No size cap, RECA shrieks
Two Austin business groups are predicting a landscape of economic gloom and doom if the City Council approves an ordinance limiting the size of big-box retail development on environmentally sensitive lands over the Edwards Aquifer. The council is scheduled to take action today (Thursday) on a ban proposal that has won the support of the city Environmental Board and the Planning Commission. A 6pm public hearing will precede the council's vote.
Meanwhile, both the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin are urging council members to reject the ordinance, arguing that its passage would drive sales-tax dollars outside of Austin despite the ban's limited reach -- city officials say the ordinance would only apply to a handful of sites in the aquifer's sensitive Barton Springs zone. The council has previously given overwhelming support to a temporary moratorium on bix boxes in the area.
The chamber and RECA particularly take issue with the argument that big-box retailers generate an excessive amount of traffic, more so than stand-alone grocery stores. The proposed ordinance would ban retail projects over 50,000 square feet but would allow for grocery stores up to 100,000 square feet. In an e-mail alert to its membership, RECA leaders Tim Taylor and Diana Zuniga point to one traffic analysis that shows that a large, free-standing discount store generates 45% less traffic than a similarly sized stand-alone grocery store. However, the undated study only looked at discount stores up to 125,000 square feet, while most megastores these days -- which typically incorporate grocery departments -- exceed 200,000 square feet.
The RECA e-mail goes on to blame progressive consultant Mike Blizzard, identified as an "unregistered lobbyist," for crafting the ordinance "on behalf of a small group of people in the name of protecting the environment." Blizzard -- a newly registered lobbyist -- says he did not write the ordinance. (Taylor's predecessor as RECA chair, Kirk Rudy of Endeavor Real Estate Group, saw his company's plans to develop a Wal-Mart Supercenter over the aquifer torpedoed by a community opposition campaign largely organized by Blizzard -- and funded by Endeavor's business rival Stratus Properties. So yes, it's personal.)
Business and development interests have expressed fears that the aquifer ban, combined with the results of the city's study on the impact of big-box retail, will beget a citywide size cap on retail projects. The RECA e-mail concludes: "It is time to tell our City Council to STOP playing politics with the environment and to START focusing on policies that help create jobs and improve our local economy!"
Former Mayor Kirk Watson -- who as mayor was hailed by many for his efforts to preserve environmentally sensitive land and to limit development over the aquifer via the Smart Growth Initiative -- was named chair-elect of the Chamber of Commerce two days before the chamber joined RECA in assaulting the big-box ban. Watson says he wasn't aware of the chamber's memo until its release and suggested he might have taken a different tack on the matter. "I have not studied the big-box issue, but I think it's fair to say I am disappointed in the overall tenor of this discussion," he said. "I think the community in general, and the business community in particular, has been pretty clear that we can address issues concerning the aquifer differently than we address different parts of the city."