The Austin Chronicle

No Worries for Wal-Mart? Not So Fast

By Amy Smith, October 10, 2003, News

When it canceled its plans to build a Supercenter over the aquifer, Wal-Mart may have thought that little else would stand in the way of its blueprint for the rest of Austin. But a spin-off coalition of local business and community activists has emerged to become the newest thorn in the retailer's side.

The group is an expanded version of the NoAquiferBigBox Coalition, which this time last week was celebrating Wal-Mart's decision to yank its hotly debated development proposal at MoPac and Slaughter, in the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. "After the high-fiving and the victory dance from last week, we looked at each other and said, 'Wait a minute,'" said Liveable City board Chair Robin Rather, one of the leaders of the newly formed group. Many of the coalition members expressed "a very strong sense of responsibility" to continue helping other resistance efforts against Wal-Mart.

"No one wanted to leave them hanging," Rather said, referring to the Park Ridge Homeowners Association and the South River City Citizens neighborhood group, both of which are fighting other proposed Wal-Mart Supercenters -- one at I-35 and Slaughter, and another on Ben White. "We're looking at the broader economic and social impact of Wal-Mart."

The refortified anti-Wal-Mart coalition was expected to introduce itself Wednesday night (at press time) at a specially called meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission. The ZAP has been asked, in the wake of Wal-Mart's surrender over the aquifer, to rescind and reconsider a previous vote to indefinitely delay action on the Ben White project -- Mayor Will Wynn had asked for, and Wal-Mart reps had agreed to, an across-the-board delay on all Wal-Mart cases while the aquifer store was still under negotiation.

Then, at its regular meeting this Tuesday, ZAP will consider taking action on the I-35 site; a ZAP-appointed task force has been working on that case for several weeks, balancing Wal-Mart's claim that the site (which faces a Home Depot across the interstate) is ideal for large-scale retail with the Park Ridge HOA's fears about traffic and other neighborhood impacts. The City Council will take up both cases on Oct. 23.

The chain of events leading to Wal-Mart's retreat last week followed a circuitous path that started with Wynn's suggestion -- widely attacked by anti-Wal-Mart forces -- that tax rebates be used to woo the retailer off of the aquifer. Then came the threat of a lawsuit from the Save Barton Creek Association, which would have challenged the city's 1996 development agreement on the site that currently allows for a development the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Then came whispers early last week that Wynn, Wal-Mart, and its local developer, Endeavor Real Estate Group, were hatching a new plan that guaranteed a happy ending for all. In the end, it was the mayor's office that announced (and was thereby able to claim credit for) Wal-Mart's departure from MoPac and Slaughter.

In response, the NoAquiferBigBox Coalition stepped up efforts this week to convince Lowe's to do the right thing and follow Wal-Mart off the aquifer as well. Lowe's is proposing a 162,000 square-foot home improvement warehouse on Brodie Lane near William Cannon -- also in the recharge zone. Lowe's and the city are in the process of negotiating a settlement agreement on that site.

"The battle is not over," Brad Rockwell of the Save Our Springs Alliance said in response to last week's Wal-Mart victory. "Keeping big-box development off of the aquifer will require the city to do more than negotiate. As far as we can tell, negotiations with Lowe's have led to nothing more than proposals that the city capitulate and allow Lowe's to develop at 40% impervious cover." He said the city should move quickly to pass a zoning ordinance that would keep Wal-Mart and others of its ilk from building in the Barton Springs Watershed. "Otherwise," he said, "these battles will arise over and over again, and the city will be tempted to negotiate away our right to keep big-box development off of the aquifer."

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