Two words out of Austin, Texas this week: “We won!” Citizen pressure and legal delays have prodded Wal-Mart to cut a proposed supercenter in half. On December 24, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in Austin, Texas were in combat with a proposed Wal-Mart superstore planned for the existing Northcross Mall. 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 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 (R4GN) 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 District court threw out the ANA lawsuit, which said the city of Austin should have held public hearings before approving the developer’s site plan. The judge ruled that the City was not obligated to hold a public hearing in the approval process for the developer’s site plan at Northcross. But the RG4N lawsuit still stood in the way of Wal-Mart and its supercenter. “We remain confident that we have a winning case,” RG4N said when the ANA lawsuit was thrown out. The two citizen’s groups have already forced Wal-Mart to accept several compromises they would not have otherwise met. 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. But RG4N wants to keep this Wal-Mart out. “Responsible Growth for Northcross is actively working for a mixed-use redevelopment of the Northcross area,” the group said. “We also 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. 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 also. But the battle was not over. This week, the Austin American Statesman reports that Wal-Mart is “dramatically scaling back” is superstore to 99,000 s.f. — roughly half of its most recent offering. The proposed two story project will have one story, not two, and a 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.” RG4N applauded the move. “We’re happy to see this step in the right direction,” said Hope Morrison, president of RG4N. “It’s a better fit for the area and precludes the need for continuing legal action.” RG4N told the newspaper “a mixed-use development is the ideal for that location, but at least their new plan is something that can work without hurting the surrounding neighborhoods and small businesses.”
When the 200th Judicial District Court of Travis County issued its ruling on the RG4N lawsuit, the group said it was disappointed with the outcome. “But we are not done fighting,” the group said. “We are merely back where we were one year ago, when neighbors resoundingly said, ‘No!’ to this irresponsible development. And in the court of public opinion, Wal-Mart, Lincoln and the City of Austin have been losing since Day One. Unless we continue to act, we believe the City and developers will take this ruling as a green light to continue business as usual, pursuing any and all development without regard to the wishes of, or effect on, neighborhoods… If we should lose, I believe most if not all of the incumbent Council members will lose the support of most Northcross-area voters. The situation is likely to affect the next couple of elections either way, but if a Supercenter gets built it will be a daily reminder to voters that the City failed us.” RG4N has held up this Wal-Mart project for two years. During this pendancy, Wal-Mart held off on any work on the store. Attorney Doug Young, who worked on the RG4N lawsuit, told the Statesman 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. Attorney Young now says, “if the final proposed development is acceptable to everyone,” the citizen’s lawsuit would be withdrawn. Although a 99,000 s.f. store is still huge by any standards, Austin residents say that half a victory is better than none. Wal-Mart has not exactly been cut down to size in Austin, but this ‘small’ superstore will have less impact on traffic, the environment, and the neighborhood. For more background on this story, go to www.rg4n.org.