Naked City

Another Win for Wal-Mart

The City Council last week gave its OK to a city-sponsored study of the social and economic effects of big-box retail in Austin. That 7-0 vote immediately followed another one -- the council's unanimous first-reading approval of zoning for a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Ben White Boulevard. Both issues will be revisited on Nov. 20.

The votes came after South Austin residents told council members that a 206,000-square-foot big box would run counter to an existing city-endorsed neighborhood plan that calls for lower-density office and hotel developments along Ben White, where the retail giant plans to lay stakes at the headwaters of Blunn Creek. Opponents of the project had also hoped the council's vote would be influenced by an environmental study, commissioned by the South River City Citizens neighborhood group, that engineer Lauren Ross conducted on the site. Ross told council members that the sheer size of the project and the traffic it would generate would lead to the erosion of what is now a relatively clean-flowing urban creek.

Wal-Mart attorney Richard Suttle -- who reiterated that the case involved only "a little bitty sliver" of the 22-acre Wal-Mart site, most of which already has proper zoning -- said the development would include a water retention pond that would prevent runoff into the creek. Those assurances prompted a motion from Betty Dunkerley to approve the item on all three readings on the spot, but the council instead gave only tentative approval.

Daryl Slusher, who has taken ownership of the big-box study proposal -- responding to a call for council action from the Zoning and Platting Commission -- had initially contemplated linking that item to the Wal-Mart vote, but instead got his colleagues' assent to a request that city staff return next week with an outline of a study's scope and cost. (The study probably would cost less than the amount for which council approval is required, but Slusher and his colleagues wanted a record vote anyway.) The idea for a study gained momentum when Wal-Mart indicated its intention to build a Supercenter every three miles in Austin; bowing to pressure from the community and city officials, Wal-Mart since withdrew from a controversial site atop the aquifer at MoPac and Slaughter, and has since won council approval for a store at I-35 and Slaughter. The proposed Ben White store is currently the only Supercenter still in the city development-review pipeline, Suttle said -- though at points in the process he and other Wal-Mart supporters have referred to as many as a dozen future Supercenter projects.

The proposed study does not specifically single out Wal-Mart, and before the council voted on the study, Susan Moffat, designated speaker for a coalition of business, labor, and neighborhood representatives, suggested that the city draw on studies that other communities have conducted on big boxes and chain retail. (Moffat is the wife of Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro.) Other "essential elements" the coalition would like to see in the study include quantification of the wage and employment impact of big boxes, plus an assessment of the impact on traffic, neighborhoods, and the environment, and the creation of an "exit strategy" for abandoned stores -- a sore point among big-box opponents. "I know the city is hoping these Supercenters will somehow grow the tax base," said Moffat, "but studies to date show the opposite is true."

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Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Supercenter, Blunn Creek, Lauren Ross, Daryl Slusher, Betty Dunkerley, Susan Moffat, Richard Suttle

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