The Beast Wins a Round

Wal-Mart here, Wal-Mart there

AFSCME leader Greg Powell and other community leaders speak out against Wal-Mart at the Zoning and Platting Commission meeting Tuesday night.
AFSCME leader Greg Powell and other community leaders speak out against Wal-Mart at the Zoning and Platting Commission meeting Tuesday night. (Photo By John Anderson)

It was one of those rare Zoning and Platting Commission endings that had development lawyer Richard Suttle grinning alongside the folks who strenuously opposed his client -- Wal-Mart, in this case. On Tuesday, the ZAP gave Suttle what he wanted -- the votes to send recommended zoning changes to City Council for two proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter projects -- at I-35 and Slaughter, and on Ben White near Congress. Then the ZAP handed the anti-Wal-Mart coalition of neighborhood and community activists what they wanted -- a recommendation that the council commission a study on the social, economic, and neighborhood impact of super-sized retail big boxes in Austin.

Most surprising was commission Chair Betty Baker's enthusiastic support for a study. When the proposals first came to the ZAP in August, Baker made clear her view that the commission should not vote for or against Wal-Mart, but on the merits of retail zoning cases on major highways that are already lined with retailers. But this week, Baker even supplied the language for Commissioner Clarke Hammond's motion, explaining that her concerns about the proliferation of Wal-Marts were heightened by a national conference she attended last week on strengthening local businesses, at which Wal-Mart was the overriding theme. "I can tell you how many drug stores have been closed because of Wal-Mart, how many book stores, how many hardware stores," Baker said. "The retail pie gets no bigger; it just gets sliced up differently."

But Baker proceeded on the motion only after getting assurance from assistant city attorney Martha Terry that the action would not impede Suttle's two pending Wal-Mart cases. The two sites are still opposed by neighbors and by the emerging anti-big-box coalition, and hallway chatter during a break held that the two proposed Supercenters might well be doomed, or at least delayed, once the cases proceed to City Council on Oct. 23.

With Commissioner John-Michael Cortez dissenting, ZAP voted to endorse the recommendations of the task force it had convened earlier to consider the I-35/Slaughter project: that general retail zoning with conditional overlays is appropriate for the site, whether for Wal-Mart or some other user. The Ben White case was much closer, winning a 5-4 approval, with dissenters (Hammond, Cortez, Joseph Martinez, and John Donisi) voicing concern about the proposed Supercenter's impact on Blunn Creek, which heads at the Wal-Mart site. Tim Mahoney, president of the South River City Citizens neighborhood group, said his organization had retained an engineer to survey the site's critical environmental features associated with Blunn Creek, which eight years ago was ranked as having the second-purest water (next to Barton Creek) flowing into Town Lake.

Before the hearing, local business, labor, and community advocates gathered outside the meeting room to explain their opposition to Wal-Mart's expansion plans in Austin. They raised many of the same social and economic issues later echoed by Baker, but they differed with the chair's narrow interpretation of ZAP's role of deciding land-use cases without standing in judgment of the user. "This isn't just about zoning dirt," AFSCME union business manager Greg Powell said. "We want to show [city officials] the other side of the Wal-Mart happy face -- the side that shows that their business conduct does not fit with the values of the community."

Wal-Mart opponents point to several case studies and media reports (including a recent BusinessWeek cover story) laying out the retailer's business model of low prices, low wages, and low tolerance of employee organizing. In one study by the Mississippi State University Extension Service, researchers looked at 29 Mississippi counties with one or more Wal-Mart Supercenters -- and found that for every gain in sales at big-box stores, there were corresponding losses at local businesses selling the same products.

As the new coalition formulated its strategy last week, Wal-Mart was conducting a phone-banking blitz to identify potential Austin shoppers. The phone work was just business as usual, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Moore. "That's just one method Wal-Mart uses in markets across the country to get feedback from our customers," she said, adding that the calls, as in this case, are also used to identify supporters for proposed Wal-Mart stores. If the person answering the phone responded "no" to the first question ("Have you shopped at a Wal-Mart within the last month?") the caller would conclude with a "thank you very much for your time."

Of the new coalition, Moore said, "Wal-Mart is always willing to sit down and have a constructive dialogue with any group that would like to discuss our proposed new Supercenters."

While the majority of the Park Ridge Homeowners Association -- the neighborhood closest to the proposed I-35/Slaughter Lane Supercenter -- stand firm in their opposition, HOA President Aron Wisneski said he felt he had no choice but to agree to a zoning change for the proposed site. He said Endeavor Real Estate Group, Wal-Mart's local developer, "has gone the extra mile to accommodate our concerns for traffic, safety, and for aesthetic issues. Although they're still unyielding on the point of Wal-Mart being their major tenant." He added, "I don't know if we can defeat Wal-Mart [and] I have to do what's best for my neighborhood."

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Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Supercenter, I-35 and Slaughter, Ben White Blvd., Blunn Creek, big-box retail, Zoning and Platting Commission, ZAP, Betty Baker, Park Ridge Homeowners, Aron Wisneski, AFSCME, Daphne Moore

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