For more than 40 years, there’s been a grocery store at 715 Exposition Boulevard in West Austin, sitting on a 2.6-acre piece of land owned by the University of Texas System. The building opened as a Safeway in 1977, briefly became an AppleTree Market (remember those?) in the late 1980s, and finally a Randalls in 1994.
Earlier this year, we learned H-E-B had successfully negotiated a lease for the site with the UT System’s regents, and though the beloved Texan grocer’s plans are unknown at the moment, it’s a good bet they’ll tear the old structure down and build themselves a fancy new building. That’s all well and good, but before then, let’s take a minute to remember why Austinites of a certain age remember this store as the “Tree Safeway.”
Believe it or not, the story of this site really begins back around the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, give or take a few years — that’s when arborists estimated a pecan seedling started putting down roots in an empty field that would later become the corner of Lake Austin and Exposition Boulevards. Fast-forward 200 years, and you’ll find a pretty grown-up Austin around that equally grown-up tree, though the city was still a little sparse on skyscrapers.
The still-vacant corner lot found itself in the crosshairs of the UT System in 1975, when its regents announced plans to lease the property to grocery chain Safeway for the construction of a new store. First, the university sought to rezone the land on Safeway’s behalf from a residential to commercial use with the city’s Planning Commission, and that’s right about when the trouble started.
(And yes, for all the wonks out there, the university technically didn’t need to do this since state-owned property isn’t subject to local land development code. Still, if the rezoning fell though, UT would have to build the grocery store itself and lease it to Safeway to circumvent those zoning regulations — a slightly risky move in terms of legal precedent, not to mention the enormous controversy that would likely follow. Still, local coverage at the time suggests the university’s regents appreciated having this “nuclear option” in their back pocket, if only as a bargaining tool.)
West Austin neighborhood activists, still galvanized from the 1973 campaign to prevent the possible redevelopment of the Lions Municipal Golf Course just west of the Safeway site, feared allowing the rezoning for the grocery store would open the district up to additional commercial uses, and eventually create a profit incentive for the university to redevelop the municipal golf course with housing:
Virginia Bedinger, co-chairperson of the Save Muny committee said many area residents “feel it’s opening up zoning changes that could go on and on.”
The construction of the store on the UT tract at Lake Austin and Exposition Boulevards, Mrs. Bedinger and her supporters fear, will encourage more commercial uses in the essentially residential area.
When the lease expires in 1987, UT may decide apartments and townhouses would be more profitable uses for the golf course, she said.
— Austin American-Statesman, November 19, 1975
Though the earliest coverage of opposition to the Safeway plan in 1975 centered on these zoning anxieties, the neighborhood also quickly gathered against the planned removal of the 200-year-old pecan tree in the center of the property to make way for the store’s construction. It’s unclear if the loss of the heritage tree was simply an easier issue to organize around than the more esoteric zoning-related concerns of the Save Muny activists, but either way, the preservation of the tree quickly became the major issue at hand.
Safeway, seemingly recognizing the looming financial risk of angering a nearby community of potential customers, elected to play ball with the opposition and save the tree. The compromise hashed out with residents in early 1976 was both unprecedented — described as the first time the Safeway corporation had ever altered plans for a new store based on negotiations with a neighborhood in the 60-year history of the company — and not cheap, with the added cost for the building’s updated design roughly estimated at $25,000.
Modifications to the store plan included a slight reduction in its square footage, walls and landscaping to better hide the building from nearby homes, and the biggest change — the preservation of the tree — enabled by a glass-walled atrium in the center of the store, which allowed the heritage pecan to rise beyond the structure’s roof.
The key to this happy ending was the company’s decision to build the 30,000-square-foot store around the sole ecological feature of the site, a spreading 200-year-old pecan tree. That resulted in an expensive redrafting of the architects’ plans, consultations with tree experts and raised voices in Safeway’s headquarters in Oakland, Calif.
“Who the hell ever heard of building a store around a tree? It’s impossible,” was the response from Oakland, according to a higher-up with the company’s district office in Houston.
But where there’s a will there’s a way, and the Safeway people found it. The 90-foot-tall tree, to be enclosed on four sides by a glass atrium in the center of the building, will get plenty of attention, including a monthly visit from its tree doctor.
— Austin American-Statesman, June 28, 1976
This design, per coverage at the time, was the first grocery store in the nation to be built around a tree. Very few images of the atrium exist today, and we’ve only found one in color, apparently taken sometime around the store’s grand opening in 1977:
Still, the cash Safeway dropped to redesign the building was nothing compared to the $7 to $8 million the company projected in annual business at the new location, so it made at least some financial sense for the store to capitulate — a scenario seemingly destined to play out in Austin again and again with only slightly different permutations for the rest of human history.
Even without the financial or public relations concerns, it’s no surprise the activism worked in this case — a 2005 obituary for West Austin resident Margaret “Peg” Guarino paints a slightly more gripping picture of the opposition’s tone than we’re able to find in the Austin American-Statesman:
Peg was a Co-Founder of the Save Barton Creek Association, a supporter of the S.O.S. Alliance, and one of the women who barricaded themselves around a huge pecan tree on Lake Austin Boulevard, forcing Safeway stores to build their new building around an atrium containing the tree.
— Margaret Guarino Obituary, Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Home, September 2005
If neighborhood residents really did chain themselves to the pecan tree at the Safeway site, many of the finer details are lost to time — but it’s clear these successful protest movements provided a model for the next generation of Austin’s preservationists.
With the eerily familiar recent city discussion regarding the future of the Lions golf course and the efforts of the still-active Save Muny campaign, we’ve finally come full circle with the 1970s — unfortunately, the Safeway tree isn’t around to enjoy it.
After all that trouble, what if the old tree succumbs anyway?
“Don’t even mention it,” groaned one connected with the project.
— Austin American-Statesman, August 20, 1976
That’s right — after considerable effort, and in spite of the arborist supposedly on Safeway’s payroll to prevent that very thing from happening, by 1997 the venerable pecan’s roots had rotted beyond saving, and the city allegedly ordered the tree removed. Seemingly without much fanfare, the store, by then a Randalls, was soon remodeled to remove the atrium altogether.
Despite the brief lifespan of the actual tree it was designed to protect, the legacy of the “Tree Safeway” lives on among an older generation of Austinites, and even shows up in at least one “Austin IQ Test” alongside local shibboleths like the Armadillo World Headquarters, Liberty Lunch and the Alamo Hotel, to name only a few.
If you walk into the Randalls at Lake Austin and Exposition Boulevards today, you’ll find no sign of the old pecan. But take to the skies above the store, courtesy of Google Maps, and you might notice an almost-imperceptible square patch of discoloration on the roof — this is the location of the Safeway tree’s former atrium. It’s the only trace left of this minor, but charming footnote in “Weird Austin” history.