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2010-10-16
Houston, TX. Hidden City Emails Show Favoritism Towards Wal-Mart

The gap between what public officials do publicly, versus what they say privately is big enough to fit a Wal-Mart supercenter.

A citizen's group in Houston, Texas, has published comments contained in emails from city officials that show the city has backed a Wal-Mart superstore plan for the Heights neighborhood in Houston. The emails contain biased statements against the opponents of the superstore plan. These emails only became public because of an open records act disclosure by the anti-Wal-Mart residents' group.

The group, Responsible Urban Development for Houston (RUDH), is a non-profit organization of taxpayers and homeowners is devoted to preserving the character,traditions, and appearance of the Heights and West End neighborhoods in Houston. RUDH says its goal is "to represent our neighbors before local government and to educate the community about the potential impacts of real estate development on our infrastructure, environment, taxpayer-funded public services, and quality of life."

In a press release sent to Sprawl-Busters dated October 15, 2010, RUDH charges that emails released by the city under the Texas Open Records Act have brought to light apparent bias on the part of the city regarding a controversial Wal-Mart-anchored retail development to be built in a residential West End neighborhood at the foot of the historic Houston Heights.

Sprawl-Busters last wrote about this Houston Heights project on August 29, 2010. Houston has at least 15 Wal-Mart stores within the city limits, including six supercenters. But the latest proposal for the "Heights" neighborhood in Houston has the common folk rising up, and the public welfare 'deal' is only making matters worse.

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.

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's site plan shows a 152,015 s,f store. The company that owns the land, the Ainbinder Company, has been 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. 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.

On July 30, 2010, Sprawl-Busters noted that the city was negotiating a 'deal' with the developer that would reimburse as much as $6 million in public infrastructure improvements.

The latest revelations from RUDH describe numerous emails from the City's Chief Development officer talking about Heights residents with obvious contempt and disdain, calling the concerned citizens "effete" and commenting that "[i]n [the Heights] I assume there are some who feel they have access to unique info that makes those folks uniquely qualified to decide what is good for everyone else. ... Wal-Mart deals with folks like this
everywhere."

On October 14, 2010, Mayor Parker and her staff responded to the allegations of bias by touting the two public hearings held for the community. But RUDH says the first public forum featured a presentation by Ainbinder, Wal-Mart and the City with little opportunity for public comment. In the second public forum, Mayor Parker left the hearing and missed the public testimony.

"It appears from the released inter-office emails that the City's economic
development office crossed over from being public servants to being the
developer's lobbyist," RUDH says. "In response to an email from Deputy
Director of Economic Development, stating that 'the public seemed to get no support from the council table,' the Mayor's Chief Development Officer replied, "we worked very hard to do that-behind the scenes."

In another email, the City's Deputy Director of Economic Development called on City Council member "squishy" and in need of "handholding" because the Councilmember was responding to the concerns of his constituents and not willing to jump on the developer's bandwagon.

Most disturbingly, says RUDH, the recently released emails refute the City's claim that an agreement with the developer was a way the City could have "leverage" over the development. At the request of the City, RUDH canvassed the community and met with design/development professionals to generate a comprehensive package of recommendations for the proposed agreement that addressed public concerns and promoted positive urban development. However, almost none of the suggestions were incorporated into the final agreement. In fact, the emails show that the agreement had all but been finalized in July of 2010, but was held back from the public until the last possible second.

According to a RUDH spokesman, "It looks like the agreement was set in stone by the time we had a chance to review it and provide recommendations from the community. In light of the emails, the public meetings just look like lip service at this point. The City listened, but did nothing else." The city also has an operating agreement with Wal-Mart, but it non-binding.

RUDH says it is "concerned that the City's bias toward the developer and Wal-Mart will only continue as the development heads to the planning and permitting phase. Many unanswered questions remain about traffic, drainage and public safety. RUDH urges the City of Houston to take appropriate action to ensure that the City fairly represents the concerns of its citizens."



What you can do: One "appropriate action" the city should take in this case is to prohibit the use of any public subsidies for the project.

The deal being negotiated with the developer is part of a program authorized by the state called a 380 agreement. It allows the city to grant or loan local tax revenue for economic development purposes. Once this project is built and has met certain performance requirements, Ainbinder would be reimbursed by the city from the increased property taxes or sales taxes created by the development.

The head of the development firm indicated that his company was ready to proceed with the project -- even if the 380 welfare sweetener does not happen. But he added, "We couldn't afford to do all the neighborhood amenities."

Readers are urged to email Houston Mayor Annise Parker at mayor@cityofhouston.net with the following message:

"Dear Mayor Parker, The latest revelation of emails from your staff calling Heights residents 'effete,' and showing a clear bias towards the Ainbinder project is a major embarrassment for your Adminstration.

You are using the 380 agreement process to give Wal-Mart and its wealthy developer a major financial bail out -- at a time when public bail outs for private corporations is highly unpopular. Half of the richest people on the Forbest top ten list are Waltons -- yet Houston taxpayers are being asked to subsidy this project.

The money the developer puts into improving the roadways to their store will be paid back to them at public expense. Instead of getting money for Houston schools, or public safety costs, the increased property taxes go to the developer, not the taxpayers.

You can surely see how incompatible a Wal-Mart supercenter is with the character and land uses in The Heights? Is it 'effete' to protect that community character? Houston already has half a dozen Wal-Mart superstores. It's not difficult to get cheap Chinese products from Houston-area Wal-Marts 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.

Wal-Mart this week told analysts that it is moving to a smaller urban prototype, stores as small as 16,000 s.f. Why isn't this smaller footprint concept part of your 380 agreement? All this proposed superstore will do is cannibalize other Wal-Marts 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.

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. Let the Walton family widen the roads, not the burdened taxpayers in Houston. If Ainbinder really wants this project so badly, condition your approval on the infrastructure improvements being paid for on Wal-Mart's dime. After all, it's their profits that are driving this project.

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."

For readers who want to help RUDH keep Wal-Mart out, and to view the city's emails, please go to: www.stopheightswalmart.org.










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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