New rules in Austin, but no effect on Northcross

Late last week, the Austin City Council approved new rules for big-box store development, but did not apply them to the Northcross Mall site.

The rules will require the city to notify more neighbors of proposed large stores and have a public review process for those projects.


More than 100 neighbors protested outside of City Hall midday Thursday, asking the council to void Lincoln’s site plan for the mall, which the city approved in August.

Council members didn’t do that Thursday, perhaps to avoid getting sued by the retail giant. Instead, a few council members applied public pressure, urging Lincoln to change its vision into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly project.

“If they want to be a good community partner and develop other properties in Austin, they should try to do a better project,” Council Member Brewster McCracken said.

“This can be a win-win” if Lincoln listens to neighbors, Council Member Jennifer Kim said. “I hope Lincoln understands that the neighborhood has a right to self-determination.”

McCracken said he wants to soon propose an hours-of-operation ordinance that could prevent Wal-Mart from operating its Northcross store 24 hours a day. He and other council members questioned traffic numbers Lincoln submitted to the city, saying actual traffic counts done at other Austin Wal-Marts were twice as big.

Wal-Mart and Lincoln said this week that they’ll suspend their plans (and not apply for permits) for 60 days to gather neighbors’ input.


Right now, big stores proposed for land already zoned for such retail don’t go through a public review process. That’s why the Northcross Wal-Mart never had a public airing.

The new rules will require a public hearing and a special permit, called a conditional-use permit, for any planned store bigger than 100,000 square feet.

Another change is that the city will have to notify neighborhood associations within a one-mile radius of any planned huge store, instead of the current rule advising those within 300 feet.

I think the new rules make more sense. It’s a shame that they won’t have any effect on the Northcross site, but at least it’s a start.

More on the Council action and the neighborhood reaction is here and here. I have the following statement from Responsible Growth for Northcross:

Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N) is dismayed that the Austin City Council did not revoke or suspend Lincoln Property Company’s illegally approved site plan.

This inaction ignores the mounting evidence indicating that Lincoln may have grossly understated the traffic impact of the development, that the city was deficient in notification of citizens, and that the city had no authority to approve the site plan as an administrative site plan without a public hearing. Furthermore, the Council is disregarding the voices of more than 3,600 petitioners (and hundreds more that contacted the Council individually) demanding action.

We appreciate the Council’s commitment to hold Lincoln Property Company to no action whatsoever on the Northcross project for 60 days. We also appreciate the Council’s commitment to prohibit 24-hour operation at Northcross as is currently planned.

RG4N is prepared to aggressively pursue all necessary measures to save our neighborhoods and to provide a better vision for redevelopment at Northcross Mall. Our goal is a meaningful partnership with Lincoln Property Company to develop a new site plan that ensures quality of life in our neighborhoods.

If you’re thinking that sounds like a lawsuit is looming in the future, you’re right:

Who would the city rather get sued by – its citizens and neighborhood associations, or Wal-Mart? That’s shaping up as the unpleasant choice for City Council in the heated battle over Lincoln Property Co.’s plans to bring a gargantuan Wal-Mart Supercenter to the site of Northcross Mall. The surrounding neighborhoods, collectively organized as Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N), have asked council to revoke the project’s entire site plan; council members say they would love nothing better, as Lincoln Property’s Seventies-style mall redevelopment scheme is wholly out of sync with the city’s new-era urban planning efforts. But city managers and city legal seem terrified of getting slapped with a lawsuit by the billions-deep retail behemoth; they’ve sternly warned council that it has no legal grounds to revoke the site plan – approved Aug. 8 through an administrative process that allowed for no city input or public hearing.


Among those irritated by city management’s public assertions that there’s “nothing the city can do” is Council Member Brewster McCracken. “It’s a very unfortunate attitude,” he said. “It’s not how we do it Downtown.” McCracken has been particularly critical of Lincoln Property’s scheme, which willfully ignores the progressive urban-planning intentions he shepherded in as city policy in May of 2005, officially adopted as the city’s new Design Standards and Mixed-Use ordinance in August. “Just because something complies [with zoning code], that doesn’t mean it’s not a bad idea, from an infrastructure or urban-planning perspective,” McCracken pointed out. Conveying a sense of civic betrayal, he noted that Wal-Mart agent Richard Suttle sat on the task force that crafted the new design standards – which he then turned around and helped his client to outrun.


McCracken pointed out a strange limit to the council’s powers: they’ve been told they have no authority to revoke the site plan unless the city gets sued by someone over it. “It’s unfortunate we have to force our constituents to sue us in order to act in their interests,” he said with obvious frustration. “But unless we get sued, we don’t have authority.” As he sees it, doing what’s safe from a legal perspective is different from doing what’s right. “Part of our job is to provide leadership. If we see something going on that’s wrong, the public rightfully expects us to do something about it.”

There’s always the chance that negotiations among all the interested parties can bring about a solution that everyone can live with. That’s inevitably a better way to go than the courts, but it’s easier said than done. Stay tuned.

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3 Responses to New rules in Austin, but no effect on Northcross

  1. M1EK says:

    I have some relevant entries on my crackplog about this stuff – with pictures of the area. Short summary: the neighbors are being disingenuous when they claim that Northcross is “in the middle of a neighborhood” and that they support dense mixed-use development there.

  2. el_longhorn says:

    Disengenuous to say the least. The proposed WalMart would be at the corner of Shopping and Retail streets on the former site of a dilapidated mall. Other than the fact that it is a WalMart, the development seems to meet all the criteria for a good urban development….close to a rail line, more intense use of existing property, in the center of an established retail district. But since this is WalMart and WalMart is evil, we must oppose it.

    Also, please try to ignore Brewster McCracken, or at least take his comments with a large grain of salt. He is a blowhard of the highest order.

  3. el_longhorn says:

    PS I would rather get sued by the person I can beat in court. Wal Mart has done their homework and knows the law. They will win the lawsuit. RG4N has not. They will lose.

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