Naked City

Wal-Mart Is 78704's Friend?

Tim Mahoney thought he'd never see the day, but there he was Dec. 11, praising his nemesis Wal-Mart and its attorney Richard Suttle at a City Council meeting. The occasion was Mahoney's announcement of a peace treaty that he and his South River City Citizens neighborhood group had signed with the retail giant after months of wrangling. The agreement essentially lays out the terms under which Wal-Mart will build a Supercenter in the 78704 neighborhood that, not all that long ago, was united in opposition against the megastore.

With a truce reached, the council gave final approval to Wal-Mart's zoning change for a tract of land on Ben White, between Congress and I-35. It's unclear whether the lack of an agreement would have stood in the way of a favorable vote, since the council had already blessed the rezoning on two previous votes. But "Wal-Mart has turned out to be a very friendly and reasonable partner," Mahoney told the council. "More importantly, the agreement that we have is talking about a long-term relationship [between Wal-Mart and the SRCC]."

As neighborhood-developer agreements go, this one is fairly unique; Wal-Mart has agreed to reimburse SRCC $25,000 of the expenses the neighborhood incurred as part of its resistance efforts. The largest of those line items was a comprehensive study of the health of Blunn Creek, which runs north from the Wal-Mart site. Based on the report's finding and the recommendations of Glenrose Engineering, the firm hired to conduct the study, Wal-Mart agreed to install a number of environmental controls to prevent the pollution of the creek. Additionally, Wal-Mart will allow SRCC's engineer, or another designee, to inspect the Wal-Mart site both during and after construction of the project. A smaller victory is Wal-Mart's agreement to build only a portion of the parking area with pervious, or porous, materials.

"Wal-Mart recognized that they got some value out of that study," Mahoney said. "But it's really just a drop in the bucket when you consider what we'd like to and need to invest to maintain the health of this [Blunn Creek] watershed." Long-range plans call for more quality-of-life investments in the Travis Heights neighborhood, he added. (The SRCC boundaries stretch from the lake to Ben White and from Congress to I-35.)

Mahoney said he isn't aware of other neighborhood associations securing reimbursements from developers, but he noted this is not the first such arrangement for his group. SRCC got $50,000 from Home Depot several years ago (again, with Suttle representing the developer), and much of that money covered the up-front costs of kick-starting the Blunn Creek study, Mahoney said.

Longtime Travis Heights resident and neighborhood leader Jean Mather said she never dreamed that Wal-Mart -- or Suttle, for that matter -- would agree to many of SRCC's terms. "I feel very happy about the agreement, especially considering what could have, and almost, happened without it," she said, referring to the likelihood of council approving the zoning even without the agreement. "Of course," she added, "we have a Wal-Mart. No one is dancing in the street about that."

With the zoning case in the bag, Wal-Mart now moves ahead on the site plan and building permit process, which they expect to have completed by March 1. The Ben White Supercenter is the second such Wal-Mart project planned for South Austin; the retailer nixed plans for a third and much more controversial Supercenter over the Edwards Aquifer in Southwest Austin.

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