The Austin Chronicle

A Big Box Full of Big Boxes

By Amy Smith, November 7, 2003, News

Wal-Mart: Up the Creek

With a Wal-Mart Supercenter at I-35 and Slaughter in the bag, we head north to Ben White, to a site that also awaits the City Council's blessing on a zoning change. Here, at the headwaters of Blunn Creek, is where Wal-Mart wants to build another 200,000-plus square-foot Supercenter, on a site that used to house a drive-in picture show, and after that a golf driving range.

The South River City Citizens, the neighborhood association for Travis Heights and the St. Edward's area, opposes a Supercenter on the property (south of St. Ed's and west of Assumption Cemetery) because it doesn't jibe with the neighborhood plan for small retail and residential development. More significantly, neighborhood activists fear that a project with 80% impervious cover would destroy Blunn Creek. The South Austin waterway has managed to run fairly clear and sweet all these decades, despite the development in recent years of a nearby Home Depot along I-35 and the Blunn Creek affordable housing apartments directly north of the proposed Wal-Mart site.

Given last week's overwhelming vote for a Supercenter down the road, SRCC is not terribly optimistic that the council will heed the dire warnings of environmental engineer Lauren Ross, whom the group hired to study the potential impact on the creek. Ross will lay out her findings for council members on Thursday, but even with the evidence she has collected, she is concerned about the outcome. "Wal-Mart has come forward with a plan that just meets city code," she said glumly, "so we're going to lose it."

But Ross believes that preserving Blunn Creek is worth the fight. "Here you have a creek sitting in an urbanized watershed that has the characteristics of a natural creek -- because it sits in an area that has been largely preserved," she said. This unique setting exists despite the 10 acres that Home Depot ate up when it went in and the eight acres swallowed up by the affordable housing project, she said. "Wal-Mart would be 18 acres of impervious cover, and while that's not a lot, its location would basically wipe out the lifeline of the watershed."

On a brighter note, Daryl Slusher last week directed the city manager's office to establish guidelines for a study that would examine the economic, social, and environmental impact of Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers' expanded presence in Austin. The council will vote this week to go ahead with the study, first recommended by the city Zoning and Platting Commission when it endorsed the zoning requests for Wal-Mart's Slaughter Lane and Ben White projects.

And a Smaller Box --

Sliding down the scale of big-box sizes, the council on Thursday will also consider a third and final reading of a proposed Eckerd in the far North Austin neighborhood of Anderson Mill. The drugstore chain seeks a zoning change at RR 620 North and El Salido Parkway, over the objections (and valid petition) of the neighborhood association. NA leaders have suggested that the city is ignoring their pleas because their ETJ status doesn't carry voting clout. At any rate, Anderson Mill NA President Elizabeth Elleson summed up her feelings in an e-mail: "For us, it's not so much you can't fight city hall, it's you can't fight the big bucks from a big box."

Lowe's: A Deal Is Done?

As part of his new job shilling for America's No. 2 home improvement company, former Mayor Bruce Todd has been turning on the -- well, not the charm, exactly, but definitely the perseverance. He has spent the past week camped outside City Council members' offices, wearing a groove in their welcome mats while trying to rustle up some votes on a development deal that two weeks ago appeared all but dead.

If he succeeds, Lowe's will be able to move ahead on plans to build a superstore a few doors down from No. 1 Home Depot. The setting for this head-to-head competition is a 31-acre site on Brodie Lane, in the environmentally sensitive recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Lowe's would bring to three the number of big boxes (one sits empty) within slingshot distance of each other.

Early indications show a dubious 4-3 squeaker of a council vote for the Lowe's settlement, which mysteriously reappeared on the agenda this week after having seemingly collapsed last month, in the wake of the council's moratorium on big-box projects over the aquifer within the city limits. (The Lowe's site, part of the 120-acre Garza Ranch, is surrounded by the cities of Austin and Sunset Valley but is part of neither.) If the council decides to pull a fast one today (Thursday) and approve the settlement, it would do so without any public hearing. The Save Barton Creek Association has asked the council to send the proposed settlement to the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission, as it did with last year's controversial agreement with Stratus Properties. "There is a possibility of the council voting on this Thursday," said Council Member Brewster McCracken, who, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, helped resuscitate the deal. Betty Dunkerley and Mayor Will Wynn are expected to join in support, with Daryl Slusher -- a vociferous opponent of the deal, which he says doesn't go nearly as far as did Stratus -- leading Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas in opposition. Slusher on Tuesday released a lengthy press statement outlining objections to the deal. At press time, Wynn had reportedly agreed to schedule the item for 7:30pm to allow public input.

McCracken, who took office in June, is drawing harsh criticism from environmentalists who say he is flip-flopping on the "no aquifer big box" platform that helped get him elected. He says the city has no choice in this case, because the Legislature has already intervened in Lowe's favor -- with HB 1204, aiming to place the Lowe's tract in Travis Co.'s jurisdiction. Opponents of the project argue that HB 1204 does not in fact apply to the circumstances in the Lowe's case, and that the site should still be covered by the Save Our Springs Ordinance, which would allow only 15% impervious cover. (Lowe's wants 40%.)

But Lowe's opponents are even more perplexed by Goodman's support; they speculate that she acquiesced after Lowe's reps threatened to make yet another visit to the Lege if it convenes for a fourth special session. What final concession did Lowe's make to win over Goodman? According to Todd, it was agreeing to more stringent build-and-design standards to improve water quality measures on-site. "Those were requested and granted," he said. Also, McCracken said he and Goodman would continue to talk to Lowe's about big-box design controls (McCracken's pet project) and heat-island mitigation measures (Goodman's pet project).

On Monday, Lowe's opposition leaders questioned whether a 4-3 vote on the deal would be appropriate or even legally valid, since a supermajority is normally required to override SOS. Lowe's attorney Terry Irion argues that since his client is not (under HB 1204) under the city's jurisdiction, a new superstore can go up with or without a deal with the city, and a supermajority to approve that deal is not required. It's that "with or without" threat that made an early believer out of McCracken. "If Lowe's was proposing to build this within the city of Austin, it would be rejected," he said. "I believe they're willing to build it with or without a settlement, but with a settlement we can at least get [the development] to a higher standard."

In the proposed deal, Lowe's also agrees to pay the city $600,000 to acquire land elsewhere to mitigate the project's impact on the aquifer. The city has been eyeing various potential mitigation tracts, including some Rutherford Ranch land, miles from the proposed Lowe's site, as well as property within the same Williamson Creek watershed.

The prospect of a favorable Lowe's vote doesn't bode well for Sunset Valley, said its mayor, Terry Cowan. Sunset Valley started this whole saga last year when it released the tract from its jurisdiction to Austin's, hoping that Austin would enforce SOS and hold the line on Lowe's. "We're really sad about this," Cowan said Monday. "But it's not over."

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