Wal-Mart, Lowe's, and Their Friends and Foes

Big-box battles from South Austin to Lakeway

The big-box debate makes its formal debut at City Council today (Thursday), where Council Member Raul Alvarez says he'll seek a 45-day moratorium on the issuance of building permits for commercial development over the aquifer. If the rest of the council agrees, the temporary freeze would allow time for the city's boards and commissions to weigh in on a proposed ordinance limiting the size of retail buildings in the sensitive Barton Springs Zone. Along with co-sponsor Daryl Slusher, Alvarez advocates holding general retail development to 50,000 square feet and stand-alone grocery stores to 75,000 square feet.

On a related matter, opponents of two proposed Wal-Marts are asking the council to postpone two zoning cases today on a Supercenter at I-35 and Slaughter Lane, and another on Ben White near I-35. The Zoning and Platting Commission last week approved both items, but the ZAP also asked the council to consider commissioning a study on the economic and social impact of Wal-Mart's proposed expansion plans in Austin.

Alvarez's proposed moratorium and ordinance would not affect the two pending Wal-Mart cases, and it's uncertain how they would play into ongoing negotiations between the city and Lowe's, which wants to build a home improvement warehouse on Brodie Lane, in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Lowe's contends the property is "grandfathered" under rules that would allow 40% impervious cover, while the city's Save Our Springs Ordinance caps developments in the recharge zone at 15% impervious cover. City attorneys will brief council members on the Lowe's issue in today's executive session.

"We've been looking at what would be appropriate development regulations over the aquifer, and I think this [proposal] is a good compromise," Alvarez explained. "But I assume that some folks might think this is somewhat restrictive."

Despite strong grassroots opposition to Wal-Marts and other big boxes, City Manager Toby Futrell seemed to take a different stance at last week's luncheon of the Real Estate Council of Austin. As reported in the political newsletter In Fact Daily, Futrell told RECA members that retail development, including big boxes, is critical to Austin's economic survival. She said Central Texas may have claimed 80% of the retail base a decade ago, but today is struggling to hold on to 50% of a base that's steadily shrinking. "So part of it is," In Fact quoted, "how do we get past a small group of people who continually influence our policy, and get a broader understanding of what this community wants?"

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Raul Alvarez, Daryl Slusher, Brewster McCracken, big box, Wal-Mart, Rio Development Corp., Bill Schweitzer, Lakeway First, Lakeway, Lake Travis, Zoning and Platting Commission

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