Bigger Than Wal-Mart
The quality of new development in a region should follow town-like principles housing for a diverse population, a full mix of uses, walkable streets, positive public space, integrated civic and commercial centers, transit orientation and accessible open space.
Peter Calthorpe, The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, 1993
The coming together Saturday of at least 2,500 red-clad Austinites to hold hands in a human chain of protest sufficient, on a cold and blustery morning, to surround the approximately one-mile street perimeter of Northcross Mall provided further evidence that citizen passion against the city-approved site plan for redeveloping Northcross Mall continues to run hot and deep. As neighborhood opponents have articulated clearly, the fight isn't just about hating Wal-Mart. Rather, the uprising of activism in this ordinary middle-class part of North Central Austin is fueled by a more profound sense of outrage and betrayal and by neighborhood pride and a strong positive vision.
A fight against the nation's most powerful retailer (fueled in part by Wal-Mart's lack of corporate social responsibility) makes for snappy bumper stickers, T-shirts ("Wal-Mart Isn't Weird") and sound-bite media coverage. Certainly, the advocacy group Responsible Growth for Northcross has articulated one non-negotiable goal to both the city and the developer: "Lincoln Property Company and Wal-Mart need to abandon their plans to build a 225,085 square foot 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter with a 300,000 square foot parking garage." (Until that demand is met, RG4N also called on Saturday for a citywide boycott of all Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs.) But to see only that aspect of the Northcross uprising is to miss the deeper civic issues at stake.
What these Austinites want and believe they deserve from the private developer, from the city, and from their elected representatives is enlightened urban redevelopment. When a major moribund mall in their neighborhood is at last to be redeveloped, they want that redevelopment to occur in accord with the best practices nationally and the city's own new design standards. Austinites have drunk the Kool-Aid that Austin is a "Top 10" smart, cool, progressive, and prosperous city; our civic self-esteem is now so high that we expect the best in urban design and redevelopment. Unfortunately, this pivotal site is in the hands of a developer whose narrow thinking lags far behind its own industry. Even more troubling, the city of Austin is not yet practicing the kind of sophisticated and effective urban planning that could have prevented this debacle.
It speaks to the savvy of Austinites that they didn't just shrug and accept the Wal-Mart and Lincoln site plan, that they understand what quality urban redevelopment should look like. The vision they have articulated for a revived Northcross as shown in the design sketch pictured here harkens to New Urbanism, a movement (now at least 15 years old) that revives traditional principles of building community (as summarized by Peter Calthorpe in the quote above). Indeed, RG4N members took it upon themselves to do what the developer (or the city) should have done survey more than 3,000 neighborhood residents and business owners about their preferences and needs (88% said they opposed a retail supercenter), then comprehensively rework the plan to reflect those desires. They developed a consensus "priorities list" unanimously supported by five surrounding neighborhood associations and RG4N, cementing strong agreement on what that better redevelopment should look like. Neighborhood volunteers also organized a hands-on design charrette for the site, which was held independently at City Hall on Jan. 27. An appealing early vision (which reportedly could be equally profitable for the developer) based on the neighborhoods' mutual priorities emerged from this citizens' "minicharrette" led by professional architects, urban planners, and commercial real estate professionals who donated their time. (It reflects poorly on the city that these professionals requested anonymity; according to one, they fear being blackballed by the city on future projects.)
Unfortunately Lincoln Property Co. a huge, nationwide real estate firm exhibits a level of urban design and planning sophistication several notches lower than that of the average Crestview or Allandale resident. The projects and properties posted on the company's Web site reflect that, as a company, Lincoln has yet to embrace the public-responsibility aspect of the New Urbanist spirit. Its projects across the country including the Hill Country Galleria and Shops at the Galleria in Bee Cave fail to exemplify the best practices already considered mainstream by other profit-driven developers. For example, Lincoln's sole listed mixed-use project incorporating housing (Stone Creek Village in Cary, N.C.) is described without a whiff of community-building idealism or any mention of sustainability but only in terms of "population flow," "traffic flow," and "retail flow." The retrograde mentality of the developer is revealed by that project's enthusiastic marketing slogan: "Watch the traffic go buy!"
By contrast, more enlightened developers across the nation who are up-to-date on competitive trends in shopping-center development incorporate sustainability, livable cities, and community as overt project goals. Those established practices are well-represented by session topics at the Urban Land Institute's annual conferences on Reinventing Retail: Community, Lifestyle, and Entertainment. For example, from the section entitled Retail Rejoins the Community: "The days when shopping centers were stand-alone developments surrounded by parking lots and separated from the rest of the community are fading. Integration is the new buzzword. Integration of shopping, housing, and offices; integration of shopping with transit. Integration builds more sustainable communities, [and] expands opportunities." That kind of forward-thinking, mixed-use approach is precisely what RG4N's alternative vision, and the city's own design standards, are urging upon Lincoln at Northcross. Austinites are begging for good, dense, mixed-use urban design on the Northcross site. Maddeningly, it's the developer who's behind the curve here, blind or indifferent to the opportunity to create an equally profitable, yet far more sustainable, project with enthusiastic community support.
Some of those involved early on in the Shops at the Galleria project in Bee Cave found that Lincoln wouldn't budge off an "obsolete" retail playbook that many felt was 15 years out of date. When presented with master planning concepts grounded in up-to-date "Lifestyle Mall" development trends (basically, New Urbanism repackaged as marketing), Lincoln apparently couldn't understand the plan or its value and rejected it. Instead, Dozier and his colleagues insisted on reverting to their rigid, outdated rules for developing strip shopping centers. Huge parking lots had to be out front; existing mature trees would have to be cut down to ensure that every store sign would be visible. The result is the depressing 600,000 sq. ft. Shops at the Galleria "power center" — across Highway 71 from the far larger (and likely more depressing-to-be) mixed-use project with housing that Lincoln is co-developing, the 150-acre Hill Country Galleria.
As Dozier proudly told Texas Real Estate Business: "At this intersection, more than 2 million square feet of retail is underway. It's zoned, it's entitled, and these projects will serve the fastest-growing segment of this market, effectively filling a huge void that exists there today." No mention, of course, of the SOS Alliance's opposition to the projects due to the sensitive Barton Creek watershed. Where others saw a beautiful and environmentally sensitive piece of the Hill Country, Dozier saw only a void.
Ultimately, what the missed opportunity at Northcross demonstrates is that the city of Austin cannot abdicate its responsibility for intelligent urban planning to the private sector. It would be ludicrous to trust deal-flippin' developers on a parcel-by-parcel basis to execute an enlightened urban plan for inner-city redevelopment. While our peer cities such as Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Jose, Calif.; Denver; Las Vegas; even Fort Worth regularly update 20-year plans that address urban planning in detail, Austin does not. While our peer cities have a retinue of public planners and consultants who proactively guide and coordinate redevelopment efforts citywide, not just downtown Austin does not.
Certainly the city's new commercial and retail design standards are a huge step in the right direction. By establishing consistent, code-enforceable standards for quality, they help to ensure that future projects are better designed, more sustainable, and contribute positively to reknitting the urban fabric and Austin's neighborhoods. Yet design standards alone are not enough. Cities have a responsibility to plan and to implement, monitor, track, and update planning policy for the long-term, in the public interest.
At Northcross, the opportunity hasn't yet been lost to produce a great redevelopment a model of all that Austin can become, akin to the city's plan for the Crestview transit-oriented development. After sending a letter to Lincoln asking to present its design charrette vision (and requesting true partnership on finding mutually satisfactory solutions), RG4N representatives at last were to meet face-to-face with Dozier on Wednesday. Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman has promised the neighborhoods an imminent "term sheet" of agreed-upon improvements to the site plan, the result of numerous meetings and negotiations between city staff and Lincoln and Wal-Mart representatives. Huffman said city staff, including planners, have proactively presented solutions to the developer and that "staff's goal has been to press Lincoln and Wal-Mart to apply many of the concepts embodied in the city's new commercial design standards to this project." (RG4N's Hope Morrison expects that while those city-facilitated concessions will add some niceties, they won't address the fundamental problem of the outdated mall concept and the way-too-big Wal-Mart. As she put it, "A retail supercenter with a rainwater-harvesting system is still a supercenter.") This week RG4N is asking council and the mayor to support a city-backed, full-blown design charrette, to which all the neighbors and businesses in the Northcross area would be invited.
As has just occurred with the embattled Concordia site, council members also could recommend to the developer that it engage ROMA Design Group (or another respected urban planner) to consult on an improved site plan that meets both neighborhood and owner goals. (On council's Thursday agenda is an expenditure of another $175,000 for outside lawyers to handle Northcross matters, including negotiations and threatened lawsuits against the city. Why not fund an urban-planning consultant to facilitate and draw up a mutually acceptable site plan thus preventing citizen or developer lawsuits instead?) At the very least, the mayor's highly touted new Austin Climate Protection Plan should mandate that Northcross be thoughtfully redeveloped for maximum long-term sustainability; that's not a big-box store, which typically has a life of about 10-12 years.
In short, our elected leaders still have the opportunity to hang tough and demand the best possible solution for the people of Austin. It's that, or ignore their constituents and allow a moribund mall to be "revived" based on outdated principles suited not to Austin's livable future, but to its unenlightened past.
For more on Northcross and the Wal-Mart redevelopment see, "Beside the Point."