The Mall That Ate Katy

Big money, big lobbyists, big tax breaks. The Mills Corporation is bringing one of its "megamalls" to Katy, and it's hardly business as usual in the little town on the prairie.

Immediately south of the tract are Pin Oak Village and Falcon Point, two quiet suburban enclaves just beyond the Katy city limits in unincorporated Fort Bend County. Life on this side of I-10, with its modern architecture and landscaped lawns, seems to have little in common with Katy proper, where the townspeople have lived and worked and raised families for more than 100 years. North of I-10, Katy meanders low to the ground, on large lots between wide and well-worn streets. The houses and the people are older. Near the place where Katy was founded along the San Felipe Trail, a small historic district has taken shape.

This side of I-10, however, is just as important to the residents of Pin Oak Village and Falcon Point. It's where they send their kids to school, where they attend church, where they eat dinner and make friends. The city's apparent willingness to risk destroying the life they all share has been like a slap in the face to Pin Oak Village residents like Linda Taylor.

"We thought we were a part of the community," says Taylor, "until all this started."

To make matters worse, the city has already taken steps to annex the 542-acre site of the megamall -- right up to the property lines of the two subdivisions. That would leave Pin Oak Village and Falcon Point outside the city limits, with a megamall between the subdivisions and downtown Katy.

"To them, that mall is clear across the freeway, out of sight, out of mind," Paschal Gagliardo, a Falcon Point resident, says of residents across I-10. "All they've heard is how it's going to bring in all this tax money."

Naturally, that prospect holds a certain appeal to the city's elected officials. Councilman Walter Pope says he's only seen an artist's conception of Katy Mills, but he was encouraged by what he saw on a recent visit to Grapevine Mills.

"There are not many people who drive out to Katy from Mason Road just to go shopping," says Pope. "If they have a reason to be out here, they might just make a trip across the interstate into town and visit some of the local restaurants and shops and so forth."

Since pulling into town in January, the Mills Corporation has been keen to prove itself a generous neighbor. One small example of that generosity was this year's Katy Rice Harvest Festival, which was brought to you, in part, by the Mills Corporation.

Perhaps more symbolic of the developer's motivation is Mills's offer to build a $12-million auditorium for the Katy Independent School District -- if the school district agrees to join the TIF and forfeit some of its revenue for the next 20 years.

Mills's largess is doled out by Elizabeth Link, a consultant and former Mills employee who is acting as project director for the Katy megamall. Link's job is to sell Katy Mills to Katy officials, secure $41 million in property-tax breaks for the project and close the deal before the Chelsea-DeBartalo project at Grand Parkway breaks ground.

Toward that end, Link, a tall, leggy Midwesterner who refers to the Katy project as "my mall," spends a lot of time in Katy, where she moves easily within a certain circle of local society. She's often squired around town like a minor celebrity by Johnny Nelson, the Katy city administrator, or Herb Appel, head of the Fort Bend Economic Development Council. Sometimes, they eat lunch at Jill's, a bright, carefully appointed restaurant owned by Councilwoman Jill Des Lauries. They're occasionally joined by Mayor Hank Schmidt, who owns the local funeral home.

But perhaps the most unusual friendship Link has struck up is with local environ-mentalists. Although surrounded by development, the 542-acre TIF district is nonetheless within the boundaries of the 250,000-acre Katy Prairie habitat for migratory birds. That means the Mills Corporation may need an environmental permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the country's wetland reserves, before it can build the mall.

In New Jersey, a half-dozen environmental groups are battling Mills's plan to fill in 206 acres of wetlands, even though the developer has promised to refurbish another 380 acres of marshes nearby (see "Mall Rat," page 11). Evaluation of the Katy Mills site to determine how much of the tract is wetlands has yet to be completed. It probably won't matter. In exchange for assurances from the Sierra Club that local environmentalists will not actively oppose the mall project, Mills has pledged a $200,000 donation to the Katy Prairie Conservancy, a nonprofit group charged with preserving the habitat.

Carter Smith, executive director of the conservancy, acknowledges that Mills has "adopted the conservancy as one of their community service projects."

"The mall land has very little conservation significance," Smith explains. "It's essentially landlocked. So this was an effort by all parties to try and figure out a way in which the Mills Corporation might help us with our conservation objectives."

As it happened, one conservancy objective was the purchase of some 5,000 acres of the Cypress Creek watershed, which supports more than 200 species of birds, including about 30 bald eagles. In July, Smith and the Mills Corporation announced that the developer's donation would be used to purchase a 554-acre rice farm in the watershed. Noting that Mills would also provide rent-free space in the new mall for the Katy Prairie Conservancy, Smith praised the developer, gushing that Mills "has truly set itself apart from other corporate neighbors."

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