Naked City

The Future of Sixth and Lamar

Whole Foods Market and Schlosser Development have scaled back development plans for the already congested Sixth and Lamar intersection, but neighbors still worry.
Whole Foods Market and Schlosser Development have scaled back development plans for the already congested Sixth and Lamar intersection, but neighbors still worry. (Photo By John Anderson)

Whole Foods Market and Schlosser Development have changed course in their plans to redevelop the old Whole Foods building at Sixth and Lamar, announcing Monday that they would scrap plans to build a 120-foot tower with a ground floor theatre and would no longer seek the Planned Unit Development zoning change such an expansion would require. Nearby residents and businesses had sprung into action against the project, creating, where they accumulated more than 450 petition signatures within two weeks. Opponents felt the planned tower development was too substantial for its proximity to the adjacent Old West Austin communities, would bring too many cars to the already clogged intersection, and overwhelm local businesses, not to mention obstruct neighbors' coveted city views.

The new plans include shrinking the proposed tower down to 80 feet (which will require an overlay under current zoning) and decreasing the overall square footage from 280,000 to 195,000. Schlosser's David Vitanza says that, along with a decreased office space component, eight to 10 new "unconfirmed" retail or restaurant tenants will occupy the redevelopment and the proposed theatre will be relocated to another part of the district. The former Whole Foods-BookPeople building will remain unchanged and will be joined by two new buildings, a two- to three-story structure along Lamar, which will replace the "unsalvageable" KVET building with about 35,000 square feet of new development, plus the scaled-down tower, now 60,000 square feet and five stories, at the back of the site on Henderson Street. All the buildings will center around the current parking area that opens to Lamar, according to Vitanza. "The movement among stakeholders and city public policy has been to create more downtown density. Now, this is much lower density, but it still makes sense for the site," Vitanza said.

Old West Austin Neighborhood Association Zoning Committee Chair Steve Colburn said the project, with its fluctuating size and zoning specs, has been a "moving target from the beginning," but that neighbors' concerns haven't changed. "We want to keep the area livable and minimize congestion," Colburn said. "There's nothing we can do to stop growth, but we can manage it such a way that doesn't make existing problems any worse." He added that a downtown planning project designed to guide development in inner-city neighborhoods and business centers is within months of beginning: "We want to have the growth built to the plan, no[t] the other way around." Colburn said that adding many more cars, pedestrians, bikes, and buses to the intersection now creates the prospect that it will become "one of those places that's so crowded no one goes there, and that's not an option for us."

"Whole Foods shares the same concerns as neighbors. The changes were made because of neighbors' concerns," said Whole Foods spokeswoman Ashley Hawkins. "We don't want crazy traffic in the area. It'll affect our business and our shoppers trying to get out of the lot." A city traffic study based on the original plans projected an additional 10,000 car trips to the intersection per day. Hawkins said the project "will definitely not require a zoning change," but that "nothing's firm right now." Plans to bring outdoor supplier REI and women's clothier Anthropologie to the corner are still intact, with the likelihood of more national retailers to come.

But the notion of new national retail neighbors seems to have area business owners concerned less about the encroachment of competitors than about parking and traffic. "All local retailers welcome a level playing field of competition," said Kevin Lewis, general merchandise manager for local outdoor shop Whole Earth Provision Co. He said his main concern is whether the benefit of additional retail is worth the cost of increased traffic and the gridlock's impact on future business and residents. As a founding member of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, a 300-member association of local operations, Lewis makes the case for shopping local by highlighting the benefits of hometown businesses' greater contribution of taxes, jobs, and wages back to the community vs. national retailers.

Vitanza said, "We are a development company that relies on development for national retailers as well as local business." He said their entire Market District project – which includes the redevelopment of the old Whole Foods, the new Whole Foods headquarters, and the complex just east of Lamar and Fifth that currently houses Pure Austin Gym, Starbucks Coffee, and Office Max – will probably have "between 25 and 30 percent local businesses, including the local businesses already on site, the new Whole Foods, BookPeople, and Pure Austin gym."

"Well that's 30% right there. We're it," said BookPeople co-owner Steve Bercu. "Personally, I would prefer to see local businesses, but then again I don't own the property."

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