton family widen the roads, not the burdened taxpayers in Houston.
You are not giving tax breaks to the smaller merchants who will suffer as Wal-Mart grabs more market share. As Mayor, you should be focused on expanding Houston's job base, not merely cannibalizing it to suit some large national chain store."