Austin Coalition Forces Wal-Mart Retreat, City Agrees to Big Box Study

Date: 1 Nov 2003 | posted in: Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Faced with strong opposition from a broad array of organizations and residents, Wal-Mart has abandoned plans to build a 24-hour supercenter on an ecologically sensitive site in southwest Austin. The 43-acre wooded tract sits over the Edwards Aquifer, the largest underground reservoir in Texas. It feeds Barton Springs and supplies drinking water to thousands of people.

Initially, opposition to Wal-Mart centered on its choice of location and the impact polluted parking lot runoff would have on the aquifer. All of the city’s environmental groups, including the Austin Environmental Board, the Sierra Club, and the Save Barton Creek Association, came together as the No Aquifer Big Box Coalition to fight the project.

“But soon people with other concerns about Wal-Mart joined the coalition,” explained Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions, an Austin firm that helps citizens fight bad development.

Groups who joined the coalition included the Austin Independent Business Alliance, which is concerned about Wal-Mart’s impact on local businesses; the Austin AFL-CIO and several union locals, concerned about the company’s treatment of workers; the Austin chapter of the National Organization of Women, concerned about Wal-Mart’s discrimination against female employees; Livable City, Austin Neighborhoods Together, and several other community groups motivated by a range of social issues; and numerous homeowner associations from the surrounding neighborhoods upset about the traffic and noise the store would generate.

The coalition circulated petitions, organized a letter-writing campaign, and held a public meeting attended by more than 500 people. Wal-Mart dropped the project in late September.

Rather than disbanding, many coalition members continue to work together and are formulating a citywide strategy to curb big box growth. “This has sparked a broader discussion about big box retailers and about Wal-Mart in particular,” noted Blizzard. “Austin residents have learned a great deal about Wal-Mart and its corporate practices through this controversy over the aquifer.”

“The scales fell from our eyes,” said Susan Moffat, a neighborhood activist who opposed the store initially because of its environmental impacts but whose concerns now include economic and labor issues.

So far, the coalition has logged both victories and losses. In October, the city council unanimously passed a 45-day moratorium on the construction of stores over 50,000 square feet over the Edwards Aquifer (about one-quarter of the aquifer’s 350-square-mile watershed lies within Austin city limits). The city will draft permanent regulations during the moratorium.

In early November, the city voted to commission a study of the impacts of big box stores on Austin’s economy and environment. The full scope of the study will be determined in a few weeks.

But, under pressure from the developers, area chambers of commerce, and the Real Estate Council of Austin, the city has given preliminary approval to two other Wal-Mart stores and a Lowe’s home improvement center.

The Lowe’s, which will be built over the aquifer, was approved after a protracted fight that included a bill passed by the Texas legislature known as the “Lowe’s amendment.” The city felt the measure gave it no legal grounds to block the store, but opponents contend Austin could have prevailed in court.

The two new Wal-Mart stores will bring the city’s total to four. The company has said it wants to build several more supercenters within Austin over the next year. But the coalition hopes that continued public education and organizing, along with the results of the city’s study, will persuade the council to impose stricter regulations, including a citywide size cap.

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Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.