Battle in the Heights
Walmart brings out the passion
By Christopher Patronella Jr.
The Heights may soon be dealing with an unwanted resident, and they're going to have to put up a strong fight to keep them out. The possibility that Houston's seventh Super Walmart could land in the historic area has residents squirming, and a strong reaction for and against its development is spreading throughout the community.
The Facebook group "Stop the Heights Wal-mart!" was formed after reports surfaced that Walmart is looking at a parcel of land south of I-10 near the intersection of Yale Street and Center Street, with plans for no less than the establishment of its next small country, it would seem.
Why? Because the Heights is such a vibrant, creative community, known for its wide range of independently owned businesses, Heights resident Veronica Triplett told Hair Balls.
"It's a place where I can walk to the store, get a fine cup of coffee not made by Starbucks, and find stores that carry everything from locally made crafts and clothing to quirky vintage furniture and recycled jewelry," Triplett said. "This is a part of Houston that doesn't have the feel of a suburban, generic, strip-mall wasteland. My fear is that if Walmart moved into this area, it would pose major competition to all of these places I love so much and force them into extinction."
(Editor's note: The above quote is almost perfect in its Heightsocity — the coffee "not made by Starbucks," the "locally made crafts," the actual use of the word "quirky" and the "suburban, generic, strip-mall wasteland" dis. Heights, we love you, but sometimes you need to take it down a notch. Back to the story...)
A development site plan obtained by the Houston Chronicle shows a 152,000-square-foot store, a parking lot for 664 cars and additional retail spaces for a bank, fast-food restaurant and other stores.
Walmart spokesman William Wertz told Hair Balls that Walmart is considering the expansion at this time but that no plans have been approved.
"We can confirm that we are looking at this site, but discussions are preliminary, and we aren't ready to say any more at this time," Wetz said.
Mayor Annise Parker is also emphasizing that plans are tentative, in a statement to Hair Balls: "This is not yet a done deal," she said. "The property has been assembled for a major retail venture. When that moves forward, there will be careful review for impact on traffic, mobility and city infrastructure. I encourage Wal-Mart, or any other retailer interested in the property, to open dialogue with the Greater Heights and Washington Avenue Super Neighborhoods 15 and 22 as well as other neighborhood groups and civic clubs in that area."
A majority of online commenters make clear their distaste for Walmart:
"NO WALMART!! Take your union busting, bad employment practices, and destruction of small businesses and shove it where the sun don't shine," Kat Kupelian said on the message board of "Stop the Heights Wal-mart!" Facebook page.
On the other side of the argument, there are some who assert that while it could change the unique landscape and affect some small businesses, the bigger picture is that Walmart would bring much-needed jobs to the area.
Small-business owner John McKay of Montrose Skate Shop told Hair Balls that he has no problem with the potential development of a Walmart in the area, and the benefit of jobs far outweighs any other issues.
"I don't see it as a negative; people can get jobs, that's a good thing, nobody else is creating any jobs that I've seen, none...Maybe something at Target or Walmart can be the answer...We need somebody producing something."
Activist groups are too late to try to stop the Heights' transition away from the small community to a consumer-driven one, McKay said.
"They already turned Washington into another Richmond strip. Where were they then?" McKay said. "You've got a bar on every damn corner, that's not a problem, but suddenly somebody can actually go buy some socks and underwear and that's a problem. I don't get that one."
Johnny Rojas, owner of Rojas Printing & Graphics, told Hair Balls he has mixed emotions about Walmart.
"I've seen Walmart do really good, and I've seen Walmart destroy mom-and-pop shops," Rojas said.
Heights resident Will Barrett grew up in the Heights and has witnessed the transition over the years. Barrett told Hair Balls that while he's no Walmart fan, it seems most of the opposition is based on a number of fallacies for some, some trendy bandwagoning for others and, for quite a few, a subtle bit of classism and even racism.
Over the last decade, Barrett said, thousands of lower-income, working-class people, many of whom are minorities, have been priced out of the neighborhood — a Walmart could be very beneficial to them, but it doesn't matter for those living in what he called the "$550,000 McMansions."
"Honestly, it's hard to point the finger and shout 'racist' at an individual," Barrett said. "But I think you're a little delusional if you don't think there's at the very least a small racial and socioeconomic aspect to the Walmart resistance. You'll hear it said a lot, 'Well, there's a Walmart going up at 45 and Crosstimbers; why can't "they" shop over there?'
"I think it's kinda antithetical to Houston for a few select, wealthier people from all the way across I-10 to dictate what happens to that land with anything but their shopping habits," Barrett said. "If 200 historic homes were gonna be bulldozed tomorrow, I might care or be sympathetic, but what's there now? If Walmart is the highest bidder, then let them do what they please, as long as it doesn't affect you. These people pretend to care about the 'true' character of the Heights, but I think one look at Washington Avenue will tell you the truth about that."
This story obviously won't be ending anytime soon. A neighborhood meeting is planned for July 20.
DOING IT DAILY
There is a ton of new stuff each day on the Houston Press blogs; you're only getting a taste of it here in the print edition. Head to blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs (or "/rocks" or "/eating") and under "Tools" on the top-right side of the page, use the "categories" drop-down menu to find these stories:
The Houston Police Department's SWAT team was called out to arrest a big phone-marketing fund-raiser for a police union (Awkward!); one very drunk Montrose dude lit his girlfriend's wardrobe on fire and ended up in jail; and a portly Galvestonian tried to bull-rush his way out of a CVS with some contraband Blue Bell.
We posted a slideshow of readers' submissions to our Flickr page that made us go "WTF?"; we examined six covers from the classic age of comic books that turned out to be about Houston; and we looked at how residents of First Colony are fighting plans to build a large private water park there.
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