submitted by Steven Zettner [Email address: szettner #AT# austin.rr.com - replace #AT# with @ ]

Wham. Here comes
Wal-Mart. And this being central Austin,
the anti-Wal-Mart folks aren’t far behind. I’ve also heard from a few folks, many of them 40+ year residents of the
neighborhood, who welcome Wal-Mart’s convenience and low prices with open
arms. I think they are a minority, but
one we should certainly respect.

Me, I’m not fond of Wal-Mart, but I’ll admit to making the
occasional pilgrimage. I have a young family, so another grocery store doesn’t
sound too bad. But we’re also part of Wal-Mart’s growing “urban” target
demographic with household income over $60,000, which means we can ignore
Wal-Mart if we choose to.

Will we ignore Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart may assume, as it has in other cities, that any anger stirred
up by the initial entry will die down, and that the store will be profitable in
3-5 years. That may very well be true.
Or not. The company’s recent ignominious
retreat from Germany gives pause. Like Central
Austin, Germans tend to have more disposable income than average
and thus can afford to be a little picky in where they spend their shopping
time. The traditional Wal-Mart shopper asks, “What do we need from
Wal-Mart?” The slightly more affluent
younger Allandale family asks, “Where do we want to go hang out with the kids
while we do some shopping?” And that raises the critical question that Wal-Mart
should be asking: Is Northcross Mall a
place consumers like my family will want to go to?

From the plans they’ve presented, the answer is no. I’ve studied the site map for Northcross
carefully. I’ll be blunt – it’s a mess
of compromises and leaves me cold. It feels like Plano,
not Austin.  Other than the ice rink, there’s nothing much
there that would make me say, “Hey, let’s grab the kids and head down to
Northcross.”

The irony is that if Wal-Mart wanted to know what people in
Allandale like, the Allandale Neighborhood Association could answer the
question. We’ve just finished a
neighborhood survey. The preliminary
results tell us that nine in ten residents are concerned about preserving green
spaces and an even bigger number say that green spaces are an attractive part
of the neighborhood. People like to take walks in the park. They feel strongly
about the sense of community. “Keeping the feel of the neighborhood” ranks high
too, and I interpret that in part to mean keeping businesses that make the area
unique.

In my mind, the commercial center that best reflects these
values is the Central Market on 38th, followed by the new Triangle
center at Lamar and Guadalupe, and the Arboretum. All do an excellent job of buffering parking
lots from the street and integrating commercial space with green space. There
are lots of places for people to walk and gather, and for children to play. In Allandale, the same can be said of Amy’s
Ice Cream, which is always busy even on a Thursday afternoon, where mothers
relax while their children work the giant outdoor shuffleboard.
Northcross, by contrast, is one big ugly parking lot. The proposed redesign is still one big ugly
parking lot, plus a Wal-Mart.

The new plan replaces three parking lots with a three-level
parking garage, but these lots will be swapped for additional retail space, not
greenery. The parking lots on the
eastern half of the site closest to the intersection of Burnet and Anderson are
left pretty much as is, including one big parking lot directly on Burnet.

The only serious green space contemplated for the
redevelopment is a water treatment pond at the far western end of the
site. This feature will be landscaped
but is not designed for recreation.

The plan includes a narrow pedestrian zone between the
Wal-Mart and the remaining part of the mall, but this zone is also a parking
lot that permits vehicular traffic.

Lincoln Property has valid reasons for the design it came up
with. Several of the properties at the
fringes of the mall belong to other owners. Also, Robert Dozier of Lincoln Property told us that they decided to
keep the existing eastern part of the mall instead of demolishing it to reduce
the downtime faced by existing tenants. And of course, any land given up to greenery or pedestrian areas is land
that is not generating revenue. That’s a
valid point and Allandale needs to address it in any alternative solution we
work towards.

There are alternatives. For example, rearranging the mall design to accommodate a more
pedestrian friendly layout might require leaving the current tenants where they
are for a longer period than was intended, but the new buildings that go up could
have more stories, for additional retail or office space. The more attractive
environment would make it easier to sell these slots, and to attract local
businesses that have broader appeal to area residents. A bookstore comes to mind. More kid-friendly
restaurants too.

The required modifications might delay the Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart still
wins. It gets a location that people
actually want to go to. It addresses
concerns about its impact on local business by helping local businesses to
thrive. It proves that it is a good
neighbor with an urban sensitivity to urban consumers. Take this approach, and
Wal-Mart’s returns will exceed its expectations.