Sprawl-Busters reported on December 10, 2006 that residents from the Austin, Texas neighborhoods of Allendale, Crestview, Shoal Creek and Brentwood had all signed petitions opposing a proposed 24-hour, 219,000 s.f. Super Wal-Mart at the old Northcross mall.
Their City Councilor, Brewster McCracken, told the media: “This is not about Wal-Mart, it’s about a Super Wal-Mart… that’s open 24 hours a day. That would be fine on a highway. It just doesn’t belong here.”
A group of residents, calling themselves Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N), asked the City Council to revoke the site plan for the proposal.
Wal-Mart already has six supercenters in Austin, Texas, a city with more than 758,000 people. But when the giant retailer proposed to build a 7th supercenter in Austin, the neighbors thought is was too weird — even for the ‘keep Austin weird’ crowd. But Wal-Mart had to completely revamp its project.
Resistance to Wal-Mart in Austin is not new. In 2003, residents beat back a Wal-Mart superstore in Austin. Although Wal-Mart returned, this time to the Northcross Mall, on June 24, 2008, we reported that citizen pressure and legal delays had prodded Wal-Mart to cut their proposed supercenter by more than half.
The retailer’s plan attracted not one, but two lawsuits. Public pressure against the superstore forced the developer to come back in with a “smaller” plan — but not quite small enough to please opponents. Wal-Mart offered at first to cut the store in the Northcross Mall by 15% — from 219,000 s.f. to 186,500 s.f. But the city approved Wal-Mart’s plan, settling on a 198,000 s.f. footprint. The citizens group that had been fighting this project, vowed to take their case to court.
Responsible Growth For Northcross (RG4N) filed their lawsuit in district court to stop the North Austin Wal-Mart proposal. A second lawsuit was also filed by a group called the Allendale Neighborhood Association (ANA). The two citizen’s groups forced Wal-Mart to accept several compromises they would not have otherwise made. The company shrunk its store size to 198,000 s.f. They also were forced to abandon a 24-hour store format, and they agreed not to allow delivery trucks to run along residential streets. The city of Austin also adopted a Big Box ordinance limiting development — a law that will impact all future superstore developments.
“We are opposed to the Lincoln Property Company plan to build a giant, two-story Wal-Mart Supercenter and three-story parking garage in the middle of our vibrant Austin neighborhoods, RG4N said. “The developer’s traffic study shows how their project will bring streets to the brink of failure. The developer’s plan is another example of ugly, suburban sprawl in a place where it doesn’t belong. Our city deserves better and we have city ordinances in place to promote better development.”
In December of 2007, a judge ruled against the RG4N lawsuit. But the case was far from over. In June of 2008, Wal-Mart slashed its superstore to 97,000 s.f. The proposed two story project will have one story — not two — and the 3 story parking garage has been reduced to a parking lot. The garden center and the auto repair shop have been eliminated. A Wal-Mart spokesman explained, “As part of a nationwide effort and changing business model, Wal-Mart has been re-evaluating store sizes throughout the country.” She said Wal-Mart “intends to reduce the size of its already approved Northcross store.”
On January 31, 2010, neighbors of the Northcross Mall told Sprawl-Busters that “Wal-Mart is finally moving dirt and scheduled to open by Oct 2010. It has been scaled back from 219,000 sq ft to 97,000. There will be no garden center. They will close from 1-5 AM.”
According to the RG4N, the group signed a settlement agreement with the City of Austin and Lincoln Property Company. The developer agreed not seek repayment of its legal fees from RG4N. “And we will not contest the new, currently approved site plan, since the new plan addresses most of the objections of our lawsuit… while the (court) ruling did not come out in our favor, our claims were legitimate and are being addressed by the improved site plan.”
Ten months later, the Wal-Mart store opened this week in Northwest Austin. The media referred to it as a “Neighborhood Market,” but its really a smaller superstore — not just a grocery store. It is reported that the store has an emphasis on electronics and fresh groceries. There is no warehouse in the store, because employees will stock supplies directly from delivery trucks to store.
“It’s a credit to neighbors and developers that they are going to open a store that we think will be a better fit in our neighborhood,” a spokesman for RG4N told the Austin News.
Neighbors said they would have preferred a mixed use development with more green space — but their opposition led to a 56% reduction in the scale of the building.
Wal-Mart also seemed pleased to have four years of controversy behind them. “There’s been some trials and tribulations, but I believe it’s all been worked out. We’re here to be good neighbors. We’re here to take care of our citizens around us,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told KVUE radio.
Truck deliveries will be limited to day and early evening hours to lower the noise for neighbors. “We need to have everyone in the community on board,” a Wal-Mart Regional manager admitted. “Otherwise, we won’t have a successful store. We have no desire to come into a place and dominate as it’s been portrayed from time to time.”
The opponents of this store seem to be reconciled with the outcome. “The developer made the right decision. Wal-Mart made the right decision. When these decisions are made, we have to be gracious about it. Otherwise, what incentive does anyone have to make the right decision?” explained an RG4N spokesman.
Last January, RG4N told Sprawl-Busters: “The Wal-Mart still remains an explosive and divisive issue in ours and all the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of us feel this store is doomed because of the increased traffic it will cause on already burdened streets and also the crime. That mall could have had a great sustainable pedestrian-friendly development that the entire neighborhood could have enjoyed. What a loss.”
RG4N held up this Wal-Mart project for roughly four years. Attorney Doug Young, who worked on the RG4N lawsuit, told the Austin Statesman newspaper last year that a smaller store was “an extremely good development in resolving this whole issue. This is more like what ought to have been considered in the first place.” According to Young, RG4N was preparing to continue its appeal through the courts. That pressure likely played a significant role in shrinking the size of the project.
As it turns out, this smaller store was just a forerunner of many of the Wal-Mart superstores now being proposed. Wal-Mart’s U.S. Division has clearly chosen to shrink the size of its stores. There are two advantages of this for the company: 1) the smaller store format is more efficient and as profitable as the larger footprints; 2) the smaller stores generate less community opposition.
In an October 22, 2009 story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Wal-Mart made clear where the company is heading in the American market. “The writing is on the wall, we are going to smaller stores,” said Eduardo Castro-Wright, then Wal-Mart’s vice chairman in charge of U.S. stores.
Local activists who are fighting superstore projects over 100,000 s.f. in size should turn up the heat on local officials to read the writing on the wall too, and demand from Wal-Mart that they shrink their plans below 100,000 s.f.
Smaller superstores are no longer just a demand from neighbors — they have become a corporate reality for the big box companies.
For more background on the Austin story, go to www.rg4n.org.