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Wal-Mart postpones Northcross plans for 60 days

Thursday, December 14, 2006 by

Lincoln Properties likely to agree to project delay

Wal-Mart Store officials agreed Wednesday to suspend activities on their proposed Northcross Mall superstore for 60 days in response to requests from the City Council.

In a letter to Council Member Mike Martinez, Richard Suttle, attorney for Wal-Mart, wrote to express Wal-Mart’s commitment "that it will not file applications for its proposed store within the next 60-day period (ending Feb. 12, 2007) in order to allow the time for continued discussions with interested parties."

Suttle said that the agreement did not cover the owner of the mall, Lincoln Properties, but

Martinez and others at City Hall are expecting the property owner to send a similar letter today.

Wal-Mart plans to build a 217,000-square-foot combination retail and grocery store when the property is redeveloped. The city has already administratively approved the site plan for the project but opponents have bombarded the Council with emails attacking the retailer as well as the Council.

After she heard about Wal-Mart's promise, Paige Hill with Responsible Growth for Northcross told In Fact Daily, "If you didn’t know anything about the situation at all, you might think ‘Great, these guys are working with them…what’s the problem?’ Except it doesn’t matter what Wal-Mart promises us right now. What we need is a response from Lincoln properties. They’re the ones starting any work on January 8th, and they’re the ones we need a response from. The letter even specifically states that the property owner isn’t bound by any of these promises."

Martinez disagreed, calling the Wal-Mart statement "extremely significant–because you have a long-term business commitment between two entities and I doubt that one would jeopardize that relationship by making veiled commitments. The other thing is I have every reason to believe that Lincoln is also going to comply with the 60-day moratorium and not pull demo permits and work with the neighborhoods."

He added, "It gives us time to get more input from the neighborhood, to study the process, to determine if there any legal issues that are looming and take another look at traffic impact and just slow down this steam train that's coming through."

Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Betty Dunkerley also said they saw the letter in a positive light. Leffingwell said he thinks that Wal-Mart will now be able to address issues such as lighting, traffic and appropriate buffers between the adjoining uses—perhaps even the hours of operation. "They could address all the issues that are addressed by the conditional use permit process," which the Council will be considering for future big box stores today, Leffingwell said.

Speaking about that ordinance, Martinez said, "I think you’re going to see a supportive Council. Obviously, this issue and the work that has been done over the last 16-18 months shows that we can have a better process, better notification and more public input." Martinez and others agreed that the ordinance would likely be approved on first reading only. That would give the legal staff time to work on any suggested revisions and return with a completed ordinance next month.

Leffingwell said today's presentation and subsequent discussion of how the Lincoln site plan was issued negates any likelihood of action to undo the issuance of the site plan—considered by most folks around City Hall as legally risky.

The site plan discussion is planned for 6pm as well as a hearing on the big box ordinance . City Hall guards have been told to expect to stay on the job long past midnight. In Fact Daily previously stated erroneously that the site plan discussion would be at 3pm.

Meanwhile, opponents are planning "one of the largest rallies ever held at City Hall" for noon. Expect Wal Mart opponents to be carrying signs and wearing red to show the Council their numbers.

City prepares neighborhoods for new VMU regulations

Neighborhoods along major transit corridors in the city will be meeting the vertical mixed-use overlay opt-in/opt-out regulations in the New Year, a process that promises its share of zoning headaches in order to add new pedestrian-friendly development along many of the city’s major arterial roadways.

The city’s VMU ordinance could be described as Son of Design Standards, spawn of the work city staff began to address the design elements of big-box retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot. The more the city staff began to discuss what the city wanted in development, the more apparent it became that the problem was not simply punishing a big-box retailer like Home Depot or Lowe’s or even Wal-Mart. It became as much what the city wanted to see in design as it was what the city did not want to see, Planner George Adams said.

Adams described the three-year process to create the VMU ordinance at a meeting last night with neighborhood associations around the Mueller redevelopment project.

“As we got further into it, we realized we had design standards that were lower than many other communities in Central Texas,” Adams told the small group. “Really, initially, the plan was not to dictate architecture but to decide, ‘How do you create a better pedestrian environment with more sustainable development values?’ And as those values evolved, we also began considering the affordable housing issue.”

A number of Mueller-area neighborhoods, like University Hills/Windsor Park, still are in the middle of the neighborhood planning process, making the insertion of the VMU overlay a quicker and cleaner objective for the neighborhood planning team.

The city has good intentions with this process – creating more walkable communities outside of downtown – but the logistics are so complicated that it requires five pages of instructions to neighborhood associations just to present an overview of how to vote.

The opt-in/opt-out process is a parcel-by-parcel decision, with some parcels along transit corridors such as Berkman, Manor, 51st Street and Cameron Road already “opted in” – and the neighborhood will have to opt out to remove them – and other parcels that are “opted out” – and the neighborhood will have to opt-in to add them to the VMU overlay.

The VMU overlay will only apply to those properties already zoned in some commercial category. It will not apply to land zoned for multi-family housing – a concern of the neighborhoods interested in maintaining affordable housing stock – but it could apply to a piece of land with an apartment complex on it and a zoning in a commercial category.

The opt-in/opt-out application for each parcel of land will include decisions such as the amount of the density bonus, the allowances for parking reductions and a decision with respect to assorted additional ground-floor uses in the building, such as possible convenience stores or food sales. The landowner is given greater density – with density being preferred along major roadways – if affordable housing is offered.

Adams noted that the real benefit to the landowner varies by the size of the parcel and the amount of current zoning in the land. The bigger parcels with less intense zoning will be the ones to see the most benefit from the VMU overlay, Adams said.

As planner Steve Barney pointed out, the city cannot mandate density; instead it must encourage it through incentives. Last night, the neighborhoods spent in excess of three hours simply to outline the concept of the VMU overlay on candidate properties, discuss the process and field questions about specifics such as notification of landowners, affordable housing bonuses and the specifics on particular properties along each corridor.

Planning team members struggled with the affordability terms, and Barney had to admit that VMU zoning was unlikely to achieve substantial affordable housing – such as a 1-to-1 replacement of lost affordable housing units – as some audience members might have hoped. Rick Krivoniak, active member of the neighborhood who also owns rental housing in the area, even suggested that it might be unreasonable to suggest a developer of new projects on small parcels of land in the area would be able to achieve the proposed 10 percent of the units at 60 percent median family income, much less the 10 percent of the units at 80 percent median family income proposed under the ordinance.

The opt-in/opt-out process will begin at the end of January. Neighborhood planning teams, or neighborhood associations if no planning team exists, will have 90 days to make decisions on the parcels along their major transit corridors. Additional VMU overlay candidates also may be identified outside the transit corridors, such as the Capital Plaza location on the frontage road of I-35.

The city has determined 17 major transit corridors, which are either all or a portion of South First Street, East Seventh Street, East and West Fifth Street, East and West Sixth Street, 35th/38th Street, Airport Boulevard, Anderson Lane, Barton Springs Road, Burnet Road, South Congress Avenue, Guadalupe Street, Lamar Boulevard, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Riverside Drive, Slaughter Lane, Manor Road, 51st Street, Far West Boulevard, Cameron Road, Mesa Drive and Jollyville Road.

Economists see no overbuilding in Downtown Austin

Although the nationwide housing marking is in the midst of a slowdown, the economic experts speaking during the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Economic Forecast predicted Wednesday that the national trend would not be felt in Downtown Austin.

“If you look at it in terms of how many units are coming on line, there’s certainly an argument to be made that we’re over-building,” said Daniel Kah, Research Director at Angelou Economics, “but really, there’s such a lack of this type of housing in Austin right now compared to the size of our community that…over the long run, we don’t think there’s too much being built right now.”

“Downtown may be over-built for a year or two,” concurred economist John Hockenyos, founder of Texas Perspectives, “but if the stated goal is 25,000 people living downtown…and as we sit here there’s 1.5 million of us in the region, by the time we get to 25,000 we’re probably going to be pushing 2 million people, so that’s a pretty small percentage of the overall local population.”

Figures released this year from the Austin Board of Realtors have shown consistent strength in the Central Texas housing market, with several months of record sales. While the rest of the state has not necessarily kept up with Austin’s rapid growth, economist Ray Perryman said the state is, for the most part, avoiding the crash that has plagued other regions of the country.

“In a typical year, we add 400,000 people to the Texas economy…we’ve needed about 170,00 to 175,000 housing units each year,” Perryman e said. “If we needed around 190,000 housing units last year and we built between 205,000 and 210,000…we over-built our market a little bit. By two or three months from now, I bet we’ll be showing net year-over-year declines in housing starts (state-wide),” he concluded.

“Central Texas has been even stronger than the state…the extent of over-building here has been almost non-existent. We think there’s still some life left in the local residential market. Here in Central Texas, I think you’re going to see a more stable market than what we’ve seen, but I don’t think you’re going to see any large correction take place here,” Perryman said.

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

Grinch says gifts gotta go . . . Some Council staffers who were happy to receive a game as a Christmas gift were clearly annoyed by an email they received yesterday reminding them that "accepting these gifts is against the city's gift policy." The gifts that the city's ethics officer wants staff to return are Monopoly-like board games called "Austin," given by Armbrust & Brown. Ethics Officer John Steiner advised recipients to return the gifts, but several staffers said they would not do so. Some said they would give the games to charities or local recreation centers. Attorney Richard Suttle said his firm gave about 600 such gifts and that he is sure no one would be influenced by a game worth $14.99 . . . Just arrived . . . Dre William Giello arrived at 6:15am Wednesday. The son of Public Information Manager Rebecca Giello and her husband, Scott, Dre William entered the world weighing 7 pounds 11 ounces. All are doing well . . . Bring your sleeping bag . . . The Council will be talking about the controversial Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which had an agreement with East Austin neighbors for a few hours this week. That agreement has fallen apart-at least as of last night. A few other zoning cases and an anticipated lengthy big box hearing could mean the final Council meeting of the year is the longest . . . Scientists push for aquifer pumping limits . . . Members of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board heard from a number of scientists and environmentalists Tuesday night in a public hearing on setting a limit on the amount of water that can be pumped out of the aquifer. Board Member Craig Smith tells In Fact Daily that "the board heard from a roomful of scientists who told us we need to establish an upper limit on pumping from the aquifer. The most gratifying news was that engineer George Murfee, who was invited to be there and has represented Gary Bradley and John Lloyd, did not offer a dissenting point of view. He said we need to provide incentives for people who want to build to get surface water. It seemed to me to be a fairly broad-based scientific consensus (to set an upper limit on pumping) and that it should not be any significant amount more than is currently permitted. In other words, we have no additional water to permit." The BSEACD Board will take up the issue of setting an overall pumpage limit at its regular meeting at 6pm tonight at BSEACD Headquarters in Manchaca.

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