Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

... Just the Same: Forget the Little Boxes -- It's the Big Boxes We Need to Knock Down

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Illustration By Doug Potter

I'm really not trying to be lazy here -- though I think laziness is terribly underrated -- but this is a column that pretty much writes itself. When he first took office in 2000, then-Council Member Will Wynn delivered what for Fearless Leader was a real barnburner of a speech, embracing as his mission and mandate the pursuit of not just Smart Growth but New Urbanism, decrying Austin's steady slide away from a unique and meaningful sense of place and into the nether regions of Generica. Now, Will Wynn is contemplating giving tax incentives to Wal-Mart.

See? It writes itself. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Enjoy your evening.

No, I'm not accusing the mayor of fatuousness or hypocrisy on this Wal-Mart deal, though others have let those words cross their minds, if not their lips. I feel really, really sorry for Will Wynn, because I know that his disgust with the tilt-wall big-box bullshit that runs rampant around the region is quite genuine. Having to buy off Wal-Mart is degrading. Now, I don't think a subsidy deal is Austin's only option for driving the Beast off the aquifer, and neither do the enviros and neighboristas who punctured Wynn's tax-deal trial balloon with such haste and firmness. And while such a deal may be legal, I don't think it's in keeping with the spirit of Chapter 380 of the Texas Local Government Code, which enables such municipal giveaways and is designed to promote economic development, not limit it.

If we could buy off Wal-Mart entirely -- that is, make them go away and leave Austin alone -- then I could argue that a Chapter 380 deal would help the Austin economy, by insulating it from the predatory and unjust trade and labor practices of the Beast. But Austin does not have enough money to do that. If we pay Wal-Mart to get off the aquifer, they will build that Supercenter somewhere else, and a dozen more after that. And Austin will be destroyed even as Barton Springs is saved. (Call the Statesman! Call Mike Levy!) So we're going to have to do something else to save our city.

We Got the Power!

You may have noticed I don't like Wal-Mart very much. And yes, I do refuse to shop there. I didn't always feel this way, particularly on the question of whether independent local businesses deserve protection from national chains -- an argument that even now still strikes me as a bit elitist. (I keep thinking of my in-laws' neighborhood in El Paso, where there are no funky and weird retailers and where Barnes & Noble -- the closest thing to a cultural institution -- provides a truly vital and essential service to the neighbors.) But the fact is that Wal-Mart guarantees low prices every day by screwing its suppliers, exploiting and abusing its work force, and laying waste to the existing natural and built environment so it can redesign the world for its own convenience.

Sadly, none of that is going to change until we elect a reasonably progressive Democrat who isn't from Arkansas to be our American president; Wal-Mart deserves to be chased by the hounds of federal hell every bit as much as Microsoft or AT&T. But last I checked, Austin did still have (yes, you know what's coming) the power to regulate land use. (See? It writes itself.) The City Council has every right in the world to deny GR zoning to any tract of land, or to put in other conditions that would prevent the development of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Even on the aquifer tract at issue here, which has (at least in theory) been given a Get-Out-of-SOS-Free card, the council could initiate a zoning change that would kill Wal-Mart. It would not be easy -- it would require six votes to rezone against the wishes of Wal-Mart, or its well connected land pimp Endeavor Real Estate Group, or whoever wants to play "owner" here. But it can be done. It is illegal in Texas for any city council to guarantee future zoning to any property owner, settlement deal or no.

However, despite my loathing of the Beast, I would rather the City Council not load up its zoning weapons simply to fire them at Wal-Mart. As a land-use issue, the problem is big-box retail. Supposedly, Austin is committed as a city to managing growth and curbing sprawl and to fostering a sense of cultural uniqueness and supporting small and local business and to promoting good, high-wage, high-skill sustainable job growth. (See? It writes itself!) A blanket commitment to curbing big-box retail -- such as an ordinance limiting the size of any retail project to 100,000 square feet -- would be legal and would foster all of these civic goals. If City Hall fears -- as has already been argued by people like Betty Dunkerley -- this will simply drive retailers, and thus jobs and sales tax base, out of the city limits, then I have to question how committed our civic leaders really are to the values they claim are self-evident. I would rather lose tax base to Round Rock than see Austin turn into Round Rock.

Don't Box Us In

"Sprawl" is, admittedly, a loaded word, and land pimps have made a lot of money over the decades by arguing that what affluent and elitist urbanites think is ticky-tacky is for normal people the American dream -- homeownership, safe neighborhoods for kids, don't-fence-me-in, et cetera. As concerns residential development, or neighborhood-serving businesses, I think they have a bit of a point. And certain major employers probably do need to be out on the growth fringe where land is cheaper, rather than be forced to relocate or fragment their operations every time they want to expand and create those jobs that we, as citizens, want them to create here and not elsewhere.

But I have yet to figure out an affirmative case for big-box retail sprawl, and particularly at the scale and scope envisioned by Wal-Mart or Endeavor. I should note here a difference between "big boxes" and "national chains," though we tend to make the two synonymous. Whole Foods Market is a national chain, and despite my dislike for many of WFM's poses and obsessions, I think they genuinely have tried to be assets and not parasites on the local economies where they do business. And while I don't like Starbucks coffee -- it always tastes boiled to me -- I have yet to see any real evidence that they knock local indie coffeehouses out of business. (It certainly hasn't happened in Seattle.)

But big boxes devastate not only individual businesses but whole neighborhoods. They redefine out of existence the concept of a "commercial street." They overburden our roads and make unpleasant "solutions" like SH 130 inevitable, and they consume developable land as if it really were in endless supply. The social costs of this kind of development are huge, and the benefits are marginal. Austin does not need a Supercenter every three miles; that's simply a convenient way for Wal-Mart to achieve its noxious goals, and the Beast expects Austin, like many other cities, to roll over (or bend over) and take it. I expect better. n

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big-box retail, Wal-Mart, Endeavor Real Estate Group, sprawl, Chapter 380, tax rebates, Will Wynn, land use

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