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Wal-Mart, Endeavor give up plans for aquifer site

Thursday, October 2, 2003 by

Developers, city, given credit for resolving tough issues

Mayor Will Wynn announced last night that Wal-Mart and Endeavor had both agreed to give up their plans to locate a superstore on an environmentally sensitive site over the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Betty Dunkerley joined in the announcement. Council Member Daryl Slusher was also involved in the negotiations.

Wynn said, “I think this decision by these two companies shows that they have been listening to the environmental concerns expressed by this community and I applaud their decision. Wal Mart and Endeavor Real Estate Group have done the right thing for Austin.”

Wynn stressed that he prefers negotiation to litigation as a method of resolving environmental concerns. He pointed out that the city had agreed to “development entitlements on this property and others,” in settling a lawsuit with the property owner in 1996. “If we want to revisit those agreements now, I believe we should be willing to negotiate and to bring something of value to the table,” said Wynn. “While some may prefer litigation to resolve these concerns, I think that negotiation has a better track record when it comes to achieving meaningful long-term solutions.” The Save Our Springs Alliance had requested assistance from the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) in a lawsuit SOS had planned regarding the city’s settlement agreement. The SBCA had not yet responded to the request from SOS.

Andy Pastor, a principal at Endeavor, said, “After working with Wal-Mart for quite some time, we came to a conclusion that this is not a project that the community wanted at this location and therefore made a decision with Wal Mart that we should focus on different sites.” In addition to the site at Slaughter and MoPac, Endeavor has an option to purchase property at Slaughter and I-35, where an additional Wal-Mart Supercenter is planned. Pastor said his company had always anticipated that the site on MoPac would be equipped with water quality controls to make sure that water leaving the site met standards set in the SOS ordinance. Pastor pointed out that Endeavor is an Austin company. “We live in Austin. We care about the environment and we care about aesthetics. However, we started this project with strong environmental controls.” In response to a question, Pastor said Endeavor is not involved in any other projects over the aquifer.

Wal-Mart attorney Richard Suttle said, “Given the uniqueness and sensitivity of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and as a result of conversations with the Mayor and Council members, as well as Endeavor, Wal-Mart decided it was in all the parties’ interest to withdraw from the site.” Wal-Mart had previously indicated a willingness to talk about a conditional overlay and ways to protect nearby neighborhoods from the traffic a supercenter would generate, but there was no indication before yesterday that the retail giant would consider walking away from the property.

However, Suttle, Pastor, City Attorney David Smith and Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon were seen meeting with attorney Casey Dobson—who has successfully negotiated a number of agreements on the city’s behalf—and Slusher in the Council member’s office on Tuesday. Last night Slusher commented, “I applaud Wal-Mart and Endeavor for acknowledging community values and abandoning this project.”

The withdrawal of Wal-Mart and Endeavor from the proposed development is not a final victory for the city, environmentalists or local neighborhood advocates. Because the city and the property owner entered into an agreement seven years ago and there is no indication that the landowner has the same sensitivity as Endeavor or Wal-Mart, this particular tract will likely be the source of many more hours of negotiation—and possibly more litigation.

Local environmentalist Robin Rather, a former chair of the SOS Alliance and a critic of large chain stores that may take business away from locally-owned ones, said, “It’s a very smart move on Wal-Mart and Endeavor’s part and it is greatly appreciated by the environmental community. There really won’t be any gloating in the environmental community. There’s still a lot more work to do understanding the impact of big boxes, whether over the aquifer” or elsewhere. Rather also mentioned “significant lingering concerns” about what will happen to the site now that these two players are out of the game.

“This is a big win for the city, for the Mayor and the Council members who engaged on this issue,” said Mark Nathan, of Archer Nathan. He praised both Endeavor and Wal-Mart for their decision. A former aide to the Mayor, Nathan and Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions both worked as outside consultants to those opposing the project.

The good publicity could not come at a better time for Wal-Mart, which is the subject of this week’s Business Week cover story entitled, “Is Wal-Mart too powerful?” .

Promoter seeks a return of boat racing to Town Lake

Activists call plan environmental racism

Promoter William Archer says the return of boat races to Town Lake after a near-30-year hiatus would be a win-win situation for the city as well as East Austin, where he would like to see the races reinstated. He promised the event would bring in about $5 million for city businesses and some for local non-profits as well. East Austin activists Susana Almanza, Gavino Fernandez and Paul Hernandez all say the boat races should remain a thing of the past.

Paul Saldaña of Martin & Salinas Public Affairs, which is representing Archer, said he grew up on River Street and is only too aware of the opposition in the 1970s to the races and the reasons for that opposition. He notes that the city has a lot more rules and regulations concerning parking, litter and noise—with a strict noise curfew—than it had 30 years ago. Saldaña also said that while the boats are noisy, each race lasts only eight seconds. Over a two-day period of time, that is only about an hour of noise. Archer added that he would voluntarily close the festival at 10pm.

Archer, who is the son of Bill Archer, long ago a president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and an Aquafest booster, says the idea of boat racing came to him after a particularly depressing board meeting of Safe Place. The non-profit organization, like most others, is short of funds and could benefit from a big fundraiser.

With community opposition brewing, the proposal to bring back boat races will go through city processes like most other hot potatoes, eventually landing on the City Council agenda. East Austin groups are already pledging a repeat of the protests which helped lead to a ban on Town Lake boat racing in the 1970s if the city grants the request. Archer, however, said he has gotten an overwhelmingly positive response from East Austin business owners.

Archer is pointing to the economic benefits for the city of staging a major sporting event and is pledging to donate all proceeds from vendors. He said such vendors might pay up to $5,000 per booth, as they did for the right to sell food and beverages at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

But Almanza last week told the City Council that that the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood was not an appropriate place for the thousands of people and cars that such an event would bring. Returning the noisy boats to Festival Beach, she said, would be a form of environmental racism directed at the mostly-Hispanic neighborhood. “While we’re over here fighting noise pollution, here comes boat racism,” she said. ‘We think it’s a great injustice. We will be waiting . . . if we think that we had a problem back in the 70s, we will have a reoccurrence. That’s an ugly wound to reopen.” Fernandez and Hernandez have both signed up to tell the Council they oppose the races during Citizen Communications today. Almanza is a leader in PODER (People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources). Fernandez and Hernandez are both members of El Concilio political organization.

Council members appear reluctant to revisit the boat racing issue, which has been mostly dormant since the Council passed a series of ordinances in 1977 and 1978 prohibiting the operation of racing boats on Town Lake. Although the organizers are willing to consider locations other than Festival Beach, Council Member Daryl Slusher said he believed that remained the most likely site for the races.

“I do not think it is wise to reopen this old wound in the community long after it has healed,” Slusher said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon. “In my view, bringing back the boat races will be unnecessarily divisive and risk reviving disruptions to the Cesar Chavez neighborhood. Only in the unlikely case that backers are able to generate widespread community support for this idea . . . would I reconsider my position."

Other members of the Council are equally reluctant to jump back into the middle of a controversy more than two decades old. Mayor Will Wynn commented, “I told the advocates for boat racing on Town Lake that I would entertain their idea only if it drew broad public support. I haven’t seen that support yet. In fact, I’ve only heard opposition to the idea.” Council Member Brewster McCracken also said they would not want to consider the idea without proof that the races would be greeted enthusiastically in the community.

Organizers, however, are optimistic about their chances for overcoming the history surrounding the event and are pressing forward. They’re scheduled to go before the Navigation Committee of the Parks and Recreation Board on October 14, then make a presentation to the full board on October 28. Archer said in order to get ready for a weekend of racing next August, he needs to get the go-ahead from the City Council by the end of the month. The Council is scheduled to meet on October 30. Archer stressed that he would not move forward with the Town Lake site if opposition continues. Other possible sites for the races, he said, include Auditorium Shores or Lake Walter E. Long. Archer said he wants to advertise Austin as the place to be next August for those involved in the International Hot Boat Race Association.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

BOA back due to popular demand? . . . Not really, says Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez, the city’s Public Information Officer. The Board of Adjustment was one of the many city commissions on a list of those Channel 6 would no longer be covering due to a 50 percent reduction in staff. Middlebrook-Gonzalez said at the time when future coverage was being considered, a decision was made to cover the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission because they have statutorily-mandated powers and duties. Of course, the same is true of the BOA. “It was an oversight on our part,” she said, noting that the board meetings will broadcast live on second Monday night of each month . . . Short meeting today . . . The City Council has a very small agenda, so keep your fingers crossed . . . Utility news . . . Legislative consultant Rebecca Cobos told the Water/Wastewater Commission last night that 39 utility-related bills were passed during the last session. None were “high impact” bills, or bills that would cost the utility significant dollars, Cobos said. Cobos reviewed a number of relevant bills, including one that protected the utility’s vulnerability assessment from open records requests and another that puts more restrictions on Class B sludge . . . Question to subscribers . . . Are you receiving the daily email with headlines? If not, please notify us and we will put you on our list. If you receive the mail and would rather not, please tell us that too and your name will be removed.

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