The last time Sprawl-Busters clocked-in on Austin, Texas was on February 11, 2007 when we reported that an estimated crowd of 2,500 Wal-Mart opponents had formed a human chain to protest the proposal for a Wal-Mart chain store. As Sprawl-Busters had reported in December and January, Wal-Mart is trying to force neighbors to accept a 225,000 s.f. superstore. But even in Texas, some things can be too big. All that human pressure exerted on one spot of land in Austin has forced the developer to come back in with a “smaller” plan — but not quite small enough to please opponents. The Austin Statesmen reports this week that Wal-Mart wants to cut the store by 15% — from 219,000 s.f. to 186,500 s.f. (This does not count the 5,500 s.f. garden center add-on). The developer, Lincoln Property Co. wants to redevelop the Northcross Mall into a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Wal-Mart has agreed to the “smaller” 186,500 s.f. store — which is still the size of four football fields under one roof. instead of a 219,000-square-foot one — plus garden center. According to The Statesman, Wal-Mart may have had another motive in mind. By reducing the size, Wal-Mart avoids a threshold that would have required it to use higher estimates to predict traffic created by the store. The more traffic the store creates, the more road improvements the developer would be required to pay for. Traffic counts at other Central Texas Wal-Marts showed that those stores draw as many as 28,277 car trips a day — almost three times the amount Lincoln has predicted for Northcross. The newspaper cites a 2006 article from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) which says that discount stores bigger than 200,000 s.f. generate more traffic than previously thought. The developer is working on a new traffic impact analysis for June. City officials told Wal-Mart that a 200,000 s.f. store would have to use higher estimates. Wal-Mart’s lawyer claims that a 186,000 s.f. Wal-Mart would be the “smallest” in Central Texas. The citizen’s group formed against this project, Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N), noted that a 192,000-s.f. store will create essentially the same traffic problems as a 219,000-s.f. store would. The group wants the developer to build a vertical, mixed-use development that would distribute traffic better. “Wal-Mart keeps coming back with a repackaged version of the same project: a supercenter,” a group member told the Statesman.
Responsible Growth for Northcross has indicated that it will file a lawsuit soon against the city, and possibly against Wal-Mart and Lincoln — which is certainly what Wal-Mart would do if the city ruled against them. At issue is the traffic impact — how it was calculated, and what it did, and did not, include. RG4N is also planning to create a traffic jam around the mall during rush hour to show what the project’s impact will be like. The main traffic analysis being used for this development is one produced by the developer. That study concluded, as all developer’s studies do, that Wal-Mart would create 10,153 car trips per day, and would not overburden roads or intersections around Northcross. The developer revised those numbers in June, 2006 and said a 225,085 s.f. Wal-Mart would draw 11,076 car trips a day. The city has approved those estimates without an independent peer review. According to the Statesman, traffic counts at Central Texas Wal-Marts in December, January and April found that those stores draw 14,192 to 28,277 car trips a day. The developer’s original study estimated that the Wal-Mart and the other stores would generate 25,607 total car trips a day — 17,542 more than the mostly vacant mall does now. From that number, the developer subtracted “pass-by” shoppers who are already driving on roads near Northcross. Those adjusted numbers were 16,262 car trips a day for the whole site — which means a 36% reduction, higher than the standard 25% “pass by” trips used in most impact studies. The developer has offered to pay for adding a double left turn lane and a new traffic signal — none of which would be needed except to serve Wal-Mart customers. Austin officials can reject a site plan if its traffic would overburden streets or endanger public safety. But in traffic matters, the engineers usually keep offering more and more mitigations — and site plans are only rejected if local officials don’t like the overall plan to begin with, and want to use traffic as one of their reasons. If local officials are inclined to approve the plan, no traffic jam will dissuade them. Opponents also charge that Lincoln failed to look at the impact this project will have on neighborhood streets that will feed cars into Northcross. But an Austin city official said the developer did not have to analyze neighborhood traffic because the roads leading into the mall are not considered residential or collector streets under city rules. Why should Austin consider a 186,000 s.f. store as “small,” when Wal-Mart today is building superstores at 99,000 s.f., and putting them on more than one level? Northcross residents might not oppose a superstore at this size on two floors. It would free up green space nearly the size of three football fields. To help Austin residents fighting this over-sized superstore, go to http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/council/groupemail.htm and send all the City Councilors at once an email, urging them to force Lincoln Property to underwrite the cost of an independent traffic study. Or call Austin Mayor Will Wynn at 512-974-2250. Tell the Mayor: “I hope the citizens Will Wynn over Wal-Mart.”