The city is negotiating a deal with the developer of Washington Heights — a proposed Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center near Interstate 10 and Yale – that would reimburse the local builder for as much as $6 million in public infrastructure improvements.
If the agreement is approved, developer Ainbinder Co. would widen and repave streets surrounding the project, refurbish bridges near the site, develop a bike and pedestrian trail along a stretch of Heights Boulevard south of I-10 and improve underground drainage, among other upgrades.
The improvements are expected to ease traffic congestion as well as prime the area for other future developments, the developer said.
The deal being negotiated 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 the 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.
Many Heights residents have opposed the plan since they learned of it in early July. On Wednesday night, they continued to voice their concerns about a development they feel is incompatible with their neighborhood.
About 500 people attended a public hearing called by Mayor Annise Parker at the George R. Brown Convention Center. About a quarter of those in attendance wore red, as a sign of opposition.
After Parker and Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, explained the city’s role and the role of the 380 agreement, Ainbinder principal Michael Ainbinder was introduced to murmurs that grew into boos. A few applauded.
“We’ve had a real opportunity to meet with a lot of folks … and work on designing a project that we hope will be well-received, accepted into the community and provide a real benefit for the people that live around here,” he said, drawing louder boos and several shouts of, “It’s not.”
After roughly a half-hour of official presentations, residents were directed to tables where officials would answer questions about traffic, crime, drainage and other topics.
At one point, Parker told participants to direct concerns specific to Wal-Mart to company representatives.
“Tell me what I can do to make this project better for you,” Parker said. Several people shouted “Stop Wal-Mart.”
City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, whose district includes the proposed project, said before the meeting that 380 agreements can be a good tool in a city without zoning.
In this case, however, Gonzalez said he has concerns.
“I feel the community has some questions that need to be answered in terms of traffic concerns and quality of life issues,” he said.
Another 380 agreement was up for a vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, but it was delayed.
The developer, Frank Liu, of InTown Homes, has been negotiating with the city to be reimbursed as much as $20 million in public infrastructure improvements he plans to make to three sites where he wants to build homes priced from around $200,000 to more than $500,000.
Parker stressed that the city’s aid to the Washington Heights development is far more about creating leverage than providing taxpayer assistance to a mega-company like Wal-Mart.
Because Houston has no zoning, there are few tools at the city’s disposal to wring concessions from developers.
“Our goal is to make sure that we get something from these developers that we would not otherwise get just as they go and do their own thing,” she said. It’s leverage. It’s a tool to bring them to the table.”
Ainbinder President Barton Duckworth said the company would build the project even if the 380 agreement is not approved, but it may not look the same.
“We couldn’t afford to do all the neighborhood amenities,” he said.