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Letter to Planning Commission - McMansion Ordinance

Just sent the following to the Planning Commission, which is the most likely place for a rebuke to the ridiculous McMansion people. (My bet is that the City Council will be more afraid of angering center-city neighborhood associations).

Dear Planning Commissioners:

My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the city's Urban Transportation Commission for about 5 years, and I live and own property in two central city neighborhoods. As a resident of OWANA, I chaired the transportation subcommittee for our neighborhood plan, and remain to this day very proud of the work we all (especially Dave Sullivan, who chaired the zoning subcommittee) did in making sure our neighborhood answered the question "where do you want your additional density" with a more responsible answer than "NO".

Since then, many other central neighborhoods have failed in their responsibility to identify appropriate infill and have instead attempted to stand athwart the market and yell "stop", as the saying (sort-of) goes. Today, you find yourselves considering yet another attempt to artificially retard the market from solving our housing problems for us -- all under the guise of a so-called "drainage emergency". The same neighborhoods that prevented and delayed multi-family housing from being built anywhere in or near their neighborhoods for so long (resulting in a plague of superduplexes and other rental housing as the unstoppable demand for close-in living by students could not be denied) now want you to further restrict residential development at precisely the time when we should, in fact, be allowing more density and more infill. And, of course, these same groups claim to be against sprawl.

Consider our case - I have a family of four living in a 1250 square-foot house on a 6000 square-foot lot in NUNA. My next-door neighbor is about to have a new addition, raising their family to 5, in a house about 1050 square feet. We're both presumably the kind of people who you'd rather have in center-city neighborhoods than party houses full of rowdy undergraduates; but we're precisely the ones who will be most hurt by these overreaching regulations. In fact, both of us bought our houses assuming that we would eventually build up; and yes, even the supposed compromise engineered by the working group will drastically affect both of us - likely making it financially impossible to expand our homes. We both have detached garages (his with an apartment overtop) and we both have narrow lots. The task force's "solution" to cases like ours is to build a basement, or seek a variance. Fat chance.

My family will probably stay, although our rights to develop will be unfairly eliminated. My neighbor, on the other hand, probably won't. Neither of us would seek to build a McMansion, but we (especially they) need more space to be comfortable - even my grandparents' family of 12 had more square feet per person than my neighbors will without building up.

The beauty of this is that I already live next to a duplex - built "straight up from the 5 foot setback line" on the other side of my home.

The drainage emergency itself is a joke - yes, there are real drainage problems, but notice that the only item in the regulations which could possibly have a direct effect on drainage is OPTIONAL (impervious cover changes). And, of course, regulations which only apply to new homes can't be said to be a fair response to a drainage problem which older homes of course contribute to. I've mentioned several times on the group's discussion board that there's a trivially simple way to address drainage problems - simply change the utility's drainage billing to a formula based on the square feet of impervious cover. That way, old houses which cover too much of their lot will have to pay more to solve the problem, and so will new houses.

Finally, the task force itself is a joke - it's staffed by people who mainly fall into two groups - 1: those who already have big homes which violate the spirit, if technically not the letter, of the new regulations, see footnote below; and 2: those who have small families, i.e., childless couples.

The only correct answer to this group is "NO". Instead of further restricting center-city development, we need to be allowing more small-scale multifamily infill to relieve the demand for close-in living. We need to make it easier, not harder, for families to stay in the city for the sake of center-city schools. And we need to make it clear that those who have been irresponsible in the past by obstructing worthwhile projects ought not be rewarded now for their bad works.

I chose not to become engaged with this group despite Chris Allen's invitation because I firmly believe that you do not negotiate over how MUCH to drag your city in precisely the wrong direction - you simply say "NO. That's the wrong way". I hope you'll join me in opposing this plan on those grounds.

Thank you for your time.

Mike Dahmus

1: (member), NUNA, on Laurel Lane - lives in a home with an 'incompatible' front setback, and her second story 'towers over the backyards of her neighbors'. (member), Hyde Park, lives in a huge house which dwarfs its neighbors. Several other task force members live in huge houses, albeit on bigger lots than the two mentioned specifically, and I haven't seen them personally.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Economics , I Told You So , PS: I am not a crackpot , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad