Northcross Wal-Mart gets the Go-Ahead

Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N) logoFor the past year, I've been working with a group called Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N), trying to block the development of a huge, two story Wal-Mart supercenter (and adjacent three story parking garage) in my neighborhood. Back over a year ago, the City quietly gave site plan approval without any public hearings. RG4N sued the City and the developer over that approval, citing four problems with the process and asking the judge to throw out the site plan approval. The case was heard back in November.

Last Friday, the judge returned her decision, and it was pretty devastating. She ruled against RG4N on every one of the four claims.

Her decision spoke mostly about the "garden center" issue. The RG4N claim was that an outdoor garden center was a so-called accessory use not permitted by the site zoning, and there should have been a public hearing to allow the variance.

The judge disagreed. I think she basically deferred to the City's judgment for allowing garden centers attached to retail development, and at which point it tips from a permitted use into an accessory use. She noted in her decision:

Even though the Court may not agree with the results of the City's interpretation of the ordinance, it is for the City Council, not this Court, to change the ordinance.

I think the judge may have taken the position—arguably a reasonable one—that the City should be given wide latitude to interpret its ordinances. If so, what bothers me is that the City has chosen to do so in a way that shuts out citizen interests and works to the benefit of development interests.

What's even more frustrating is that the judge provides no reasoning whatsoever for denying the remaining charges. There were some serious issues raised, with regard to tree protection, flooding, and traffic. They are all dismissed with a single sentence:

Further, the Court has reviewed all of RG4N's other claims with the same applicable standard of review and finds that the City's approval of Site Plan 2 is consistent with the ordinances.

I don't know whether the judge thought RG4N was wrong on its facts, or simply deferred to City judgment. If the latter, once again, I'm disappointed with the complacency of the City when reviewing this sort of development.

I believed (and continue to believe) RG4N has raised some serious, bona fide defects with the way the City managed this process. I was, however, prepared for a compromise decision that split things down the middle. I wouldn't have been surprised if the decision had recognized the problems RG4N raised, but without granting the full relief it sought. I thought, for instance, the judge may have ordered the developer to mitigate specific problems rather than throw out the whole thing.

In the end, I'm disappointed with the decision—but I'm even more disappointed with the complacency of the City.

I'd argue that with this decision, RG4N has a more important role to play than ever before. The developer has signaled their intention to move forward. RG4N has a number of options to consider. Whatever happens, it's clear the City won't police the developer's actions (the City itself says the process is complaint driven) and we need a group such as RG4N to do that.

(Please note that while comments are enabled on this entry, I am going to be moderating them tightly. I will not be approving any comments that attack or denigrate other people or groups.)


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I'm disappointed that you let what you wanted to be true overwhelm your critical thinking on this case. Plenty of people who didn't want Wal-Mart but understood city code quite well all told RG4N the same thing (as well as, I understand, the lawyers ANA talked to, at least at the beginning). And now, rather than admit that maybe those folks were right, we're left with attempts to parse what is fundamentally a very clear statement by the judge (which matches precisely what Austin Contrarian, a real lawyer, said months ago: only one of the four claims is even worth talking about, as the other three are obviously slam dunks for the city).

The whole point of city code is to establish a set of allowable developments which don't need to be subject to public input - otherwise, we're stuck with a "rule by mob" direct democracy which would never work (Lincoln could just as easily protest your plans to add a deck to the back of your house, for instance).

Although I disagree with it completely, the Big Box Ordinance was the "rule of law"-compliant strategy to use. Yes, it wouldn't and couldn't prohibit this particular Wal-Mart at Northcross - but the rule of law is important even when the outcome isn't what we would prefer. Another strategy which fit within the rule of law but was not employed include attempting to rezone the property years ago (before Wal-Mart came up as the prospective tenant).

I respectfully have to agree

I respectfully have to agree with Mike here. A great majority of people whose opinion I trust (based on prior track record) believed that this lawsuit was an overreach doomed to failure. Y'all should have declared victory after you got the big box ordinance passed and the minor site plan concessions from Wal-mart. That would have been a solid building block for future battles. Instead, your group picked a fight it couldn't win and got hammered. The way things are now, I don't see how RG4N or its most vocal leadership can carry any credibility into future disputes. This doesn't mean your members shouldn't still organize, just that they shouldn't do it under the RG4N banner.

Of course, the most disappointing aspect of all this to me is that the two most broad-based grassroots efforts (RG4N and the SOS/ACLU props) of recent years have gone down in flames, both due to overreach and poor tactical decisions. We need to come together as a community and figure out how to work within the system to protect the Austin we all hold dear.

I'll go farther than Kedron

"Y'all should have declared victory after you got the big box ordinance passed and the minor site plan concessions from Wal-mart."

The Wal-Mart plan as it stands today is modestly better than current conditions. Opportunities to get an even better plan WITH Wal-Mart were foregone by the denial of RG4N of the right of the Supercenter to be built there at all (a position with which the people Kedron mentions universally viewed as untenable).

I can think of many ways in which a Wal-Mart exactly the same size as the one we're going to end up with could have been built which would have better supported the urban principles I love - which RG4N said they wanted too. Those improvements were lost forever (well, for the design life of the project, which I'd put at another 20 years). The position "we'd support a non-Supercenter Wal-Mart" which was taken by some folks semi-aligned with RG4N is not what I'm talking about here; I'm talking about the full-sized Supercenter box, done better (think Macy's in New York, or various Urban Target treatments around the country).

In other words, had RG4N said "we'll give you your big box, but here's what you have to do to make it more attractive for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users, and more sustainable in the long-run", I'd have joined, and been one of your agitators, even. And we might have gotten something valuable done in the process. The position that big stores only belong on frontage roads, on the other hand, is one I'll fight with every last breath - whether the big store in question is a Macy's, a Dillard's, a Harrod's, a Target, or a Wal-Mart.

(One of the most ironic things in the posturing about big boxes and frontage roads is that at least one of the same councilmembers who said big stores belong on frontage roads has indicated a desire to get a big store at Seaholm.)

I was astonished at how many

I was astonished at how many personal attacks were levied on RG4N people from the start, instead of the issue. Even some people publicly attacked RG4N and belittled them, while claiming to be for their fight, instead of helping them. Lincoln seems to have gotten off without a scratch. I am also glad that people in my city put up this fight, which has merit here, just as it has in other cities. I do not relish being able to say, "Told you so" when the traffic is more than we can bear. All that being said, I think that there is still a lot of good to come from this fight in terms of the upcoming election and how people may be more involved than ever in issues surrounding how our city grows and copes with its never ending growing pains.

WM/Lincoln willingness to deal

M1EK, your assumption is that WM and the developer would have cut a deal with us if we had taken a different tack. That assumption is inaccurate. May I respectfully remind you that I sat in those meetings, and anything you know about it is second-hand at best. They made it clear from the beginning that they were only willing to tinker at the margins. Doing things in a more urban manner was always going to involve more change than they were willing to make. The developer told us in one-on-one meetings - this is what we are doing, we've already made plans and spent money. It is a fiction, this notion that real changes were ever on the table. Even the minor changes they supposedly agreed to are not part of their final approved site plan, except for the slight size reduction. I know you think we're a bunch of idiots, but you are being naive if you think they ever had any intention of making a deal with us. They would have had to view us as a real threat before they would consider a deal, and they didnt.

Hope, it's my opinion, as

Hope, it's my opinion, as well as that of people I respect, that they never really negotiated with you because you went in there with the public position that the presence of the Supercenter itself was non-negotiable - it had to go (some, but not all, said a normal-sized Wal-Mart was tolerable, but everybody was saying a Supercenter was a non-starter).

Were I in their shoes, knowing that I had the legal right to put the Supercenter in there, and knowing that I needed it to be in there to make a profit, I would have done nothing but window dressing at that point as well, and I even said so at the time.