Heights Walmart: City Council Gets An Earful, Developer May Get Tax Incentives

Members of the "Stop Heights Walmart" group came out in force to the City Hall meeting Tuesday to let officials get a glimpse of a small part of the opposition that has grown to more than 4,000 members in the past few weeks.

Meanwhile, Houston officials told Hair Balls they are negotiating tax incentives with the owner and developer of the property in question.

Residents made clear to the council their displeasure.

"Our concerns stem from the desire to have responsible growth in this area," Josh Verde said. "We are not opposed to development or change in the area; we are generally opposed to the kind of growth that results in traffic problems, potential for increase crimes,"

Look at the statistics, Verde said; Walmart sees 10,000 cars going in and out per day at the 24 hour stores. Noise, traffic, crime -- these changes are not welcomed by this community, he said.

Council member Jolanda Jones said that she took some issue with the notion that crime will increase just because a Walmart is coming into the area.

"I guess I'm struggling with why there is a belief that there is going to be more crime," Jones said. "I just left a conference in New Orleans, and one of the things we talked about a lot was about speculation and pre-conceived notions about things versus reality, so I'm just really struggling with that."

"We've researched it and looked at studies," resident Marlene McCourt said, "and one of the interesting issues is that Walmart is being sued for not having security in their parking lots, and other stores who do, such as Target, don't experience that amount of crime in their parking lots."

McCourt told Hair Balls that according to the analysis "Crime and Walmart" prepared by wakeupwalmart.com in May of 2006, the Houston store located at 2727 Dunvale reported 1,123 police incidents, placing it in the top 10 stores nationwide.

Council member Brenda Stardig said she understands their concerns and the concerns throughout her district.

"The issue is we have a hard time dictating to landowners who their tenant would be, and so without some support from the community in bringing in potential tenants it's hard," Stardig said.

Council member Ed Gonzalez was not in attendance at the meeting and those who were hoping to get a chance to speak with him weren't too happy about it.

"That was incredibly disappointing. I think everyone expected him to be there," Anne Baumgardner said. "Our own elected representatives did not show and did not let us know he was not going to be in attendance."

There is also a large concern among the group that their tax dollars will go towards the project.

Parker told Hair Balls that the city is in negotiations with the developer and property owner Ainbinder about a possible "380 agreement."

"The city is not negotiating with [Walmart]. However, there are ongoing conversations with the developer regarding a 380 Agreement, which allows for the dedication of future tax revenues from a qualifying project to be used as reimbursement to the developer for necessary infrastructure improvements. 380 Agreements are authorized under state law and have been used previously by the city. This is still not a done deal."

The 380 agreements, as established by the Texas Local Government Code, authorize cities to refund a portion of projected sales-tax income over a period of time.

From Jan 1, 2000 to May 21, 2008, according to the City of Austin's peer city comparison of economic development agreements, Houston has among the lowest number of such agreements with 11, next to Austin with 7. San Antonio is next in line with 43 and Dallas and Fort Worth with a combined 85.

City spokesperson Janice Evans told Hair Balls that the city generally considers projects that are at least $25 million, require substantial new public infrastructure and create a measurable number of new jobs, for the 380 agreements.

"The major project that I can point you to that utilized these same concepts is the planned redevelopment of the former Allen House site. That project will eventually be a $750 million investment."

They're essentially making it easier and providing incentive to Walmart to build at this location when the community is telling the elected representatives that they don't want
it, Baumgardner said, and that's not good public policy.

"I think that's unacceptable, and I think that anybody in the movement to oppose Walmart
on this site would find so too," she said.

If you're using public money, then the public gets to decide, Urbano said.

"If they want public money, then they need to listen to what we want. The developer
has the right to sell to whoever they want, but if you're going to use our money, then we have a voice. Then we should have a choice."  

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