The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Wal-Mart's Xmas Gift

Bringing coal to Northcross, something better for the rest of us

By Michael King, December 22, 2006, News

The first favorable consequence of the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter at Northcross – although entirely unintended – was delivered last Thursday night at City Council. Somewhere around midnight (I suppose dedicated council-watchers should be pleased it wasn't 3am), the council voted to enact a new Big-Box Ordinance that would require more public and more detailed review of proposed retail stores in excess of 100,000 square feet. It's only a first reading, and there were timorous notes of potential amendment from the dais, so it's hardly a "done deal," in the self-satisfied parlance of those folks who normally disdain any public oversight of "private" business transactions that yet generate myriad public effects.

If you ask me, the first rational amendment would be to lower the review limit to 50,000 square feet, a point at which a project's publicly costly "externalities" begin to outweigh its putative benefits. (The folks at RECA needn't worry – nobody's asking me.) Much more likely is some attempt to weaken the ordinance so that it applies only to unlikely projects, while the predictable behemoths still skate free. Thusly skated the massive project filed by Lincoln Property for Northcross, which under the current code and two-generation-old zoning required, or so says city staff, only cursory "administrative" review.

As more than one observer has since rued, for projects this size with these kinds of reverberations, that simply doesn't make sense. Nobody wants to regulate small businesses to death, but as former Council Member Bill Spelman of Liveable City reminded the council, "Under the current code, there is no distinction between a mom-and-pop convenience store of 2,000 square feet, and a supercenter of 219,000 square feet, as far as the site plan goes." Under the proposed ordinance, a proposal of more than 100,000 square feet would automatically trigger a public hearing and also notify the demographic community explicitly targeted by major retailers – roughly 3 square miles, far beyond the 300 feet worth of neighbors considered "interested parties" under current law.

Blind and Deaf

It's a real shame that it took the Northcross debacle to force this matter to the city's official attention, although the problem has been a matter of public discussion for years, and the ordinance has been in formal development for at least 14 months. City staff insist they have not dragged their feet on the ordinance, and City Auditor Stephen Morgan seconded that position after a limited review. But it doesn't take an elephant's memory to recall that whitewash of a big-box impact review the city commissioned in 2004. The report managed to conclude, ludicrously and against all available evidence, that major-scale national retailers don't really compete financially with local stores.

At the moment, in the middle of the Northcross uproar, Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman is assuring everybody that the city is now fully on board with the proposed ordinance. Yet according to several folks at Liveable City, last summer City Manager Toby Futrell made it abundantly clear that she found the proposals – especially any economic impact requirements – extraordinarily onerous. The City Hall buzz (lamentably but understandably off the record) is that staffers received the clear and unmistakable message from on high to "find ways to slow this [ordinance] down."

Futrell is flamboyantly pissed at me at the moment – see today's "Postmarks" – and just a trifle defensive on this entire matter, from which she found it necessary to recuse herself (after the fact). For the record, last week I accused her of hypocrisy, not corruption, and I reiterate here that I don't think any personal conflict of interest underlies the city's reflexive deference to major business interests, even when those interests are using the city's review processes against the interests of the community at large. I get it – city staff is institutionally committed to "economic development" of any kind; they don't want to discriminate against a mom-and-pop or Wal-Mart; and by laws far more imposing than city ordinances they are forbidden to do so. So they tie themselves into procedural knots declaring their irrational neutrality and deliver nonsensical and frankly silly declarations to the effect: "We only found out about Wal-Mart when we read about it in the paper." Believe that if you will – but is it a defense of competent, workable city government?

The plain truth is, there are plenty of times when it makes simple common sense to make rational, legal distinctions between small and humongous businesses and to find out what the hell is going on before you "administratively" bless the latter. This is very much one of those times.

Citizens, Not Consumers

Rational city government may come too late to save the Northcross neighborhoods, which began long ago as de facto suburbs and are only now discovering all the ills that unplanning is heir to. But we owe those neighbors a great thanks for reacting as quickly and coherently as they have and for doing their level best to find a way to insert themselves and their common neighborhood interests into an official rubber-stamp process that currently allows them no effective input. May they emerge, next year, with a satisfactory resolution; if nothing else, they will have supplied the momentum for legally preventing such travesties in other Austin neighborhoods.

For at bottom, this debate is finally not about Wal-Mart but about whether the economic power of disembodied corporate financial interests inevitably overrides the much-beleaguered but still quite real political rights of Austin citizens. Had you endured to the wee hours of last Thursday's debate, you would have heard a succinct and irrefutable summation from Liveable City's Susan Moffat: "This whole controversy isn't about the merits of big-box retail, it isn't about a popularity contest, it isn't about low prices or class war or elitism, or any of the other red herrings that have been in the discussion over the last few months. This really, in my mind, is about democracy." end story

Full disclosure: Susan Moffat is the spouse of Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro, who didn't attend last week's council meeting and is not nearly as articulate as his wife. Nor, QED, am I.

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