HOME: MAY 4, 2007: NEWS
A Public-Private Northcross?
BY KATHERINE GREGOR
Council Member Jennifer Kim
Why can't Jennifer Kim find a co-sponsor on council for a resolution to explore a public-private partnership for the redevelopment of Northcross Mall? Paige Hill, a board member of Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N), offers an answer: "Everyone knows right now that we have a City Council that's not going to stand up for anything."
Sympathetic to RG4N's crusade for a superior redevelopment of Northcross Mall, without a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Kim had a resolution drafted several weeks ago and went shopping for a co-sponsor on council. The bright idea: The city of Austin could approach owner-developer Lincoln Property Co. with cash on the table as a potential project partner, as a way to gain needed leverage to affect the project (which the city now says it lacks, due to the developer having all needed entitlements). But to date, says Kim, no colleague has stepped up to co-sponsor the resolution so that it can be put on council's agenda for action.
A public component – such as a city community center or affordable housing – could in effect "buy down" the size of the planned 220,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, which RG4N and surrounding neighborhood associations oppose as being seriously out of scale with the neighborhood and its traffic capacity. Kim said she would favor the idea of a smaller Wal-Mart, such as a 100,000-square-foot grocery-only store, over the existing project – an idea that's fallen on deaf ears in Bentonville. "So far, they've been thumbing their noses at us," Kim said.
"The idea was to put the public-private option out there – for open discussion on the dais – and then try to get everyone to the table," Hill said. "The resolution would at least let the public know that 'we've legitimately tried everything' – not just pretended – but really tried – before we go to a lawsuit." RG4N and the Allendale Neighborhood Association are preparing to sue the city over Northcross. Council Member Brewster McCracken consistently has told RG4N he believes a lawsuit is the only tactic that realistically could change the outcome at Northcross, Hill said.
An open resolution at council also would defuse the underlying bugaboo: council members' paralyzing fears of being sued personally by Wal-Mart for contract interference. Kim said she was told by city legal that Mayor Will Wynn and Daryl Slusher were personally sued (alongside the city) by landowner S.R. Ridge in November 2003 for working to stop Wal-Mart from building over the Barton Springs Aquifer recharge zone; she also was warned by city attorneys that the city would not indemnify council members against being named individually in lawsuits, or cover their legal expenses, if they were sued for contract interference or taking sides. "That's why this resolution is important, so that both sides are openly engaged in the discussion," Kim said.
Understandably, no council member wants to risk hand-to-hand combat with the planet's biggest, baddest retailer. But Hill said her group questions the stern warnings from city legal, which they believe reflect Wal-Mart's fear tactics. Wal-Mart is represented on Northcross by real-estate attorney Richard Suttle, who has regular communication with city attorneys and upper management.
Hill also noted that even if Lincoln were to sell off the property right now, "Wal-Mart has the right of first refusal to buy, if Lincoln decides to sell. When we learned that, it opened our eyes to why Lincoln is making the decisions it is."
Kim said that in discussing the draft resolution to explore a public-private partnership, some colleagues questioned the potential legal costs; others said that without solid numbers and interest up front from Lincoln, the whole idea was akin to a fishing expedition. "Well, at some point you have to be willing to fish if you're going to get someone to bite," Hill said. "You're not going to catch any fish if you don't at least show up with a pole."
RG4N also is calling upon council to direct city staff to deny approval of a second site plan filed by Lincoln. RG4N said in a recent release, "Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman confirmed at the April 5, 2007, City Council meeting that a big-box site plan can be rejected on the basis of traffic impact." Kim said she also would support limiting the hours of operation citywide, for all big-box supercenters, new and existing, in the interest of public safety.
Next Thursday, May 10, RG4N will host a third Town Hall Meeting at 7pm at Grace Church of the Nazarene, 1006 W. Koenig. The group is seeking more hands-on volunteers. Topics for discussion include the forthcoming lawsuit, related fundraising needs, and an upcoming "Drive Away Wal-Mart" event to raise awareness of Wal-Mart's anticipated traffic impact, said RG4N's Jason Meeker. Activists plan to intentionally create a traffic jam at rush hour, on the streets surrounding Northcross, to vividly portray exactly what daily traffic could be like – based on realistic traffic counts for similar stores – if a Wal-Mart Supercenter is built at Northcross.