Beside The Point

Neighborhoods Stolen; Big-Box Door to Close?

Today (Thursday) City Council wraps up its holiday shopping, plopping the hottest present of the season under its crowded Christmas tree: Item 82, the Northcross/Wal-Mart controversy, a late agenda addition from Brewster McCracken, Jennifer Kim, and Sheryl Cole. Signs council would undertake what McCracken calls a "warts-and-all" accounting of the supercenter plans, distinct from the proposed big-box ordinance (also up today), brewed over the weekend, as neighbors petitioned ferociously and McCracken told KVUE-TV, "We do have grounds – in fact, a legal responsibility – to stop this site plan."

McCracken's declaration followed a Friday memo issued by Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman (acting in Toby Futrell's recused capacity), reviewing the process that approved the Wal-Mart. In McCracken's eyes, Huffman's memo spelled out one "pretty significant" problem with the legal notice requirements to neighbors: Info regarding how they could become an "interested party in an administrative decision process" was not distributed to neighbors. In fact, for whatever reasons, says the memo, "for at least 10 years, the City's notice, including the Northcross Mall notice, has not included this information." Despite the decade lapse, McCracken noted the irony of "the very thing [behind the controversy] – the lack of public notice," perhaps being the balky wheel on Wal-Mart's express shopping cart.

That's an economy-sized if. Returning to the lack of noticing, Huffman's memo continues: "Could this be used to revoke or deny the site plan?" The answer? "No. A deficiency in the notice is not a deficiency in the application submitted and does not affect the validity of the director's decision." Still, the extra information "interested parties" are privy to – "extension requests, phasing decisions, approval of the site plan," and more – reads like a shopping list of items neighbors say they were left clueless about and which, had they been known at the time, could have impacted the site plan, or at least brought neighborhood pressure down earlier. (McCracken said Huffman had earlier suggested that the lack of specific notice would be enough to revoke the site plan approval – but her formal memo indicates otherwise. Do we detect the pusillanimous odor of the legal department?)

"You have a requirement in legal proceedings to notice," McCracken said. "We're just saying these notice requirements weren't followed." Whether council finds sufficient legal footing to check Wal-Mart and Lincoln Properties out of Northcross, or at least roll them back to the drawing board, remains to be seen. But should they decide to take action, the agenda posting language is broad enough. "What if we learn something Thursday and decide to give direction?" McCracken continued. "Otherwise, we'd have to sit and wait a month [until council's next meeting in January], and by then Northcross is torn down. … We have to be ready to take action."

And then there's the big-box ordinance itself, which would require expanded notice and conditional use permitting for stores larger than 100,000 square feet. (Does that mean Wal-Mart, at 217,000, needs two clearances? Nope, already approved. It skirts the ordinance.) With angry Responsible Growth for Northcross members descending on City Hall at noon, potentially by the hundreds, the ordinance's passage – not too little, but apparently too late – seems a fait accompli. Which makes widespread speculation that city staff intentionally stalled its approval process all the more delicious. Left to run its course earlier this year, before the Mark of the Bentonville Beast was branded on Burnet and Anderson, it wasn't the current cause célèbre: Potentially too middling to development foes, and too much to developers, it didn't generate much heat beyond a core group of Liveable Citizens.

Now, with six pissed-off neighborhood groups on the city's hands, it's a quite different story.

It may seem otherwise, but there's more to running a city than scaring off Old Man Walton. In council's last meeting of the year, there's much to be considered, including: Item 41 creates a bond oversight committee to guard the funds approved in last month's election, and Item 43 spends $1,415,000 of those dollars for an Eastside park at Oak Springs Drive. Item XX sends Great Streets funds to the Ballet Austin site. And rounding things out are a 2pm briefing on the city's homeless services, proclamations declaring Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos Day, and bidding farewell to the Cadeau gift shop. As one shop leaves … does another bulldoze the neighborhood?

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Northcross development, city council, Wal-Mart, big-box ordinance, Northcross

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