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ZAP recommends Wal-Mart zoning, study of big box stores

Wednesday, October 15, 2003 by

"We're zoning the dirt," says Chair Betty Baker

Zoning changes for two South Austin Wal-Mart Supercenters are on their way to the City Council. The Zoning and Platting Commission endorsed changes for a tract at I-35 and Ben White as well as a sliver of property that is part of a tract at I-35 and Slaughter Lane. But commissioners also sent a message to the Council about the desirability of allowing big-box retail outlets to proliferate inside the city limits.

Commissioners approved the zoning change for the Slaughter Lane location on a vote of 8-1, with Commissioner John Michael Cortez dissenting. This case was the subject of several meetings of a task force comprised of commissioners, residents of the Park Ridge neighborhood, environmentalists, and representatives of Endeavor Real Estate. The group came up with a lengthy list of uses that would be prohibited should the GR-CO zoning be approved by the City Council. Neighborhood activists told the Commission they appreciated the company’s willingness to work with them and the effort of attorney Richard Suttle to reach a compromise, but they still had concerns about the size of the proposed Supercenter and did not support the zoning change request. The list of recommended prohibited uses includes automotive sales and repair services, bail bond services, exterminating services, pawnshops, and off-site accessory parking. The neighborhood had additionally requested a prohibition against a hotel or motel, but that was removed at the urging of Commission Chair Betty Baker.

As at previous meetings, the corporate practices of Wal-Mart were the chief reasons that several people opposed the zoning change. They held a brief gathering to address reporters in the break room on the third floor of One Texas Center at the start of the meeting. “We are here to ask the Commissioners to send a strong recommendation to the Council to conduct a thorough economic impact study before these projects move forward,” said Hyde Park resident Susan Moffat. “Wal-Mart has a very well documented history of labor abuses and harmful corporate practices.” Joining Moffat was Greg Powell, business manager of AFSCME Local 1624 in Austin. “We are here standing opposed to everything Wal-Mart stands for, particularly in the treatment of their workers,” he said. Powell urged the city to hold Wal-Mart up to special scrutiny as it attempted to open new stores within the city limits. The opponents, organized by consultant Jeff Heckler, are also pushing for a comprehensive review of the city’s zoning classifications in response to the increasing trend toward larger and larger retail stores.

Baker attempted to keep the discussion during the meeting focused on zoning-related issues, not the history of the company that will likely occupy the tract. But when it came time to vote, even Baker was forced to admit that the company she repeatedly referred to as “the W word” could not be ignored. “Even though we have a land use issue, it has become a Wal-Mart issue,” she said. “I can tell you…how many drug stores have been closed because of Wal-Mart, how many book stores, how many hardware stores…the retail pie is no bigger, it just gets sliced up differently when you have a situation like this.” But Baker also said she supported the zoning change from RR, SF-2, LI, (rural residential, single-family and light industrial) and CS (commercial services) to GR-CO (general retail with conditional overlay). “But I also understand . . . we’re zoning the dirt, pure and simple. We’re not doing anything else. Wal-Mart may go in here; it may not go in here. But what we’re doing is zoning this property GR-CO and it’s a fair and reasonable action.” Commissioner John Donisi moved approval of the GR-CO recommendation, with a second from Commissioner Janis Pinnelli.

The vote was 8-1, with Cortez the only one in opposition. “As far as the idea that we’re just zoning dirt, it’s Austin dirt,” he said. “It’s not Dallas dirt, it’s not San Antonio dirt . . . I think it’s a little bit more special.” The impact of allowing Wal-Mart to expand in Austin, he told fellow commissioners, would almost certainly be negative. “I think there’s a precedent here set often by this commission on looking more at the end uses and not just the zoning,” he said. “A lot of the commission finds particular uses unsavory, like auto uses or adult-oriented businesses, and we try to exclude those. I find the prospect of discount giant big-boxes every few square miles in Austin just as unsavory as an adult-oriented business. I think it’s far more damaging to the community.”

After the zoning for the Slaughter Lane location was approved, the commission unanimously endorsed a resolution from Commissioner Clarke Hammond to encourage the City Council to study possible changes to zoning codes to take into account changing trends in retail development. Baker helped draft the resolution, asking the Council to explore ways other cities have addressed what she called “formula businesses” and ordinances governing “local neighborhood services.”

The second Wal-Mart location, I-35 and Ben White, drew less public comment but more heated discussion among Commissioners. The owner is seeking a zoning change for a 1.3-acre tract from SF-2 to LI-CO. The surrounding land is already zoned LI, and the small sliver was inadvertently left out when that zoning was put into place several years ago. The small piece of land in question would be part of the parking lot for the proposed Supercenter. “In an effort to show all our cards, we filed a site plan for a Wal-Mart Supercenter,” said Suttle. “It goes to Wal-Mart’s philosophy on that, which is show your cards up front. This tract probably would have never raised an issue if it hadn’t been a Wal-Mart.”

Members of the South River City Citizens organization lined up to oppose the zoning change, primarily over concerns that additional development and impervious cover might harm nearby Blunn Creek. And several commissioners—lead by Hammond—expressed reservations about voting for the zoning change without having a finished survey on possible critical environmental features on the site. While most of the citizens who spoke were against the zoning change, Travis Heights resident Wes Benedict supported it. Benedict, a former candidate for Austin City Council, told Commissioners the store would reduce the number of shopping trips residents would have to make and could help prevent urban sprawl by offering shopping inside the city limits.

The vote in favor of the zoning change was 5-4, with Commissioners Hammond, Cortez, Donisi, and Joseph Martinez opposed. Hammond then suggested the Commission consider initiating a zoning change for the larger tract that would house the actual Wal-Mart Super Center. “The Land Development Code provides for the Zoning and Platting Commission to initiate a case on any tract upon a simple majority vote of the commission,” said Hammond. Given that the commission had only considered zoning on a fraction of the overall site, he said, a more comprehensive review was necessary. He requested the item be posted for consideration on Oct. 28th. “It is my belief that this Land Development Code provision, granting authority to the Commission to initiate a zoning case on its own motion, was included for just such a purpose to address the circumstances we are confronted with today . . . to allow the Commission to consider the use of the tract in a comprehensive manner.” But the motion failed by a vote of 5-4. Those who supported the zoning change voted against discussing a commission-initiated case. “I would not prolong this agony,” said Baker, noting that re-notification and preparation of a new case would take several weeks. “If I thought it would bring about some resolution or something for the neighborhood I would support it. But I think it’s just going to extend, perhaps, some unnecessary dialogue.”

Futrell talks to RECA about development

City Manager acknowledges need to bring more retail to city

Austin must come up with a policy that builds Austin’s retail base, and that base will include “big box” retailers, City Manager Toby Futrell told the audience at Tuesday’s RECA ( Real Estate Council of Austin) luncheon.

The big box issue was the first question posed to Futrell after a speech in which the City Manager outlined how the city cut $85 million from the budget over the last two years. While admitting that big box retail was a policy issue to be addressed by the Council, Futrell went on to say it was imperative to come up with a policy that doesn’t drive retail from the city.

“It’s critical to build our retail base inside the city limits,” Futrell told the development community. “A decade ago, the City of Austin had 80 percent of the retail base in Central Texas. That’s now 50 percent, and declining yearly, even monthly.”

Futrell said the city is in the process of reviewing the specifics of the four zoning categories that can be used by retailers like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot. The Council also has an interest in restricting such retailers over the aquifer, but Futrell said most tracts over the aquifer are either grandfathered or under a settlement agreement.

So few tracts are located on the aquifer that any discussion of them is more symbolic than substantive but it remains a point of discussion for the city, Futrell said.

Futrell also expressed sympathy with developers who want a more “meaningful” place at the table in articulating the city’s development policy decisions. She acknowledged that a small group of people—those who are most vocal at Council meetings—are the ones who are more likely to drive Council policy.

Futrell used the Wal-Mart issue as an example. While opposition to the retailer was heated, a postcard campaign from residents living near the proposed store offered almost universal support for the retailer, either because those individuals wanted a job or hated to drive much further to shop.

“So part of it is, how do we get past a small group of people who continually influence our policy and get a broader understanding of what this community wants?” Futrell asked.

Developers also groused about neighborhood planning and the difficulties it presented to the developers who own tracts of land. Futrell said neighborhood planning had its good points: the city was able to develop the pieces of a comprehensive plan rather than a patchwork quilt of zoning cases. However, Futrell also admitted that comprehensive programs like neighborhood planning or Envision Central Texas spawn their own problems.

Communities often have great intellectual visions in concept—increased density, mixed-use development and limiting sprawl—but the reality is far different when a convenience store decides to build next to your house, Futrell said. Then the vision becomes personal. Futrell said it’s difficult not to feel a bit cynical about the planning process.

Futrell told the luncheon group she had fought a long, hard battle to simplify the development process and lost at every turn. Now budget cuts, with the heavy reductions in city staff, had made it imperative to simplify the development process. The city’s inspection and development review staff has almost been cut in half under recent budget cuts.

Futrell reviewed city budget cuts during her talk. While the budget is balanced now—due in no small part to serious staffing reductions—Futrell expects it to be another year before the city turns the corner into the black. She predicted the city will take another $30 million hit for the next budget year, forcing city officers to look at even more difficult cuts to city staff and services.

Eckerd wins first round at RM620 intersection

After listening to arguments concerning setbacks, traffic and what regulations might apply under the current zoning, the City Council last week unanimously approved GR zoning to allow an Eckerd Drugstore at the intersection of RM620 and El Salido Parkway.

One important factor in the Council’s decision was an old restrictive covenant that allows the property to generate almost 17,000 trips per day. Eckerd, which will be the first business on the tract, agreed with a recommendation by the Zoning and Platting Commission to a trip limitation of 1300 trips per day. The new zoning was approved on first reading only.

Sarah Crocker, representing the applicant, said her client would put up a one-story brick building. She said her client would honor all of the agreements in the restrictive covenant signed by the previous property owner.

Elizabeth Ellison, president of the Anderson Mill Neighborhood Association, told the Council that the previous owner of the property, Lumbermen’s Investment, entered into the agreement with the neighborhood, ensuring that there would be LR-LO zoning on El Salido Parkway. She said such zoning would be a buffer for nearby residences but allow the property owner to develop the rest of the tract. Ellison disputed the idea that the zoning currently in place would allow for development of businesses generating the 17,000 trips per day set forth in a traffic impact analysis. The reason that could not happen, Ellison insisted, was restrictions on the floor-to-area ratio and compatibility setbacks required next to residential areas.

However, Alice Glasco, director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, told the Council that Ellison was mistaken. Since the houses are not within the city limits, neighboring businesses are not subject to compatibility regulations. The 50-foot buffer set up in the restrictive covenant would be the only applicable restriction. The height of the building was limited to three stories by the covenant, but Eckerd is only proposing a one-story building. The Council asked city traffic expert George Zapalac a number of questions about the impact of the drugstore versus other development that could potentially locate on the property.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman asked, “Can the development of the property with the zoning as stands generate the kind of numbers that the TIA indicated? Is there any practical preclusion that would keep the trips down?”

Zapalac said the current zoning could generate 3-5,000 trips per day. Upon further questioning, he said the Eckerd store would only generate about 600 trips, with the rest of the estimated trips to the site generated by the traffic already at the intersection.

When it was her turn for rebuttal, Crocker said, “Right now what Ms. Ellison and everybody else is not taking into consideration is that there are no limitations on this tract—LR or LO . . . You have to remember that this particular site will be one big commercial center. So there will be an interconnection between all of the traffic, whether it’s GR., LR (or) LO. And there will be no separation by boundaries or by who owns property because basically you are very limited on driveways with what’s happening on 620. Those driveways have been set in stone by TxDOT. What you are going to be looking at when this entire property is developed is one large commercial development and it will have interconnecting driveways on site. There is a driveway out on to El Salido, two on 620, one on to Anderson mill. That will be it. Traffic, whether it’s generated by an LR use or by an LO use is still traffic and it’s still going to generate and go out of the different driveways where it can . . . If it develops to its full potential (under LO), that is 35,000 square feet. So basically I think what Eckerd is doing is taking 20 percent of this tract out of play. They are putting in a one-story building, 200 feet away from the back property line.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken said, “Being familiar with this intersection, I’m having a hard time why this is a controversial project. I don’t understand it.” He pointed out that there is already a Walgreen’s Drug Store across the street and there will soon be a new HEB.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley said the Eckerd store at 13,000 square feet and only 1300 trips per day seemed more neighborhood-friendly than many other uses. McCracken made the motion to grant the zoning and Dunkerley seconded it. Council Members Daryl Slusher, Raul Alvarez and Goodman all said they would like more information before second and third reading.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) is presenting a program about transit-oriented development at its quarterly luncheon featuring the designers who developed transportation hubs in Dallas and Houston. Ken Hughes, president of UCD Corp. of Dallas, the developer of Mockingbird Station, Robert Shaw, president of Amicus Partners, LTD, developer of the Plano DART Station and Guy Hagstette, director of capital projects and planning for the Houston Downtown Management District. The luncheon, which begins at 11am is at the Four Seasons Hotel. The theme is ‘Ten principles for successful development around transit . . . New rules for some county contractors . . . A report from County Auditor Susan Spataro has spurred Travis County to look at new ways of awarding contracts to health and human service providers. Spataro told commissioners that too many contractors have failed to file the audits and IRS forms required under their contracts. As of Monday, 24 service providers had failed to put the proper paperwork on file with the county. Commissioners are calling for a better administrative process for contracting and proper documentation for invoices as well as focused performance measures for contractors . . . So many meetings, so little time . . . City Environmental Officer Pat Murphy, charged with the task for telling commissions about the proposed joint city-county subdivision code, will present the plan to members of the Planning Commission’s codes and ordinances committee at noon today. Murphy will talk about the same matter at 6pm with members of the Environmental Board. Less Tull, another hard worker in the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, is scheduled to tell the board about contaminated Barton Creek sediment clean-up and retrofit projects. Check Lesniak will discuss remediation at Mabel Davis Park. Home Depot will be asking for the board’s blessing for a cut and fill variance on a project at 7900 N. FM 620 . . . The Downtown Commission will meet at 5:30pm on a variety of issues . . . The task force studying the historic preservation ordinance will have its first meeting at 6pm tonight. . . . White Cane march today . . . More than 400 Austinites representing nine agencies and organizations for persons who are blind or visually impaired will march from the Congress Avenue bridge to the steps of City Hall beginning at 9:45am today. This event will mark national observance of White Cane Safety Day. Mayor Will Wynn will greet marchers when they arrive at City Hall around 10:30am. According to Ron Lucey, chairman of the Austin Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities, White Cane Safety Day has become more significant since 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the day as a reminder to promote courtesy and special consideration to the blind on streets and highways. Austin is recognized as a leader in elimination of barriers for citizens who are visually impaired.

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