Cross Talk on Northcross

Are discussions and negotiations on planned redevelopment of Northcross Mall bearing fruit? Depends on whom you talk to.

Whether discussions and negotiations on the planned redevelopment of Northcross Mall are bearing fruit depends on whom you talk to. Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N), the citizens group advocating for a better development (sans a Wal-Mart Supercenter), has expressed growing frustration that developer Lincoln Property Co. has failed to "come to the table" directly with RG4N representatives about their concerns. But according to Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, a series of structured meetings – organized and led by city staff, held separately with each side – is leading to an improved site plan for Northcross that addresses neighborhood concerns. The big question, however, remains unanswered: Will the project be with or without a 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart? Huffman said the release of a preliminary "term sheet" of agreed improvements is imminent but warned, "Lincoln has been very clear from the beginning that their signed leases, including the Wal-Mart lease, are not up for negotiation."

"The city knows that what they will come back to us with is not what we want," said RG4N's Hope Morrison, who sees no evidence that the city is pressing the developer on the Wal-Mart. As long as the project includes a 200,000-square-foot supercenter (by any name), RG4N and the neighborhood groups oppose the project.

While the city is certainly a motivated third-party facilitator – due in part to the fact that both sides have threatened to sue it over Northcross – it is not an impartial one, for the same reason. "We do not view the city as facilitating negotiations between the neighborhood groups and Lincoln so much as seeking its own preferred resolution," said Morrison.

As a consequence, RG4N is moving ahead on its own. A Jan. 13-14 survey it conducted showed that 88% of respondents (3,239 neighborhood folks, responding online and on paper) oppose the current site plan with the Wal-Mart Supercenter. At press time, RG4N was planning to publicize the survey and announce new initiatives at a Wednesday night town-hall meeting. Those include a schematic alternative design, a legal battle (with associated fundraisers), a demonstration at Northcross, and a promised boycott of Wal-Mart stores citywide, as long as the supercenter remains part of the project. In addition, RG4N and five neighborhood associations drafted a list of mutual priorities, which they planned to ceremonially sign as a show of unity.

The individual neighborhood associations involved (whose members partially overlap with RG4N) – Allandale, Brentwood, Crestview, North Shoal Creek, Rosedale, and Wooten – have expressed varying priorities and degrees of satisfaction regarding Northcross. To some degree, there has been conflict over leadership on the issues. The passions raging around Northcross recently contributed to the resignation and replacement of a significant portion of the Allandale Neighborhood Association board, including President Gretchen Vaden Nagy. ANA has a legal fundraising committee, in preparation for a possible lawsuit against the city.

A key problem is disappointed expectations. A Dec. 14 release issued by the city (www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/2006/lincoln60.htm) announced that Lincoln and Wal-Mart had agreed to suspend development activity for 60 days; it quoted Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley that the suspension would "allow time for meaningful discussions with the neighborhoods." Yet since that date, Lincoln Property Co. and Wal-Mart have not reached out directly to RG4N and the neighborhoods; instead, the city has filtered, managed, and controlled the neighborhood input process – for better or for worse. Council members led RG4N to believe, said representative Morrison, that the citizenry would be invited to meet and negotiate directly with Lincoln and/or Wal-Mart – a hope that has gone unfulfilled.

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