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Developing Stories

By Katherine Gregor, October 27, 2006, News

Big Box, Back Off!

Who hates big box? We hate big box! (Except, of course, when we want to shop there.) Austin moved one step closer to enacting a new "big-box ordinance" Tuesday, when the Planning Commission voted 8-0 to pass the ordinance to City Council for a vote. The ordinance – which provides a "Conditional Use Permit" planning tool for reviewing proposed new megaretail stores – was proposed by Liveable City, a quality-of-life community nonprofit. Speaking in its favor to the commissioners were several Liveable City Executive Committee members, led off by former City Council Member Bill Spelman.

When Austin's land-development code was written in the 1950s, a typical store was a 2,000-square-foot mom-and-pop operation, said Spelman; in the half-century since, "The retail world has changed, but our land-development code has not." He said today's 24-hour supercenters can exceed 250,000 square feet and require more than 20 acres of parking. The new ordinance is needed for zoning code to keep pace; currently, Austin's general retail and commercial use zoning makes no distinction as to store size.

The ordinance adds a public review process in requiring a Conditional Use Permit for megastores. (While the Liveable City draft had the CUP process kicking in at 50,000 square feet, on the recommendation of staff, the Planning Commission increased the cutoff size to 100,000 square feet.) Conditional-use regulations give the Planning Commission and City Council the authority to consider the economic and community impacts of a proposed project, as a condition of granting approval. Issues to be considered would include neighborhood appropriateness, lighting, public safety and welfare, traffic impact, and the effect on nearby smaller, locally owned businesses.

The new ordinance would also require advance notification to all registered neighborhood associations within a mile of a proposed development (currently only neighbors within 300 feet – about half a block – must be notified). A 4-foot-by-8-foot sign on the property would provide an early "heads up" that Wal-Mart wants to be their new best friend.

Appropriate scale is the primary issue. The intent is not to eliminate big-box retail but to direct it to appropriate locations – such as tracts zoned "CH" on major highways. Forwarding the ordinance, the PC recommended that the city create a new zoning district where big box would always be welcome – with expanded neighborhood notification.

During the hearing, several commissioners and anti-ordinance speakers expressed concerns about affordability, raising the question whether low-income Austinites were well-served by efforts to drive away discount retailers. At times the discussion took on an "us" vs. "them" tone, with implications that the elite New Urbanist quality-of-life folks at Liveable City were out of touch with paycheck-to-paycheck citizens. Robin Rather, on Liveable City's Executive Committee, responded, emphasizing the ordinance is about preserving choices, not taking them away – and that she and her compatriots weren't too good for big box. Thanks to the miracles of text messaging, she was able to report: "My husband and my son bought four pairs of pants at Target during this meeting!"

The 2004 report "Big Box Retail and Austin: An Independent Review" is available at

Las Manitas Swirls On

When City Council members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Brewster McCracken sent a Sept. 28 letter to the chairman and CEO of Marriott International, they asked him "to propose a revised development plan no later than October 31, 2006" for the proposed Marriott project in the 200 block of Congress Avenue (see "Mas Noticias Las Manitas: Council Members Take Stand"). According to council aides, no one has heard a peep back from Willard Marriott. The letter [see] stated, "We are writing to request that Marriott work with community stakeholders to create a revised development plan that accommodates the ongoing operation of the block's existing small local businesses." In setting the Halloween deadline, it referenced consideration for the lease arrangements of the tenants – Las Manitas, Escuelita del Alma, and Tesoros Trading Company. (The three council members did not, as erroneously cited in a Monday Statesman editorial, ask the city or Planning Commission to craft an iconic business ordinance – an idea they do not even necessarily support.)

As suggested by Martinez, council has deferred voting on a proposed development bonus ordinance until after the Oct. 31 deadline. The Marriott development would be directly affected by the ordinance, which would provide a system for allowing developers to build higher and denser than central-business-district code currently allows, in return for "good behavior." Points could be awarded for a list of developer efforts for the public good – such as helping small, beloved, locally owned businesses remain on the site. Marriott and its developer, White Lodging Services, potentially could get development bonuses worth many millions.

Martinez also met recently with the owners of Las Manitas to discuss possible solutions to their lease problem. Cynthia and Lydia Perez reaffirmed that their intention is not to deny the property rights of their unhappy landlord, Tim Finley, nor to reduce their property's value. The developers' attorney, Richard Suttle, said that the concessions already offered to the tenants – including free rent and moving assistance – are more than generous. (They come, however, with strings attached that the tenants found unacceptable.) Nothing but the power of community goodwill currently requires the Finley Company to extend the tenants' leases after year's end. Former Mayor Gus Garcia, who represents Las Manitas and Escuelita, said that good faith negotiations are proceeding – but without any significant breakthroughs. He, too, is waiting to see what the Halloween deadline brings. Trick, or treat?

Bucking the City

When is a restoration not a restoration? When it's a thinly veiled expansion. The Heritage Neighborhood Association emerged victorious at trial last week in a lawsuit against the city of Austin and the California owner of the Buckingham Square Apartments. After the apartment building at 32nd and West Avenue was partially destroyed by fire in 2004, the owner sought to "restore" the two-story structure but filed plans with the city for a much larger three-story complex, with more apartments.

By calling the project a "restoration," Buckingham Investments received "safeharboring" rights from the city. The provision assists property owners who must restore older structures that are destroyed, by freeing them from current building-code standards. The neighborhood association was outraged that the owner wanted it both ways – a restoration for building-code purposes, a significant expansion for profit purposes – and took the matter to court.

Neighborhood objections included the scale of the proposed three-story building (surrounded by single-family homes) and plans for almost twice as many units as allowed by current code. Most importantly, the neighborhood believed the city's approval of the expansion made a mockery of its recently enacted Neighborhood Plan, which specified greater density and development on the periphery of the neighborhood in exchange for greater protection of its heart – where the Buckingham Apartments are located.

The unfunny joke going around town about this case? If you're a property owner who wants city approval to build taller and denser, just torch your existing property first. Fortunately, the legal judgment by Judge Stephen Yelenosky discourages such behavior.

The court ruled that the city improperly included the expansion plans for Buckingham within the definition of a "restoration" said attorney Mark Perlmutter, a neighborhood resident who handled the lawsuit for the association. The owner now must go back to the city and file new plans for a true restoration – which should meet current code. In a judgment issued Tuesday, Judge Yelenosky ordered the owner of Buckingham Square to pay $20,000 and the city of Austin to pay $10,000, plus court costs.

Clarification: The Board of the Austin Parks Foundation has not yet taken a vote, or adopted an official position, on the issue of variances that would permit development within the 200' setbacks from Town Lake required by the city's Waterfront Overlay Ordinance.

AMD’s Guilty Gift

Greenwash (v.) To implement token environmentally friendly initiatives as a way of hiding or deflecting criticism about existing environmentally destructive practices. Source:

Fact No. 1: AMD announced last week a donation of $1.5 million. The monies go to the Hill Country Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, which primarily will use them to purchase land and development rights over the Edwards Aquifer -- in order to prevent aquifer-polluting development. The donation is part of a $5 million gift pledged by AMD and its development partner, Stratus Properties, to preserve open space.

Fact No. 2: The most significant Austin development threatening to pollute the Edwards Aquifer is AMD's enormous new $230 million corporate campus. The 58-acre "Lantana Tract" site, at Southwest Parkway and William Cannon Drive, will house about 2,000 workers in an 860,000-square-foot facility. In April, the city of Austin approved the site development plan for the campus, now under construction, despite significant public and environmental opposition to the large-scale development over the Barton Springs watershed.

You connect the dots ...

Does AMD’s gift qualify as greenwashing? Community leaders weigh in on the issue

David Armbrust

President, Hill Country Conservancy

The Hill Country Conservancy's mission is all about land preservation and not politics. We appreciate the gift and thank AMD for making it.

It is not within the purview of HCC to determine the motivation of AMD, or for that matter, any other donor, for a gift. Our duty is to say thank you and then put the gift to work preserving open space.

The AMD gift will enable us to do a lot of good things. For starters, we are going to be able to leverage $300,000 of the gift times ten by using it as the "local match" to access some federal and local funding that otherwise would not have been available to us. We will then have $3 million, which is what we need to acquire a conservation easement on a very historically and environmentally sensitive tract on the banks of Onion Creek.

Colin Clark

Communications Director, SOS

AMD's action fits the definition of greenwashing because moving 2,000 employees out of East Austin and into new buildings in our most fragile watershed is fundamentally destructive for the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer watershed. AMD's move hastens the development of thousands of acres in the Barton Springs watershed by stimulating demand for more residential and commercial development.

Their donation cannot off-set the increased pollution and increased vehicle traffic in the watershed that will follow their re-location. Further, their move is raising land prices in the Barton Springs watershed, making large-scale land conservation much more expensive, and in some cases, likely impossible.

Silicon Labs, on the other hand, recently relocated out of the Barton Springs watershed and into the Desired Development Zone.

Robin Rather

Member of Liveable City's Executive Committee

"I know the Hill Country Conservancy will do great things with the money. But this kind of very obvious greenwashing backfires, in some ways. The community is actually smarter than that and can see right through it. AMD has had a tremendous setback to their corporate goodwill, and clearly they intend this to help mitigate the damage. But I think the damage to AMD's reputation is a stain that will take a long, long time to wash out."


Is AMD taking its PR cues from these multinational organizations?

1) Ford Motor Company

2) BP

3) United States Forest Service

4) ChevronTexaco

5) General Motors

6) Nuclear Energy Institute

7) Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

8) TruGreen ChemLawn

9) Xcel Energy

10) National Ski Areas Association


Full 2005 list with greenwashing profiles at:

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