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Environmentalists urge Lowe's to follow Wal-Mart's lead

Thursday, October 16, 2003 by

Not likely, says Lowe's representative Bruce Todd

A group of environmental organizations and community activists has sent an open letter to executives, shareholders and representatives of Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouses asking them to “do the right thing” and abandon efforts to build a store in far South Austin over the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. The letter reminds Lowe’s that Endeavor Real Estate and Wal-Mart voluntarily gave up plans to build a big box at another prime location over the aquifer and asks Lowe’s to follow their lead.

However, consultant Bruce Todd, who represents Lowe’s, says such an outcome is unlikely. “The question is—in that the project is going to occur—does the city want to take advantage of a package they are offering?” Todd asked. He then recited the lengthy list of concessions Lowe’s has offered to the city in an attempt to settle the controversy and get city water and wastewater service. Lowe’s sued the City of Austin last year and then convinced the Legislature to enact a bill that those on Lowe’s team believe puts the site outside the city’s jurisdiction. Travis County approved Lowe’s preliminary plan in August. (See In Fact Daily, August 6, 2003.) At that time, Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon told commissioners that the home improvement retailer had been negotiating in good faith.

The letter’s authors say, “There may be places for large Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers in the Austin area, but the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer is not such a place.” Consultant Mike Blizzard, who released the letter, points out that the city has consistently made agreements that avoided construction of big boxes in the recharge zone. He points to a “de facto city policy” expressed through development agreements with the developers of the Forum PUD, Gary Bradley and Stratus Properties, “which have all placed limits, in one form or another, on big box retail.”

Under the scenario laid out by Todd, Lowe’s would agree to early annexation and to develop the site “substantially in accordance with the water quality standards set forth in the SOS ordinance.” Lowe’s also is offering to purchase property to mitigate the 40-percent impervious cover it plans for the Sunset Valley site, so that the overall impervious cover would come down to 15 percent as mandated by SOS standards. For a full list of the concessions, see In Fact Daily, August 5, 2003. Council members have not indicated in the past that Lowe’s concessions would be sufficient to win their votes. But Todd said yesterday that his client had agreed to every request from city negotiators. He said he expects the matter will be on the Oct. 30 City Council agenda.

Those signing the letter include the Austin Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Save Barton Creek Association, Save Our Springs Alliance, Sendera Estates Homeowners’ Association, Austin Action, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council. Individual signers include environmentalists Mary Arnold, Shudde Fath, Robin Rather, Brigid Shea, Lee Leffingwell and several homeowners' association representatives.

Interim uses proposed for Mueller

City staff members are working on a proposal to allow short-term interim uses for the former Robert Mueller Airpor t site. Members of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport’s Plan Implementation Advisory Commission began review of that proposal Tuesday night.

The city’s general policy has been to disallow private interim uses at the former airport site until a general developer was on board and at the table for discussions. But with the Master Developer Agreement signed between Catellus and the city—and a need to come up with maintenance and operations funding for the property—the terms are now on the table again.

It doesn’t hurt that Cirque du Soleil was such a success in Austin. The use of the property for the popular high-profile touring show softened neighbors’ attitudes about interim uses.

Planner Pam Hefner distributed a draft of proposed criteria for interim uses at the RMMA meeting this week. According to the document, the goal is that the interim use “will benefit the City of Austin and will not unnecessarily interfere with neighborhoods surrounding RMMA or with long-term redevelopment/reuse of the site.”

Maintaining the Mueller property is expensive, especially to the cash-strapped city. Hefner told the commission that $2 million had been set aside from Aviation funds to provide upkeep on the Mueller property, and that the city had gone through those funds “rather quickly.”

Redevelopment of the 700-acre property has a 15-year rollout, so it’s not impossible to consider some short-term interim uses, especially when they can defray maintenance and operation costs on the site. Hefner told the advisory committee she had been approached by a number of non-profits, asking about potential short-term uses.

Under the proposed guidelines, any funds generated by interim uses would go toward maintenance and operations at the Mueller site. Requests would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Interim uses would not detract from the site and cannot delay the construction of roads or the phasing of the long-term plans for Mueller. Impact to surrounding neighborhoods would have to be minimal. And the interim user would be obligated to remove or demolish anything it brought to the site.

The advisory commission’s biggest concern is squatters. Commissioner Donna Carter wanted assurance that any contracts would clearly state the purpose was interim and define the notice the city would have to give to any tenant to vacate the property. Six months might be reasonable. Two years might not.

Chair Jim Walker said the inability to remove a tenant—in his words, “get them off the site with a crowbar”—was the original fear of the committee. While the Austin Film Society was an interim use that became permanent, others might not be so welcome. Commissioners fear such tenants might apply political pressure to Council.

Carter told her colleagues she didn’t want to sound like Scrooge, but interim uses might mean a time when the city was forced to say no to a very good cause like the Red Cross. Asking the Red Cross, or any other non-profit, to leave the property would be tough business. “You may not be able to say ‘no’ without sounding like the bad guy,” Carter said.

No one wants to scare off a tenant like Cirque du Soleil, Walker said. While it caused some traffic congestion on the site, the timeframe was short and the structures were not permanent. It’s important to give some flexibility to the city to consider requests, Walker said. The commission will take up the policy at the next meeting.

Architects Tom Sneary and Joe Kuspan of the Karlsberger architectural firm also presented a site plan for the new Children’s Hospital and the commission discussed some design basics on the property.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

RMA to appoint chief today . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has scheduled a meeting at 9am today at Round Rock City Hall, 221 E. Main Street. The major topic on today’s agenda is who will become the RMA’s executive director . . . What’s cookin’ at City Hall? . . Melt in your Mouth Turkey Wings from Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon, Toby’s Roasted Red Pepper Dip by City Manager Toby Futrell, Spiced Chicken with dried Fruit by Ann Elizabeth Wynn, Margaritas by Deputy City Manager Joe Canales and many more mouth-watering treats appear in Recipes from City Hall. The slender publication, called City Hall Cooks 2003, is being sold for a modest sum in the City Manager’s Office to benefit the 2003 City of Austin Combined Charities Campaign. Many of the entries are from Vickie Schubert, who apparently makes a mean Texas jalapeño torte, tomato basil soup, cranberry fruit salad, gouda corn gratin, triple chocolate, triple nut cookies, run cake and strawberry cake, when not handling the city’s finances . . . DANA party . . . The public is invited to share in the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association’s annual block party tonight from 6-10pm at Republic Square, 5th and Guadalupe. Music will be provided by the Urban Jazz All Stars beginning at 6pm and by Rayvon beginning around 7:30. Food vendors include the 1886 Bakery, Aster’s Ethiopian Catering, House Park B-B-Q, Jamba Juice, Mustard’s Last Stand, Oaxacan Tamaleo and Onion’s Pizza . . . Halliburton in Austin . . . The company that is making news in Iraq and Washington is also a contractor for the City of Austin. Next week’s City Council agenda carries and item for amending a contract with Halliburton KBR, formerly known as Brown and Root Services. Council members are being asked to approve an additional $520,000 for engineering services for the West Bouldin Creek Wastewater Interceptor . . . No City Council meeting today . . . There is a meeting of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District at 6pm at the district offices. They will discuss and may take action on emergency withdrawal approval for Manchaca Baptist Church, among other things.

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