Mayfield Fights Back
Ward and June Say Nay in Northwest Hills
You couldn't ask for better irony than this: The builder/developer who gave us Westover Hills -- the subdivision covering most of the ground around Anderson High School, up along Mesa Drive -- was named Mayfield (Wallace O. Mayfield, to be exact). If he had just gone ahead and named it "Mayfield," with all its Cleaveresque connotations, no one today would be marveling at the dissonance. It's about as all-American as Austin gets up here, from the crabgrass to the Christmas lights to the... anti-development yard signs?
Why are these folks, living in their LBJ-era Parade of Homes creations from Nash Phillips/Copus and Bill Milburn, born with names like "Villa Privado" and "The Tuscany Trendsetter," locking horns with Growth and Progress? If a new, big-ass supermarket -- an Albertson's, the pride of Idaho, no less -- came to Mayfield, you can bet that June Cleaver would not be protesting. Nay, she would be welcoming the wider selection of mayonnaises, and meal-fixins in a bag, and good honest work for the less fortunate. Take up arms against capitalism in action? How rude.
But they're fightin' mad up here in Westover Hills, Balcones West, The Trails, Green Trail Estates, Mesa Trails, Forest Mesa, Mesa Village, Northwest Mesa, Northwest Oaks, Hills Oaks and back to Westover Hills -- all the mini-hoods that make up the Balcones and Northwest Austin Civic Associations, i.e., Mayfield North and South. Or perhaps they were fighting mad, since they no longer need to fight Albertson's. After an 18-month battle, the last third of which was fought en plein air and on the local airwaves, the two adjacent neighborhood associations (NAs) managed to "Save Mesa Drive," as the yard signs say, when the Boise-based Albertson's, the nation's number-two supermarket chain, abandoned its effort to build a 47,000-square-foot, 24-hour superstore at the southeast corner of Mesa and Spicewood Springs Road. But resting on their laurels they are not. "We're very concerned about what happens throughout the city," says Balcones Civic Association president Laurin Currie. "We're always looking at how development impacts any neighborhood, and we're willing to go to bat for them if necessary."
Ward and June, the avengers. Yeah, I know, I know -- there's lotsa folks who'll take this Cleaver business as some radical-chic insult. It is not so intended. No one should be chastised for wanting to live in Mayfield, as illustrated by the vigor with which folks elsewhere -- say, in parts of East or South Austin -- work to make their neighborhoods more Mayfield-like than they intrinsically are. The trouble only comes when the Cleavers use up and blow off the rest of the world while hiding out in Mayfield, and in truth, Austin's most selfish, insular, apathetic, and exploitative environs are generally more vulgar, nouveau riche, unwelcoming, and distant than the homey streets of Westover Hills and points northwest.
But to deny that these late-Sixties subdivisions around Mesa, Spicewood Springs, and Steck, up where the grand-bourgeois 78731 ZIP code meets the petit-bourgeois 78759, represent, both in design and in practice, the same mid-class, mid-century, mid-American notion of "community" that's depicted in Leave It To Beaver is to deny reality. These are streets where kids ride their bikes, walk to nearby schools and join Little League, or maybe AYSO since this is the Nineties. (Such was not always the case; as recently as the mid-Seventies, when Anderson High was built, much of this land was The Country, accessible only by dirt roads and home to some "undesirable" trailer types, and thus cheaper than more genteel subdivisions closer in, much as parts of far Northeast Austin are today.) And there's also no denying that Mayfield has taken quite a beating lately from prophets and sages of the New City, who blame its class separations, its enforced isolation, its denigration of both the built and natural environment, its dependence on single-passenger car traffic -- even the shape of its windows -- for the decline of American civilization.
And yea verily, as this translates into Austin politics, the folks of the Balcones and Northwest Austin Civic Associations have done their part to confirm the New Urbanists' fears, delivering their votes without reservation to folks like Mayor Todd and Councilmembers Reynolds and Mitchell, probably the most pro-sprawl, anti-neighborhood elected officials to disgrace the civic dais in many a moon. (Even Bob Larson and Louise Epstein, bilious as they were in so many other ways, usually turned their best side to the neighborhoods; in fact, Epstein lived not far from Mesa Drive.) So when the Albertson's thing broke this summer, many in the Central City thought but one word: Karma. Bet you wouldn't be squawking if Albertson's wanted to bulldoze the Barton Creek Watershed, or a lower-income neighborhood on the Eastside, now would you?
Well, actually, they would, as Currie implies. "What happened to us is the same thing that happened with BFI," he says, referring to the Browning-Ferris recycling plant-cum-environmental menace on the Eastside. "Someone tries to go around, or over, the neighborhood and the citizens, and land-development decisions get made administratively, and there's no accountability. The people who live there don't even know they have a particular type of zoning, or what rules do or don't apply to them."
To the Balcones and Northwest Austin Civic Associations, the negative impact of the planned Albertson's on Mesa Drive was obvious and indisputable, for three main reasons. First, the lagoon of impervious cover required would lead to drainage troubles on a stretch of Spicewood Springs Road that already has flooding problems. Second, while most of the parcel is currently undeveloped and addressed to Spicewood Springs, Albertson's intended to bust through an entrance on Mesa Drive, bulldozing some Mom-and-Pop commercial tenants in the process.
Third and most important, the new shopping center would have generated spectacular traffic increases on Mesa, which was designed as a residential collector street and which, except for the few blocks around Spicewood Springs and Steck, is Two-Car-Garage City without a parking lot in sight. (Both of those cross streets, of course, are arterials, but even they aren't really set up for highway-strip traffic.) There's already a supermarket at Mesa and Spicewood Springs, a Randalls-nee-Safeway that, in today's mega-market climate, looks barely bigger than the corner store (it's half the size of the planned Albertson's), plus a Walgreen's across the street (developed by golf champ Tom Kite and kin) that went in only after detailed negotiations with the Balcones and Northwest Austin NAs. These and adjoining commercial islands, Anderson High, some big churches, and the general effect of Boom II have already made Mesa Drive traffic frustrating and frightening to BCA and NWACA members, and a megastore is the last thing they want to see go in. (The two groups, combined, represent residents between FM 2222, US 183, Loop 360 and MoPac, with Steck their dividing line. By the way, before MoPac was MoPac, it was the northern end of Balcones Drive, which now ends at 2222, but whose name persists in the neighborhood.)
Northwest neighborhood residents worried about traffic banded together to halt the construction of an Albertson's grocery store at the corner of Mesa Dr. and Spicewood Springs.
To evade the traffic deal-killer, says Currie, Albertson's reps, secretly and against their word to the neighborhoods, met with city staff and prevailed upon them to cook the Mesa Drive land-use figures. The scheme worked like this: According to the Land Development Code (LDC), if a proposed development is located on a street where 50% of more of the parcels within 1,500 feet on either side are zoned single-family residential (SF-5 or lower), then the project cannot cause traffic conditions on that street to deteriorate; if it does, then it is disallowed pro forma, and the Albertson's clearly did. (The chain refused to do a traffic count in its site plan; the neighborhoods ended up engaging their own traffic engineer.)
Within 1,500 feet of the Albertson's site, Mesa Drive is 95% residential. However, half of that total comprises the frontage of The Trails and Mesa Trails, two garden-home line communities developed in the 1970s as planned-unit developments (PUDs). Even though they're not conventional detached housing, the density is equivalent to SF-2 zoning (that is, about the same buildout as Clarksville) and the residents own their lots, have separate driveways, and otherwise conform to the conventional specs for single-family housing. But since they're PUDs, they aren't technically zoned at SF-5 or lower, and this was used as an excuse by friendly city engineers to lower the Mesa Drive residential percentage to 48%, thus allowing Albertson's to proceed -- after, the BCA and NWACA found out, the city engineers were paid a visit by Albertson's functionaries. When this made the news, and led to reactions of chagrin and disgust from a Planning Commission who knew nothing of the deal, Albertson's gave up. The City Council has also amended the LDC to eliminate this particular flavor of crap from the developer's menu -- with, to be fair, the support of both Eric Mitchell and Ronney Reynolds, who as election time nears are getting religion where the neighborhoods are concerned.
The fact that decisions like the Albertson's traffic ruling can be made by staff without their having to tell the Planning Commission and Council -- let alone the public -- has galvanized the BCA and NWACA into direct engagement with the ongoing Citizen's Planning Committee-spawned review of the LDC. Currie and his allies have presented three proposals for consideration:
*that administrative decisions be accompanied by the same, if not greater, public-notification requirements that now accompany Planning Commission or City Council consideration of planning and zoning cases;
*that commissioners and councilmembers be able to pull staff-handled items for discussion at meetings;
*and that staff decisions be subject to a structured appeal process from citizens.
"It's not the staff's intent that's reflected in the Land Development Code," Currie notes. "It's the council's intent, and through them that of the citizenry. We definitely need a process that allows for these matters to be expedited, but we also need one that allows for disputes over these so-called `minor adjustments' to be resolved. And it would be better for the staff as well to be able to function without being lobbied and pressured by developers who'd rather not see issues become public."
So, add the Mesa Drive Albertson's to the list of projects -- the Barton Creek PUD, Bennett Properties' Eastside Mall, and Jo Baylor's Swede Hill homes, to name three -- where developers tried to sleaze their way around the public and instead came up with zilch (or less than zilch, considering the damage done to Albertson's goodwill). Do we see a pattern here? How many times are we going to see this repeated, with every project becoming ugly and rancorous, before the Eric Mitchells and Jim Bob Moffetts of Austin get the message? By this point, they've even got Ward and June riled up against them, which they should find truly frightening. "The sad thing is that people are used to being defeated," Currie muses. "They almost expect it. And that's got to change. We're inspired by our victory here that it can change. And we want to help other neighborhoods make it change for them."