It didn't take long for the boos and jeers to start once developer Michael Ainbinder took the stage at last night's meeting about a planned Walmart development near the Heights. It also didn't take long for Mayor Annise Parker to reprimand the crowd.
She actually interrupted Ainbinder to tell the 500 or so people at the meeting that she would personally remove anyone from the room who wasn't behaving properly.
That didn't happen and the crowd toned it down a bit, but still, Ainbinder came across as one of the more level-headed and realistic people there.
About midway through his presentation, for example, someone from the Stop Heights Walmart! group sent out a message via Twitter: "Michael Ainbinder just said this neighborhood 'Quite frankly needs a little sprucing up.' Gee, thanks for the insult."
In reality, Ainbinder said the site of proposed Walmart, which has been an oil storage facility and more recently a steel mill, needed sprucing up.
"People seem to think we're tearing down 400 Victorian cottages," Ainbinder added.
After his presentation, when Ainbinder answered questions on a more personal level, people continually asked him if he'd like a nasty Walmart built near his River Oaks home, or if he'd ever stepped foot in a Walmart in his life.
Ainbinder said he'd be okay with a Walmart in River Oaks, adding that he'll shop at the store in the Heights. He told one 20-something hipster, in a very ominous tone, "I hope to see you there."
But not everyone at the meeting turned out just to bash Walmart and Ainbinder, who has been trying to develop the site at Yale and Koehler streets, on the south side of I-10, for several years. (He said HEB was given "exclusive rights" for two years, but the chain wouldn't come to the Heights.)
Many people, for instance, were concerned that the city will strike a deal with
Walmart Ainbinder that reimburses the developer with tax dollars for money spent on improvements to public infrastructure. The construction would have to improve drainage, streets, sidewalks and landscaping, among other things, for developers to get the public money.
Parker's argument for doing the deal, referred to as a "380 agreement," is that it gives the city some leverage on how
Walmart Ainbinder develops the site.
The public's argument against the 380, of course, is basically, "We don't want to pay Walmart, one of the richest corporations in the world, to build this gawdawful store, which we desperately don't want, in our neighborhood."
Parker appeared beaten down each time someone stood at a microphone and talked about how a Walmart would hurt their lives, leading the crowd to erupt in a round of applause, but when one gentleman asked Ainbinder if he would build regardless of the 380, Parker said, "That's actually a good question."
Ainbinder answered that yes, he would develop the site with or without the agreement.
"Unfortunately, the mayor missed that one," Scott Taylor, who lives "three doors down" from the site, told Hair Balls.
Taylor thinks the city needs to ask Walmart, not Ainbinder, if it would build its store without the public dollars. Basically, Ainbinder will get paid either way, but without the 380, it's going to cost Walmart millions more to build the kind of store it wants.
"I don't know [if Walmart would still build]," Taylor said. "But I'd like to give our money to a Texas store. I don't think our 380 dollars should be sent to Arkansas."
He continued, "None of us are happy with the way [the site] looks now, and yes, we could use a grocery store. But we want it done responsibly, and we don't think that will happen with Walmart."
Either way, Parker said it will take about
six months six weeks before city council can vote on the 380 agreement. If it passes, Walmart can start construction.
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Update: We heard from Jessica Michan, a representative from the mayor's office, who told us the 380 agreement should take about six weeks, not six months, to get to a council vote. (See corrections above.)
Also, Michan told us that the 380 deal, if approved, will be between the city and Ainbinder, not Walmart. The city will not negotiate with any Walmart representatives, only people from Ainbinder's development company.
Furthermore, Michan said, the city has no control over which retailers occupy Ainbinder's development.