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, and on December 10, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that Austin neighbors had organized a group to fight a proposed 219,000 s.f. Wal-Mart at the Northcross Mall. On June 24, 2008, we reported that citizen pressure and legal delays had prodded Wal-Mart to cut a 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.” That was one year and seven months ago. This week, neighbors of the Northcross Mall report 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: On September 25, 2009, 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. RG4N met with Wal-Mart officials months ago, and the group says “we have been waiting to get firm details about the downsized store and new artistic renderings of the store. We’re still waiting for those details. Here’s what was discussed at that meeting: The store is planned to be 97,915 sq. ft. (Much smaller than 225,000 sq. ft.). It won’t be 24 hours, except during special seasons, like before… The designs we saw were different than before and reflected the smaller size, but we don’t have anything to show you… The date set for construction or opening is unclear.”
Our local source notes: “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.” 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.” RG4N held up this Wal-Mart project for roughly three 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, 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, 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.