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No Concord for Northcross?

RG4N directs its ire at the city manager's office

By Katherine Gregor, Fri., April 6, 2007

Northcross neighbors now distrust not only Wal-Mart and Lincoln Property, but the city manager's office, as well.
Northcross neighbors now distrust not only Wal-Mart and Lincoln Property, but the city manager's office, as well.
Photo By John Anderson

Neighborhood anger over the Northcross Mall redevelopment now is focusing on core issues related to the city of Austin's top management and form of government.

Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N), dissatisfied and disheartened by what the group sees as city management's failure to appropriately respond to neighborhood priorities for redeveloping Northcross, has publicly called into question the performance of City Manager Toby Futrell. RG4N supports a recent council resolution to form a charter review committee – because it sees a charter review as an opportunity for public dialogue about the City's Council-manager form of government. (The mayor and council appoint the city manager, who serves as chief administrator of the entire city organization; the position has far-reaching powers.) RG4N also is weighing in on council's upcoming review of Futrell's performance and compensation. Based on issues raised by the Northcross conflict, said RG4N's Hope Morrison, "We don't believe the city manager's performance merits a raise."

RG4N, an umbrella group working with area neighborhood associations, has been advocating since last fall for a higher-quality redevelopment of Northcross Mall, without a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Futrell recused herself from Northcross due to a filed conflict of interest (her husband is employed by Wal-Mart); Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman has been acting in her stead.

Last week, RG4N accused Huffman of failing to play an objective role in facilitating negotiations between Lincoln Property and area neighborhood representatives for revisions to the developer's Northcross redevelopment plans to reflect priority neighborhood concerns. "City management has so blatantly worked to advance the developer's interests, rather than advocating for the neighborhoods or working as a neutral facilitator to reach a mutually agreed solution," said Paige Hill, president of RG4N.

While RG4N is focusing its ire on the city manager, Council Member Brewster McCracken ascribed the manager's relative passivity, in failing to champion the neighborhoods' wishes, to a lack of strong direction from council members and the mayor, who have been divided in their own responses.

On Monday, March 26, responses were due from all neighborhood groups to a modified Northcross site plan and a "term sheet" of promised improvements, the results of a city-run process led by Huffman. City management took control of the process, filtering and facilitating the presentation of neighborhood requests and priorities to Lincoln and Wal-Mart. RG4N said in a statement that the changes "have not addressed neighborhood concerns in any meaningful way."

"The fact is the city clearly and appropriately conveyed all of the neighborhood requests," Huffman responded to the Chronicle by e-mail. "City staff has been very aggressive in pushing those priorities in discussions with Lincoln and Wal-Mart. There is no doubt in my mind that both Lincoln and Wal-Mart understood the deep concerns expressed by neighbors. Wal-Mart didn't significantly shrink the size of the Wal-Mart store. Lincoln chose not to terminate leases and redesign the project. These were the developer's choices – not staff's."

Huffman said that the latest round of feedback from neighborhoods, to the revised site plan and term sheet of improvements, was sent to both Lincoln and Wal-Mart. Huffman promised, "We will continue to push on core issues that have not been addressed" and said, "We will work toward a proposal that neighborhoods support until the developers tell us they are through with the negotiations."

Because RG4N believes the city has failed to appropriately represent citizen interests, the advocacy group called upon Huffman to engage a neutral third-party negotiator. As a model, the group pointed to the city-endorsed role that ROMA Design Group served in successfully achieving developer and neighborhood consensus on terms for the redevelopment of the Concordia University site. (See "Developing Stories," March 30.) In that case the developer – not the city – paid for both the urban designer and an attorney for Hancock Neighborhood Association. (Of course in that case the developer still needed council to approve significant upzoning on the property – a major bargaining chip.)

In requesting an outside facilitator, RG4N objected: "Rather than seek a similar path to resolving the Northcross issue, the city chose to pay $224,000 in taxpayer dollars to hire an attorney from Scott, Douglass & McConnico, LLP to fight the neighborhood groups and help Wal-Mart build a supercenter at Northcross." RG4N also expressed disappointment that a Feb. 12 request for city support for a community design charrette, to further develop the neighborhoods' vision for the Northcross Mall project, was ignored by city leadership.

RG4N has called for a boycott of all Austin-area Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. Boycott supporters include the Central Austin Democrats, South Austin Democrats, North by Northwest Democrats, Austin Full Circle, and the Austin Central Labor Council, whose members total more than 25,000 households.

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