Point Austin: Whose City Is It?

Northcross Wal-Mart fight about a lot more than a site plan

Point Austin
It's not every day we get flamboyantly dissed in court by an attorney working for the city, but Casey Dobson was kind enough to do the honors on Tuesday, dismissing "the Chronicle and what you heard in the media" about the Northcross Wal-Mart lawsuit as so much "conspiracy theory." (See "Quote of the Week," left.) A big-shot lawyer sniffing haughtily in our direction: music to an editor's ears. With enemies like Dobson, who needs friends?

Dobson wants Judge Orlinda Naranjo to know that the Responsible Growth for Northcross lawsuit is without merit and that RG4N's legal challenges of the city's administrative procedures, its submissive development codes, and its unwillingness to hold developers to the letter of its own ordinances are frivolous and distracting. Some of us happen to think otherwise, but let's presume that dispute is now getting its full and proper hearing, and soon we'll finally learn whether Wal-Mart is legally entitled to impose its implacable will on the surrounding neighborhoods, and indeed the whole city.

It's no surprise the city's hired gun dismisses the plaintiffs' claims as so much nonsense. For the sake of the argument, let's even presume that in legal terms he's right and that "This [Wal-Mart Supercenter] site plan was approved because that's what the law required the city to do. Period." As the citizens of Austin, paying his retainer, are we supposed to be reassured if the court agrees with him? Or rather, if Dobson earns his money and the city "wins," do the citizens in fact all lose?

Property Rules

Last week, in a separate suit filed by the Allandale Neighborhood Association, Judge Mar­garet Cooper ruled that the city was not required to hold a public hearing (as provided by city ordinance) to approve a garden center – said garden center having mysteriously disappeared from most but not all copies of the site plan somewhere between City Hall and the courtroom. My unlawyered guess is that RG4N will lose on that claim, too, and probably on the drainage and protected-tree claims, under the defense's presumption that any such defects in the plan can in principle be corrected.

The objections on traffic and public-safety matters are not so easily wished away, although Lincoln Property Co. tweaked the plan and city staff rejiggered the numbers sufficiently to persuade the City Council that it could do nothing but submit to a grandfathered plat that lets Lincoln and Wal-Mart do pretty much whatever they want. Anyone familiar with the neighborhood knows that even with a diminished Northcross Mall, the Burnet Road-Anderson Lane intersection is a bear – but we're supposed to believe an upmarket, vehicle-based supercenter, calculated to draw consumers from Northwest Hills and elsewhere, will not overburden the intersection and drive pass-through traffic into surrounding residential streets. Moreover, needless to say, these highly technical planning claims are the only ones allowed into court – any evidence of Wal-Mart's reflexively poor treatment of employees, its relentless union-busting, its abuse of public health programs, or its ruthless approach to foreign contractors and their indentured labor is – in legal terms – "irrelevant."

Wal-Mart's defenders insist that if the site plan stands up in court, that settles the matter, the neighbors are wrong, and we should open our municipal arms to the Bentonville Behemoth. Yet should it be any surprise that the laws governing property – especially as amplified by the Texas Legislature and enforced by Texas courts – are written precisely to insulate those with the most property from the unruly impertinence of ordinary citizens?

Wal-Mart is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, who sits anywhere he wants.

We Live Here

At RG4N's Sunday Feisty Fest, Brigid Shea pointed out that the neighbors had already won a major victory in simply delaying the project long beyond its planned January start date. Another speaker gestured to the surrounding Triangle development (where we sat), noting that because the neighbors had stoutly intervened, the slowed-down project ended up much more well-designed and quite successful (and by the way, much more residentially and commercially dense). So whatever happens in court, RG4N and the neighborhoods are to be congratulated for taking on the landlords and the city on behalf of the rest of us and insisting that whatever a decades-old plat says, the residents of the neighborhoods – and the citizens of Austin – have a right to be heard and considered on a project that will transform their daily lives.

Jim Hightower asked simply, "Whose city is it?" and called the council members "gutless" because they wouldn't hold a public hearing on the project, whatever the literal terms of the ordinance. (I wanted to ask for a response, but with a lawsuit in progress, the members are currently mum.)

As it happens, the Northcross site is now the population center of Austin. So if Wal-Mart and the city indeed "win," for the next decade or so (when Wal-Mart's stores typically exhaust their life span), we shall have at our nexus a real and symbolic reminder of who really runs America, including our own little corner of it. And that sucking sound you hear will be lots of Austin's liquid assets on their way to coffers in Dallas and Bentonville – along with just a little bit more of our democratic sovereignty.

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WalMart, Wal-Mart, Northcross, Responsible Growth for Northcross, Casey Dobson, Lincoln Property Co., Jim Hightower

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