The Wal-Mart War
Can Austin Fight Back?
If Wal-Mart and its developers have their way, the city Zoning and Platting Commission will be fast-forwarding its action on a proposed South Austin Supercenter and delivering a zoning vote on Tuesday -- three weeks ahead of schedule.
After the Sept. 9 ZAP vote to create a task force to study the neighborhood impact of a proposed Wal-Mart at I-35 and Slaughter Lane -- a group that would report back to the full ZAP in mid-October -- a jubilant crowd of anti-Wal-Mart forces had dispersed on the belief that there would be no further discussion on the matter that evening. But when commissioners reconvened following a short break, lawyer Richard Suttle, who, like his client Wal-Mart, doesn't take "no" for an answer, requested that the case be scheduled for reconsideration on the Sept. 23 agenda. From Wal-Mart's perspective, if the task-force members (who met Monday and Wednesday, and are scheduled to meet again on Monday, Sept. 22) are not able to settle their differences after three meetings, they should declare a hopeless deadlock and kick the matter back to ZAP. The Wal-Mart case -- one of three controversial Supercenter projects vexing neighbors in South Austin -- would then proceed to City Council on Sept. 25.
But the Park Ridge Homeowners Association -- the group most resisting the I-35/Slaughter project -- is equally confident that the task force will be allowed to continue working and report back to the ZAP in mid-October. "I don't feel particularly comfortable with that [Sept. 23] schedule," said Park Ridge President Aron Wisneski. "If by some miracle things do fall into place by then, I still need to take this to my neighborhood association and have them vote on whatever the task force recommends -- and they need seven days' advance notice." And at this point, a miracle is what it will take for the task force to settle key differences between Park Ridge neighbors and Wal-Mart. The neighborhood association's proposed conditional overlays -- no 24-hour operation, for example -- would essentially kill off any chance of a Wal-Mart ever breaking ground on the site.
There was no mistaking Suttle's shock last week when ZAP Chair Betty Baker called for a task force to weigh in on the Wal-Mart issue. The retailer's representatives had entered the meeting room breezily, anticipating a slam-dunk on their request to rezone the tracts being assembled for Wal-Mart by its developer, Endeavor Real Estate Group. Baker had more than once made clear she saw the ZAP's role as "zoning dirt" -- ruling on the wisdom of retail (GR zoning) at I-35 and Slaughter (where there's already a Home Depot across the highway), not pronouncing judgment on the Beast of Bentonville. But when it came time to vote, that was exactly the question before the ZAP -- whether a Wal-Mart, and the shopping center it would anchor, was an appropriate development for the neighborhood. So Baker punted. "I'm surprised," Suttle told the Chronicle immediately following the vote, "because this has never happened on a GR case on I-35. It's clearly a Wal-Mart issue."
But it wouldn't be a Wal-Mart issue, Park Ridge HOA leaders say, if not for Wal-Mart's proposed size -- more than 200,000 square feet -- and the additional 20,000 vehicle trips per day the project is expected to generate. Worse, some of the neighboring roads leading to the site are, by city staff's own admission, ill suited for a project of this scope. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart reps are encouraging Supercenter supporters to turn out for the Sept. 23 meeting; Suttle was the only person to speak in favor of the project on Sept. 9. At that meeting, some 40 people not only urged the ZAP to reject the zoning, but also registered their strong opposition to Wal-Mart's growing presence in Austin. The world's largest retailer (and America's largest private employer) reportedly plans to build 11 new 24-hour Supercenters, each measuring more than 200,000 square feet. (By contrast, up the road in Georgetown, the locals have responded favorably to their recently opened Supercenter; the Williamson County Sun's gushing Wal-Mart coverage rivals the Statesman's fawn job over the new Nordstrom at Barton Creek Square).
The most controversial Austin Wal-Mart project is the one Endeavor wants to plant atop environmentally sensitive land at MoPac and Slaughter. Zoning on that site is already in place, so a well-funded coalition of environmental and neighborhood opponents is campaigning heavily against every other proposed Austin Wal-Mart until the retailer moves off the aquifer. One other project on the front burner is a Supercenter planned for Ben White between Congress and I-35; a zoning change is required on a sliver of that tract as well.
But even if Wal-Mart and Endeavor pull the plug on the aquifer project, a larger question remains: Do Wal-Mart and other super-big-boxes belong anywhere in Austin? "This is not a time to blindly accept every big box," said community activist Robin Rather. "Just because they bring in a certain amount of tax base doesn't mean they are moving our economy forward." Rather and others agree that the city needs to address the full impact of big boxes before allowing another supersized retailer to build on Austin soil.
"I hope the city establishes a way to understand all the ramifications of all these big boxes -- especially Wal-Mart's aggressive push into Austin," Rather continued. "Wal-Mart is the original and still the dominant 'category killer.' What that means is that it is their overt intention to kill parts of the economy that were here first." In other words, she said, "kill first, ask questions never. We should not be surprised at their strategy, but we should be surprised at our own elected officials' timidity in protecting Austin's own sustainable future."
One of the local (or at least semilocal) businesses threatened by Wal-Mart -- San Antonio-based HEB -- has won some staunch defenders since Wal-Mart Supercenters came to town. (Supercenters differ from regular Wal-Marts in having a full supermarket, since Wal-Mart says the only way it could possibly grow bigger is to take over the grocery business.) HEB spokeswoman Kate Rogers says the company hopes to continue building on that loyalty. "Wal-Mart is a very serious competitor. ... It's the larger grocer in the country," Rogers said. "But we've built our platform on being a neighborhood store. ... We've really worked hard with neighborhood groups wherever we've built our stores, and I think that's proved to be effective."
HEB also won points a few years back for building the first retail project over the aquifer (on William Cannon) to comply with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. However, HEB is also eyeing a piece of property not far from Wal-Mart's proposed MoPac-Slaughter location. Acknowledging that location could generate opposition, Rogers was quick to point out that the site has far fewer "critical environmental features" (in SOS-speak) than Endeavor's Wal-Mart site and that HEB would require far less impervious cover.
Even if HEB does encounter hostility, it would likely be a whimper compared to the bang that's bouncing off Wal-Mart. The anti-big-box forces got some emotional and financial reinforcement last week with a benefit screening of the documentary Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town. Afterward, political humorist and author Jim Hightower encouraged the crowd to take action: "The fundamental question is, whose community is it? Does it belong to [Wal-Mart] or is it ours? Do we have the right to say we want our community to have a certain ambience, a certain economic possibility, a certain balance, a certain beauty? Wal-Mart says no. They say, 'We have the right to go anywhere in the world and re-create any neighborhood, any town, any city, in our image.'
"And now here they come to Austin, Texas," Hightower concluded. "Well, we do not have to take a Wal-Mart. They've got the fat cats, but we've got the alley cats. There are many more of us than there are of them."