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Council takes no action on Wal-Mart proposal

Friday, December 15, 2006 by

Lincoln issues 60-day project delay, but files new site plan to beat big-box ordinance

Despite arguments both emotional and legal concerning their responsibility to stop a site plan for a Wal-Mart Superstore and associated redevelopment of Northcross Mall, the City Council took no action on the matter last night. After staff answered questions about the site plan process, the Council moved on to consideration of the big box ordinance.

The Council then approved on first reading the ordinance requiring a conditional use permit for retail stores of more than 100,000 square feet and directed staff to create a new zoning category for very large retail facilities.

Following action by Wal-Mart on Wednesday, Lincoln Properties moved earlier in the day to counter protests by nearby neighborhoods, delaying any action on the project for 60 days. Despite that, a total of 247 people signed up to speak on the Northcross discussion item at last night’s Council meeting. Ironically, the Northcross discussion was followed by a proposed big-box ordinance that would require additional notice and review of plans for any big-box retailer larger than 100,000 square feet, possibly in the form of a conditional use permit for big-box retailers.

Notification and participation were a key point of the Wal-Mart protestors, who had called on Council to throw out the site plan.

"We're not completely surprised,” said Jason Meeker of Responsible Growth for Northcross. “We have real expectations about what's going to happen. We also know what we can do. It would have been great to have the Council take a vote. It would have interesting for some of the Council Members who said really interesting things about the site plan, it would have been interesting if one of them had made a motion to take a vote and see how they voted. They decided to do nothing.”

Crestview resident Elisha Moore was angry about the Council’s lack of action. "When this first came to light, my outrage was very much directed toward Wal-Mart and Lincoln Properties,” she said. “After tonight, my outrage is directed at the City Council. This is blatant disregard. This is reckless negligence on their part. This is blatantly wrong. They have clearly decided not to live up to their obligations to the community as a whole. I think Brewster McCracken and Jennifer Kim did better than the rest. I think that there was more that could be done."

In the meantime, Lincoln Properties has filed a second site plan on the site that is identical, or nearly identical, to the first filed site plan. The first site plan was filed in January and approved administratively. While no one offered a reason for the second filing, it seems clear that the second filing was done in order to lock in rights on the property before a big-box ordinance was passed—in case a court or the Council found the first site plan to be defective.

At 217,000 square feet, the Northcross Wal-Mart Superstore would be the biggest big-box retailer in Austin and bigger than most Wal-Mart Superstores. Many area residents were appalled with the size as well as the amount of automobile and truck traffic onto the site. The Superstore site alone could draw up to 300 18-wheeler trucks to the site every day.

“This is not a development, it’s a malignancy,” Meeker told the Council.

Last night, Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman organized an orderly review of the Northcross site plan, noting a second review of the site plan and a justification of traffic counts on the expanded mall plans. Auditor Stephen Morgan also provided an audit of the review that noted the notification was insufficient but that the review of the site plan was technically complete and that public information requests had been filled.

Council Members Brewster McCracken and Jennifer Kim have focused on traffic counts as a key source of contention on the proposed redevelopment of Northcross Mall with a Wal-Mart Superstore that would be the biggest big-box retailer in the county’s history.

McCracken called the information presented by Lincoln Properties, especially on the Wal-Mart Superstore, misleading and inaccurate. Figures provided by Lincoln Properties put the net increase in traffic at an additional 7,121 trips per day. Traffic counts at current Wal-Marts ranged from 15,000 to 27,000 trips per day.

McCracken acknowledged that those cuts could be high – it’s holiday season and other major retailers are on the same sites – but still considers Lincoln Properties’ numbers to be low-balled.

“If the Wal-Mart and Lincoln folks that are watching tonight, I call on them to tell the truth when they submit their next traffic impact analyses because we’re not supposed to be in the business of mind-reading on what their numbers,” McCracken said. “I guarantee you that Wal-Mart knows every lug nut of every wheel of every car that comes in their parking lots. They know how many cars are really coming in, so they’re in the best position to tell the truth and they need to do that.”

McCracken and Kim both showed an interest in possibly limiting the hours of a proposed Wal-Mart SuperCenter. City Attorney David Smith offered a carefully crafted response that the city could limit hours under a “rational basis” that was “uniformly applied.” Both terms are important. Rational basis means it must be a clearly defined with a valid reason to limit hours. And it must be applied uniformly across a category.

So, for instance, the city can limit the hours of mobile food vendors. But it must apply to all mobile food vendors and not just one brand or type of vendor. The city could choose to limit hours of all superstores above a certain square footage or within a certain proximity to neighborhoods but the city would want to craft it as narrowly as possible.

McCracken said the hours of the Wal-Mart was certainly something he wanted to negotiate in the upcoming two months with Lincoln Properties.

“I do expect that they be honest about their traffic, but also I’m going to support an ‘hours of operation ordinance,’ because Wal-Mart may have said it’s non-negotiable on hours of operation, but I consider it non-negotiable, too,” McCracken said. “It has no business for a store bigger than Cabela’s to be open 24-hours a day in the middle of neighborhoods. And the final point is that as some of my colleagues have very well said…and courageously, too…is that Lincoln and Wal-Mart have an opportunity to decide whether this is the last thing they ever want to do in the city of Austin or whether they want to have a future in the city of Austin.”

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley said she wanted to encourage the ordinance to do more than simply have a hearing. Such a hearing would simply have put Wal-Mart in the same place — before Council — if the ordinance had been in place. Dunkerley said she wanted some kind of incentive so that big-boxes would be located where they needed to be, along highways.

Water rules change causes angst

Aquifer board postpones action

About two dozen members of the Estates of Shady Hollow Neighborhood Association jammed into the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District headquarters last night to speak at a public hearing on a proposed rule change for drought management.

Most of the neighbors were concerned that the changes in district regulation – including new drought triggers, lower thresholds on excessive use, and seeking personal information on individual end users – would harm them and do little to resolve the growing shortage of groundwater.

ESH resident Jim Clerdy said it was more than just a shortage of water. “The lack of available water is having a negative effect on the value of my home,” he said. “Almost all of my net worth is tied up in my property, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sell it someday.” Most of the crowd at the meeting shouted in agreement.

Other speakers claimed the board had put the new rules together in secret, and had planned to take advantage of the drought by increasing the fines for those guilty of excessive use. Christie Rath read a letter send by the neighborhood association, questioning many aspects of the new rules, and expressing concerns about privacy rights.

After about eight speakers expressed concern over what the new regulations would and would not do, board members quickly decided that they clearly had not gotten a clear message to water customers regarding just what the rule changes would be, and that a lot of misinformation had been spread.

Board Chair Bob Larsen assured the group that all of the rule-making had been done in open meetings during the past year, and there was no attempt to do anything in secret.

“We want to do this in the most open way possible, and make sure all you understand what it is we are doing,” Larsen said. He explained that the change in the way a drought was measured came after lengthy study and analysis by district staff. “We changed from five wells that were susceptible to variations due to pumpage, to the Lovelady Well, which shows a steady indication, and the flow at Barton Springs, which tells us how much water is flowing through the aquifer.”

As for the severe water use restrictions, board members pointed out that ESH’s permitee, Aqua Texas Water Company, was the entity that was legally required to limit the usage by 30 percent during a Critical stage drought.

“We have strongly encouraged all of our permitees – from Buda to Kyle to Sunset Valley – to arrange for a second source of water, preferably surface water, to go to in times of extreme drought,” said General Manager Kirk Holland. He went on to explain that Aqua Texas has not obtained a secondary source of water, even though City of Austin water is used right across the street from ESH.

Board members also said that it was misinformation that the district planned to obtain demographic information on the households of all users, including the number of people living in the house. “We don’t want all that information on everyone,” said Larsen. “We do want permitees to provide us with information on specific end users who continually exceed the usage limits so we can contact them and discuss the issue. It’s a tool to help us educate them, and if they still don’t comply, take further action.”

After about two hours of discussion, board members agreed to meet with neighborhood members to develop a process to work with Aqua Texas to acquire an alternative source of water for use during drought periods.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Oak Springs recovery begins today . . . On Thursday the Council unanimously approved purchase of approximately 6 acres on Oak Springs Drive for slightly more than $1.4 million. The property, which is home to giant oak trees and one of the few remaining springs in East Austin, will be purchased with money approved by voters for open space last month. Council Members Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez and Lee Leffingwell sponsored the item to buy the land. This morning, Martinez and Leffingwell promised to help start the initial cleanup of the site, which historically provided drinking and irrigation water for the residents of the area. John Joseph Sr., attorney for the seller, is donating $25,000 to assist in refurbishing the natural beauty of the property … Give him a break … According to a press release from the Downtown Austin Alliance, Executive Director Charlie Betts is in Seton Medical Center recuperating from surgery for bleeding ulcers. Although he is progressing well and expects to be released from the hospital within the next few days, his family asks that friends postpone visits and phone calls so he can get the rest he needs. Betts has been Executive Director of the DAA for the past nine years … DMU zoning OK'd . . . After hearing a plea from one nearby property owner to postpone the case a second time, the Council on Thursday decided to move ahead with downtown mixed use zoning (DMU-CO) on property at 1801 Nueces Street. Agent Donna Carter told the Council that her client had agreed to all the other conditions requested by neighbors but could not agree to the increased parking they wanted. Carter said the combination of residential and retail would meet the parking conditions required by DMU but neighbors wanted CURE parking, negating the point of the mixed use project and pedestrian amenities for client was offering. On a motion by Council Member Brewster McCracken, seconded by Council Member Sheryl Cole, the Council voted 7-0 to approve the project . . . Too many historic cases, says Dunkerley . . . The Council approved historic zoning for seven buildings, mostly houses, with Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley dissenting on three of those cases. This is not the first time that Dunkerley has warned her colleagues that classifying too many houses as historic, and therefore exempt from up to $2,000 in city taxes could have a negative impact on other taxpayers. Said Dunkerley, " I continue to have some concern about the number of historic homes that are continuing to go through on our agenda" . . . Appointments . . . Council members made the following appointments Thursday: Nancy Bui and Cameron Graeber are consensus appointments to the Asian American Resource Center Advisory Board . . . Tracy Atkins is a consensus appointment to the Planning Commission . . . Adios, Wal-Mart . . . .The Austin Business Journal reported Thursday that local advertising giant GSD&M has declined to reapply to be Wal-Mart's ad agency. The newspaper reported that GSD&M's portion of the account would have been worth about $250-$300 million. "I want to thank Wal-Mart for inviting us to re-pitch the business. I have decided to decline," said Roy Spence, founder and president of the company. "We helped build Wal-Mart from $11 billion in sales to $312 billion. We declare victory. We will do everything to make the transition perfect. We wish our great friends well. And we are moving on." . . . Barrientos honored . . . After reciting many of his legislative accomplishments on behalf of the City of Austin yesterday, Mayor Will Wynn declared today Senator Gonzalo Barrientos day. There will be a reception and dance for friends and supporters of Senator Barrientos tonight at the Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Rd. Music for the dance will be provided by Little Joe Y La Familia and Ruben Ramos. This is a free event with a cash bar. The event is scheduled fro 5:30-11:30pm. For more information, please contact Sylvia Camarillo-Brittain at 784-5810 or sylviabrittain@sbcglobal.net. . . City store to open today . . . City officials will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the grand opening of the Austin City Store at 2pm today. The ribbon-cutting will take place at the corner of Second Street and Guadalupe in the northwest corner of City Hall. The city is promising some uniquely Austin items in the new store.

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