Is Walgreens Too Big and Unfunky for South Austin?
Neighbors challenge the drugstore chain's plans for a store at Lamar and Bluebonnet Lane.
South Austin residents are bracing for a City Council vote July 17 that could land one of the nation's largest drugstore chains in a neighborhood of eclectic local businesses.
Walgreens drugstore is eyeing a piece of property at South Lamar and Bluebonnet Lane, where the company envisions a freestanding, 14,500-square-foot building with a drive-through pharmacy window. The development would require a zoning change from residential to commercial. The store would replace an existing Walgreens in a shopping center a couple of miles south.
Toward that end, the Chicago-based chain, which last year grossed $28.7 billion, has a contract to buy a portion of property currently operating as a trailer park. Fronting that property is the separately owned Harper Tract at 2403 S. Lamar, formerly occupied by Anna's Toy Depot. If the council gives its blessing, Walgreens would close on the mobile-home property and enter into a ground lease agreement on the Harper tract.
The two properties are winding through the city process as separate zoning cases. The council has given its approval on second reading to rezoning an adjoining lot of the Toy Depot property from residential to commercial, which had originally been eyed as a location by Russell's Bakery before the Walgreens deal materialized. The zoning request on a portion of the trailer park property will make its first appearance on the council agenda next week. Landowner Gerald Payne still intends to sell the balance of the property, which extends further south behind Maria's Taco Xpress and Texas Custom Boots.
Needless to say, neighbors aren't happy with the prospect of a 24-hour Walgreens on Bluebonnet Lane, a small residential collector street. Walgreens would require access to its store from both Lamar and Bluebonnet and has committed to certain road and driveway upgrades. The corner is also a busy Capital Metro bus stop, and Bluebonnet serves as a direct route for students heading to Zilker Elementary west of Lamar.
Residents say that not only would they be subjected to a dangerous increase in traffic, but that the presence of a boxy chain store would throw the neighborhood's funky culture out of whack. "We certainly don't think it's going to improve the character of the neighborhood," said Kevin Lewis, president of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association, a relatively young group representing the area bounded by South Lamar, Manchaca, Oltorf, Ben White, and the Union Pacific rail line to the east. SLNA members voted unanimously to oppose both zoning cases before the council. (Thus far, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher, both longtime South Austin residents, have expressed strong reservations about a Walgreens at that location.) Lewis said he and other SLNA leaders have had several discussions with Walgreens representatives, to no avail. "They've been very straightforward with us," he said. "They were polite but absolutely firm on their intentions."
Sarah Crocker, an Austin development consultant representing Walgreens, says the high-dollar property is destined for commercial use regardless of whether the drugstore locates there or not. Indeed, the property very nearly became a high-end apartment complex when landowner Payne came close to striking a land sale with Trammell Crow, whose plans would have wiped out Maria's and the boot shop. The developer bowed out of that plan in the face of strong opposition from neighbors, not to mention Maria Corbalan herself, whose little restaurant has become a South Austin institution.
At its proposed location, Walgreens would forgo its cookie-cutter stucco façade in exchange for native rock. "It looks better than the stucco," said Crocker. Moreover, Crocker says she doesn't believe the new location would generate a deluge of new trips to and from the store. "They already have an established customer base at its store down the street," she said. "This would be a better facility for the neighborhood."
Walgreens is no stranger to community opposition. The company recently pulled out of a proposed site in Jacksonville, Fla., in the face of neighborhood opposition, then took another Florida beating when the Tampa City Council rejected a zoning change for a new store.