This is the category archive for "When Neighborhoods Go Bad".
Main

June 06, 2011

A Stark Choice Begins Today

I'm swamped at my real job and preparing for a family visit so I can't give this the attention it deserves, but if you want a clear difference between Randi Shade and Kathie Tovo, you could do a lot worse than this story about the Bradford-Nohra house in Hyde Park.

Continue reading "A Stark Choice Begins Today" »

May 09, 2011

The Austin Neighborhoods Chronicle

Not a big surprise to me, but Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro donated money to Kathie Tovo. Note that their endorsement article did not point out the conflict of interest (although the news coverage, to their credit, did; that conflict being that Kathie Tovo in particular and the ANC in general are very closely tied to Barbaro and especially his wife, no-growther, i.e., defend-the-landed-gentry-at-the-expense-of-sustainability-er Susan Moffatt).

Hence, Chron guys, horribly biased. As I said on twitter, I may be biased, and I'm not even media by the most generous definition, but even I would disclose a conflict of interest of this nature - and not buried in the accompanying news article, but right at the front of the endorsement. And I wouldn't feel comfortable writing about a race in which I donated money to one of the candidates.

It so happens I don't need to worry about it because I have never met (or even received e-mail from) two of the three candidates I endorsed (I have corresponded with Chris Riley a few times and have met him in person a couple of times over the years).

At least the subsequent news coverage was thankfully fact-based and fair. It is left to the reader to decide whether the editorial board, which split in favor of Tovo, is more disingenuous or naive.

May 05, 2011

My endorsements

In case anybody cares.

Chris Riley is still the best choice in Place One. I have been disappointed in Chris' unwillingness to push harder on many issues we share a similar position on but his votes are almost always what I would prefer for the urbanist/pro-transit agenda. (My disappointments also stem from him being unwilling to stop the Red Line from its inexorable process down the "kill the urban rail line in its cradle" track). His challengers are so unworthy of consideration that I don't even think it's worth discussing this race, and won't.

Randi Shade is the clear choice in Place 3, for a variety of reasons - she's fundamentally serious, as you can tell in her answers to Austinist questions (compare her one credible challenger here) and she's pro-density for the most part. I wrote this piece on the questionable way this race has been framed yesterday. Don't fall for the typical ANC tripe that they represent the average citizen. The average citizen is exactly who the landed gentry are keeping out of central Austin by fighting density.

I'd vote for anybody short of Jim Skaggs over Laura Morrison in Place 4. I've settled on K. Toby Ryan Hill largely because I suspect he has the best, although slim, chance. He's dead wrong on parking, though - but I'll yield on this issue to get the automatic ANC rubber-stamp off the Council if that's what it takes.

May 03, 2011

Poor Little Rich Girl

So if you had two candidates for city office in a city where campaign laws limit donations to a fairly modest sum to prevent undue influence by the rich, and you saw a story like this one:

(Candidate B) appears to be gaining ground. She raised $44,885 in the past few weeks, loaned her campaign another $40,000[...] (Candidate A) has raised nearly $170,000 since the fall — nearly $100,000 of it from early January to early April, the period reflected in Thursday’s finance reports.

which one of those candidates do you think the media could, responsibly and rationally, call the "little guy" or the "establishment candidate"? Which one do you think would be painted as the rich one in bed with the old money in Austin, and which one do you think would be painted as the voice of the masses?

Continue reading "Poor Little Rich Girl" »

December 27, 2010

Austin environmentalists continue proud tradition of harming the environment

My most recent Austin Sierran arrived (guess what? M1EK is a life member!) and as I usually do, I read the minutes from the monthly meeting. In it, I learned that the board apparently opposes plans to build a bike/pedestrian bridge across Barton Creek (to fill a huge gap in the bicycle commuting infrastructure in that part of town - where the frontage roads end on either side of the creek). They oppose this bridge because the construction of the pilings would likely impact the creekfloor and a few other features - in a part of the watershed that's very close-in already (arguably not contributing to the springs at all) - a likely one-time disturbing-the-sediment impact akin to the kinds of floods we see ten times a year in a rainy year.

The geniuses behind this decision suggested more improvements to South Lamar, which is only a couple of miles, a couple of extra hills, and another freakin' expressway out of the way for cyclists trying to commute to the center-city from points far southwest and west. Yes, there are people who commute from this far out - not as many as we would like, of course, hence the issue.

Continue reading "Austin environmentalists continue proud tradition of harming the environment" »

November 11, 2009

Board of Adjustment versus Urbanism

Short and not-so-sweet; still no time for this.

Those who didn't think it was a big deal when the ANC crowd were appointed en-masse to several critical boards and commissions should be ashamed of themselves.

Go to this video. If it doesn't advance automatically, go to C11.

What's here? Well, it's just ANC guys Bryan King and Jeff Jack pressuring a property owner on a downtown block to tear down a deck so he can add more off-street parking. Note that not a single time in this entire conversation does anybody, to be fair, including the applicant, even mention the fact that some people patronizing this small business or living in the apartment might not drive every single trip. Only once does anybody bring up the fact that ample on-street parking exists (of course, gasp!, people would have to pay!)

This is downtown, people. This isn't the suburbs. For those who think the government influence on development is mainly to force density, this ought to be (but probably isn't) a wake-up call: the primary influence of the government is to force car-dependent development patterns to continue even downtown.

And those who think the ANC crowd and their patron Laura Morrison are going to leave downtown alone and just focus on keeping the neighborhoods suburban should think again, too. Nowhere is safe from these people; right before this video I watched the Planning Commission fail to come to a recommendation on a hotel at 5th/Colorado because the ANC contingent wanted to force another couple hundred grand in concessions for affordable housing (used as a convenient crutch in this case; none of those people actually have any interest in affordable housing or they'd support more multi-family development in their neighborhoods).

Sickening. You were warned; but most of you didn't listen.

July 28, 2009

Updates

1. Like AC, I'm adding the new blog Keep Austin Wonky to my list. Welcome.

2. This article from AC is actually making me nauseous as I contemplate the damage that will be done to our city in the next few years. I will be writing more on this in a couple of days, but in the meantime, those of you at the Burnt Orange Report and Austin Chronicle who endorsed Morrison ought to be kicking yourselves in the ass. (Or let me do it for you). This is exactly what I and a few others predicted she would do, after all; she was never a candidate of balance as y'all convinced yourself she had become despite her history - she was always a NIMBY reactionary and had never tried all that hard to hide her stripes.

July 09, 2009

Updates

Yes, you haven't seen a crackplog in a long time. I did warn you, and since she came home almost a month ago, I have spent several fun overnights in the ER, and am barely sleeping (hint: preemie baby recovering from intestinal surgery is like normal newborn TO THE MAX!).

Today's Chronicle finally covers the live music issue, with a quote or two from your truly, thanks to Wells Dunbar. I think it lets Morrison off a little too easy - but is overall a good read. For another pointer, my pals at the Austinist gave me a nice "he told you so" shout-out.

For crackplog-lite, please check the twitter. I promise the crackploggin' will resume; but right now I'm just trying to get enough time to work.

June 17, 2009

Connecting some dots

1. Austin Neighborhoods Concil minutes, 10/22/2008:

Live Music Task Force Saundra Kirk, draft recommendations to be discussed in a public forum on Wednesday, October 29, 7:30-9:30 pm, City Council Chambers. Report will be finalized at the task force's final meeting on November 10, presented to City Council November 20. Saundra Kirk and Scott Trainer noted that the sound control recommendations are inadequate. Jeff Jack moved and motion was seconded Motion 1 "Authorize the ANC executive committee to draft a letter of concern to the task force and City Council regarding the task force sound control recommendations." The motion passed without opposition. The task force's draft report is available on the City of Austin Web site under "Live Music Task Force."

2. Austin Neighborhoods Council minutes, 6/27/2007

Noise Solutions Committee Update (Scott Trainer) City formed a committee to identify improvements to enforcement that could be made under the current ordinance. 1. APD is retraining police and increasing the number of meters from 2 to 23. 2. The committee is focusing on the effect of outdoor music on residents and educating the city's Music Commission on the need for mitigation. 3. Fire Department is assisting in crowd control, and PACE (includes AFD, APD, TABC, code enforcement) is coordinating permitting and enforcement through Municipal Court. APD will be contacting NAs and giving presentations on changes

3. Past list of ANC presidents, excerpted:

Past ANC Presidents


2008 Danette Chimenti
South River City Citizens

2006 - 2007 Laura Morrison
OWANA

2004-2005 Susan Pascoe
WANG

2003 Bryan King
South Lamar NA

2001 - 2002 Jim Walker
Cherrywood NA

1999 - 2000 Will Boseman
NUNA

1997 - 1998 Jeff Jack
Zilker NA

4. From yesterday's entry, courtesy of Gary Etie: (and updated per his update):

In this video, City Council member Laura Morrison, who was instrumental in passing the Amendment that was specifically used against Shady Grove, points out that the problem was that "Shady Grove's Permit had expired". What Ms Morrison fails to point out is that the March 23rd expiration date was part of (see correction and update in latest post) problems that are now coming around are related to the specific details contained in Amendments that she ramrodded through on March 12th 2009, on the consent agenda (!), as an Emergency item (!), right before SxSW, when anyone involved in the music business was going to be too busy to rally opposition. I don't think the problem is going to go away, until Ms. Morrison either gets it, and stops carrying the ball for the voter block she wants to retain, or is removed from the process, through recall.. I think Ms. Morrison is that good, at manipulation of the planning process, and it's that serious, in determining the future of music, in Austin.

5. From the day before:

Jeff Jack, President of Zilker Neighborhood Association and member of Austin Neighborhood Council discussed some of the local clubs in his neighborhood. He supports a balance between music and livability. The Citys current sound ordinance is ineffective, especially with a growing downtown, making entertainment districts important. Also, defined hours of operation are essential and should be limited near residential areas. Venue owners need to agree to restrictive covenants. At 85 DB, the loudness of sound is detrimental to hearing. Austin Bergstrom Airport can not have residences within a certain distance because of associated noise. Enforcement is an issue, sometimes police do not respond to a complaint in a timely manner or after the police have left, the music is cranked back up. It would be ideal if music people served as their own monitors. He would like the Live Music Task Force to develop new rules and take into consideration tougher penalties and a special zoning classification for music.

June 16, 2009

Laura Morrison's innocent act

Laura Morrison's innocence defense regarding Shady Grove is all over the news - her staffer even tried damage control in a definitely unfriendly forum over the weekend as well.

It kind of falls apart when you find, as I did today, these two sources:

Citizine Mag "Keep Austin Quiet"

Gary Etie says that "Neighborhood Groups, Council Member Morrison, certain City of Austin attorneys, et al, brought over an existing 70 dB limit that was found in the Zoning section of the Code, Chapter 25-2, and brought that language over to the Outdoor Music Venue Permit Amendment that was passed just prior to SXSW, while everybody was too busy to do anything to stop them. An Outdoor Music Venue Permit is a separate 'Noise and Sound' permit, issued under the Noise and Sound Ordinance, and must be obtained in addition to the Building Permit that establishes Use as a Restaurant or Cocktail Lounge."

and AustinCityPermits.com blog: (and updated per Gary Etie's update):

In this video, City Council member Laura Morrison, who was instrumental in passing the Amendment that was specifically used against Shady Grove, points out that the problem was that "Shady Grove's Permit had expired". What Ms Morrison fails to point out is that the March 23rd expiration date was part of (see correction and update in latest post) problems that are now coming around are related to the specific details contained in Amendments that she ramrodded through on March 12th 2009, on the consent agenda (!), as an Emergency item (!), right before SxSW, when anyone involved in the music business was going to be too busy to rally opposition. I don't think the problem is going to go away, until Ms. Morrison either gets it, and stops carrying the ball for the voter block she wants to retain, or is removed from the process, through recall.. I think Ms. Morrison is that good, at manipulation of the planning process, and it's that serious, in determining the future of music, in Austin.

Apparently Jeff Jack is pulling the same "who, me?" act on ANCTALK. Others will have to fight that battle, as I left there a very long time ago.

Back to work...

June 12, 2009

Jeff Jack and the Austin Neighborhoods Council kill "Unplugged at the Grove"

for now at least. Now they get to fight through the variance process; as we all know, that's just a piece of cake, right?

From austin360:

For the first time in its 16-year existence, KGSRs Unplugged at the Grove series at Shady Grove was shut down Thursday night after a noise complaint from a neighbor. Shady Grove owner Mike Young said the restaurant is in the process of applying for a variance that will allow a ceiling of 85 decibels. According to the current noise code, Shady Grove is classified as a restaurant that must comply at 75 decibels.

More at the link.

Remember, it's not condo-dwellers; and it's not people from California who did this. It's a bunch of single-family homeowners from Bouldin and Zilker, led by Jeff Jack, who have been complaining for more than a decade about supposed 'night clubs' on Barton Springs who got this ordinance passed through their tool Laura Morrison.

Earlier:

April 30, 2009

TWITC: Save Town Lake and Save Affordable Housing?

Lots of local political content in this week's issue, but in particular, two surprisingly good articles from Katherine Gregor.

First up, a good run-down of the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance notable for not giving Jeff Jack's crowd the uncritical reception which has been their unearned right in past pieces. It gives the minority report adequate shrift and lists the membership of the task force so people can see who was involved with this (guess what consituency is over-represented?). On this issue, also see Austin Contrarian's take for some good thoughts.

Second, this piece on affordable housing which at least makes the distinction between "single-family house" and "housing" which so many people fail to understand. My comment to that piece:

Once a city grows beyond a certain point, you have to be realistic that the core of the city probably isn't going to remain affordable, as long as you only define housing as single-family detached houses.

How many cities that aren't dying burgs or a sprawling hellholes have affordable single-family detached housing in their cores? I can't think of any; people grow up and realize that if you want to live central and don't have a lot of money, you live in a condo, a duplex, an apartment, a townhouse, a co-op, whatever.

At least Gregor pointed out condos here - that's a start. Mentioning that the McMansion Ordinance severely disincents existing and future duplexes and garage apartments would have been a welcome addition as well, though.

Good show, Chronicle. Also, folks should be sure to check out City Hall Hustle for Wells Dunbar's continuing series of in-depth interviews of mayoral candidates (well, he spends 10-20 minutes with them, which isn't THAT deep, but compared to the alternatives is practically BBC-like). Turns caricatures into characters.

April 14, 2009

Jeff Jack claims first music venue victim

Those of you who actually believed the nonsense about the live music task force regulations being the result of condo dwellers who didn't like loud music ought to think long and hard about the fact that the first apparent casualty of the ordinance isn't downtown; it's in the area covered by Jack's neighborhood associations, just like I told you.

Excerpt from the post:

On Saturday, April 10, 2009, an APD officer arrived at Freddies at 7:15 pm and told us that he was there to check our decibel readings. Our ambient sound level (with no music playing) was 67 db. Our sound level with the band playing ranged from 74 db to 80 db. The officer explained that the 1st time out (this time), he would issue a warning. The next time we would receive a citation which would result in a $500 fine. He stated that the 3rd time they come out, they would take someone to jail.

This was "the day the music died" at Freddies. We immediately stopped the band and have subsequently cancelled 83 bookings which were already on the cards for 2009. The 83 bookings represent over 200 Austin area musicians who no longer have a gig at Freddies.

Circle C in Hyde Park

So after reading a long set of complaints on the hydeparkaustin yahoo group(*) about the city not adequately enforcing code regarding to unrelated occupants in 'McMansions' in Hyde Park, I posted the following to their group, which was bland enough to make it through the moderator gauntlet:

I would suggest that if you want to be taken more seriously on this issue that you show the city where you WILL accept more housing units - such as the attempt by some on city council to make a 'deal' for VMU in place of McMansion development.

If, as has happened with Hyde Park and CANPAC, your VMU application was nothing but "no thanks" and, after the first shot was rejected, some desultory last-minute additions with plenty of conditions, don't expect to be taken seriously.

And I got the following, in my email, this morning:

Mike, no one takes you seriously. You don't speak for anyone but yourself and your constant criticisms of everyone who doesn't buy into your fake "new urbanism" has alienated all but a few weak minded individuals like yourself. Frankly, nobody wants you on the Hyde Park listserve. Get a life loser!

In case anybody was wondering how Hyde Park stands. I hope you guys don't blame me for your weak-mindedness!

(* - not technically my neighborhood but I'm one block away).

Update: Weak-minded commenter DSK unintentionally performs a great service. Sure, he gave away the method...

BUT BUT BUT! Now I know that there is a site called walterkoenig.com thanks to a surprisingly difficult effort to locate a picture of the method in question. I think we're all richer for the experience.

April 06, 2009

My disingenuous sense is tingling

Allow me to present the SNAustin.org mayoral forum, with these humdingers:

1. This video shows you successful VMU projects and how nice their open spaces are and then says we need rules to make sure VMU developments provide enough open space. Wouldn't it be smarter to show some that didn't provide enough open space, if any such existed? Maybe they couldn't find any, because I can't think of any that do that bad a job.

Huh. So the VMU developers are already doing a good job providing a lot more public open space than, let's say, the typical residential or commercial areas in this part of town have done (where 'open space' is comprised of surface parking lots, driveways, swales, and huge front setbacks of St. Augustine grass - precisely none of it 'public'). Is it possible, just possible, that these folks aren't really "advocates for new urbanism", like the almost-all-the-same-folks-but-really-quite-different-no-trust-us RG4N? You know, the same folks who claimed to want a VMU development at Northcross but now say they're thrilled with a single-story Wal-Mart surrounded by acres of surface parking,

2. From this posting for the forum:

The neighborhoods - Allandale, Brentwood, Crestview, Highland, North Shoal Creek, and Wooten - have identified three priorities for discussion at the forum: code enforcement, minimum public open space in mixed use districts, and transportation policy with an emphasis on pedestrian, bicycle and transit connectivity.

Oh, so NOW they're concerned with "bicycle connectivity"?. That's swell. Allow me to suggest it's difficult to take you seriously given your failure to even address obliquely what happened the last time a clear and compelling interest in bicycle transportation conflicted with the desire of a few old coots to park their overflow cars on their side of the street. Resulting in some real cool "bicycle connectivity". As in, one of these days a bicyclist is going to end up connected with an automobile because you guys couldn't walk across the street to get to your fourth and fifth cars.

Or do your old pal M1EK a favor and just go ahead and ask them about Shoal Creek at the forum. That ought to be some fun.

Update: How could I have forgotten their other priority?

3. Code enforcement. Yes, now, only now, do these folks want to make the city respect the integrity of the city code. You know, the same code that clearly stated that Lincoln and Wal-Mart had the legal authority to build exactly what they wanted to build at Northcross? The code that so clearly stated those development rights that not one but two judges sent RG4N and ANA home crying with their tails between their legs? The code that was so obvious that the judge nearly made ANA pay Lincoln's legal bills when ANA foolishly tried to appeal? That code, the one you made the city waste a million or more dollars defending?

Oh yeah, that code. Well, now that Wal-Mart scaled back due to economics, I guess we can return to insisting that it must be defended at all costs, right?

March 16, 2009

It's not the condo dwellers complaining about the music

Jeff Ward fell for it, big-time. So did 100% of his callers on Friday afternoon. You know what I'm talking about; the "OMG! All these people moving downtown are complaining about live music!" crap.

Folks, the people pushing for the extra restrictions on live music outdoors are NOT the people downtown. As reported elsewhere, they didn't even make up a significant part of the audience for the task force that came up with the new rules. Nor should one look at Lee Leffingwell, Laura Morrison, and Mike Martinez (the authors of the ordinance) and see some kind of rich downtown-dweller conspiracy - Morrison and increasingly Leffingwell are ANC tools first and foremost, and Martinez has been leaning that way occasionally as well (disappointing, given his usual sanity on the issue of development). If the downtown dwellers were really behind this effort, you'd be seeing this ordinance spearheaded by the like of McCracken and Wynn, wouldn't you think?

Here's one representative set of minutes from that task force. Notice complaints from Zilker, Castle Hill, and Travis Heights. Notice not one complaint from downtown.

As I've said in many a comment thread before, the primary force behind new and expanded limits on noise is the same group it's always been: old-school single-family homeowners in Zilker and Eastwoods/Hancock. Jeff Jack's crowd, in other words. These folks have been complaining about venues on Barton Springs and Congress and Red River ever since I've been here - for more than a decade; and there hasn't been any new group of downtown residents joining them; they're just using the supposed downtown residents as cover - most people living downtown view music as an amenity, not a problem.

Don't fall for it. Downtown condos aren't the enemy of live music; the ANC is.

January 25, 2009

What a shock

Courtesy of the Statesman: For Laura Morrison and Brian Rodgers, backroom deals are fine. The irony? This is a backroom deal to define exactly how much openness we'll require in the future.

Morrison said that, broadly speaking, she wanted to make the process more open and add opportunities for public input. But she declined last week in a phone interview to release the draft. The reason, she said, was because she and Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Randi Shade had to meet with more stakeholders before making it public, and that releasing it would give the public an inaccurate view of how it could eventually look.

Morrison had shared her draft with at least one member of the public, Brian Rodgers. That made the draft public, according to open-records attorney Joel White. He added that open-records laws require information requested to be disclosed as soon as possible, and that the 10-day response period is an outer deadline.

[...]

Were still waiting, even though the city is required to release it as soon as possible and Morrison could do so by simply opening her inbox and hitting send.

Anybody who believed all that nonsense probably feels as foolish now as I may be feeling soon about the "Meeker = McCracken's tool" stuff. The entire momentum behind Morrison's campaign and behind Rodgers' initiative was to make sure only the right people got input because, technically, we ALL got public input when we elected our city councilpeople. Of course, people with real jobs can't be at city council during the day and people with family responsibilities can't spent their days, nights, and evenings as 'stakeholders', but, again, that's the way the 'granola mafia' likes it: government by those with the most time on their hands.

November 05, 2008

Why we should subsidize more projects like The Domain

Quick reminder as I prepare to go on a business trip. The reason we need to subsidize projects like the Domain, and especially Mueller, is that existing crappy strip malls actually cost us (the city) more money than they make but thanks to our suburban zoning code, they are the only thing that can be built without special subsidy or regulatory relief.

Read that again. You heard me right - Brian Rodgers' strip malls are already getting subsidized via the tax code and already get regulatory preference in the zoning code. We tax by land and improvement value rather than assessing based on the costs generated by retail - and strip retail is the worst on this scale, since, for one simple example, if you want to visit a half-dozen different stores on Anderson Lane, you may have to move the car 6 times(!). That's not good for Austin, and it shouldn't be subsidized - but if we can't change the tax/regulatory code, and the neighborhoods won't let us do that, then at least we can attempt to level the playing field by subsidizing their more sustainable competition.

I'll try to fill this argument in with some backing data when I get more time, but I thought it important to say this right after the election, since he and SDS are making noise about how close they got. The only reason it was that close is because most people have no idea how much of the status quo isn't natural or 'choice'; but actually the result of public policy that has favored suburban crap like strip malls for decades.

It makes it even harder when a project like Mueller faces so much opposition from nearby neighborhoods that affordability has to be 'bought down' rather than provided through more reasonable density entitlements (subsidizing affordable housing is less efficient than getting the ridiculously low-density zoning out of the way and letting the market provide more supply, but local neighborhoods hate that, so we had to settle for this far-inferior option). No, Virginia, Mueller isn't going to be high-density, not even close - the area around the Town Center, if it's ever built, will approach but not exceed the density of the Triangle - i.e. moderate density mid-rises.

Update: Austin Contrarian argues that retail subsidies are bad but leaves a "design subsidy" hole large enough to admit both the Domain and Mueller, arguably. I'd have no problem dressing my position up in a similar fashion except that I suspect this is too nuanced for the average "corporations bad!" voter to accept.

PS: I believe on this issue that I'm now More Contrarian Than The Austin Contrarian. Woo?

October 24, 2008

RG4TD?

I urge you to vote against Prop II for all the reasons elucidated in many other forums. But I find it interesting that some people who believed so strongly in the RG4N case have come down on (what I think is) the right side this time. Let's play a little game. See if you can identify which group is which; one being RG4N and the other being "Stop Domain Subsidies". Prize? Acclamation!

Group AGroup B
Co-opting supposed grass roots to fight against decision of city council they didn't like Co-opting supposed grass roots to fight against decision of city council they didn't like
Angry that city hired outside legal counsel to advise and defend previous city actions / ordinances Angry that city hired outside legal counsel to advise and defend previous city actions / ordinances
Defending traditional strip retail against a marginally better project Defending traditional strip retail against a marginally better project
Painting themselves as the 'citizens' in a 'citizens versus corporations' battle Painting themselves as the 'citizens' in a 'citizens versus corporations' battle
Asserting that city staff is somehow bought off or otherwise subrogated because they published professional opinion which hurt Group A's case Asserting that city staff is somehow bought off or otherwise subrogated because they published professional opinion which hurt Group B's case
Blithely asserting that the city staff and outside lawyers are wrong, while the citizen group with no actual experience in land use or law must be right Blithely asserting that the city staff and outside lawyers are wrong, while the citizen group with no actual experience in land use or law must be right
Pushing for change that, if they won, would get city sued, and beaten Pushing for change that, if they won, would get city sued, and beaten
Claiming to be progressive, yet primary obvious goal is to prevent change Claiming to be progressive, yet primary obvious goal is to prevent change

I'm sure there's more, but with this many key differences, I'm sure somebody can pick out which group is Responsible Growth for Northcross and which one is Stop Domain Subsidies. Good luck!

By the way, kudos to the Chronicle for posting their endorsement background. It's actually good stuff - I wish we had more dialogues of that quality.

September 19, 2008

TWITC: Here we go again

Thanks to the precedent set by the Shoal Creek debacle, yet another neighborhood has agitated for, and won, parking in bike lanes. From the Chronicle's piece:

The stated policy of the city's bicycle program is to implement no-parking zones for bike lanes when streets are scheduled for maintenance and restriping which is now the case between Westover and Windsor roads on Exposition. City staff's recommendation, however, includes allowing parking in bike lanes overnight beginning at 7pm on certain segments, at all times except two three-hour commuting windows on others, and on Sundays on one stretch to accommodate church parking.

At least they expressed the view of the Leage of Bicycling Voters pretty well:

On Tuesday, LOBV President Rob D'Amico said, "The idea of a bike lane is to promote safe bicycle travel at all times ... especially at night when riding is most dangerous."

That is the only sensible view, people. We don't park cars in (normal) traffic lanes (streets with on-street parking have either marked parking or unmarked lanes - the latter being the case on residential streets where most parking occurs). We shouldn't park cars in bike lanes either. And as Rob D'Amico points out, nighttime is the time you need the bike lanes the most.

Exposition isn't a residential street. It's an arterial roadway - the road all those people go to from the residential streets (and collectors). Even though it has some residences on it, "residential street" has a very distinct meaning here, and Exposition is not one but TWO classifications higher on the food chain. If visitors to these churches or to the residences on Exposition are having trouble finding enough parking, there are options available a short walk away which don't require that we risk cyclists' lives.

I don't envy city staff - who knows what the right thing is to do and yet has to defend this ridiculous policy decision anyways. Place your blame squarely at the foot of city council members who would rather pander to the selfish interests of neighborhood reactionaries than take a stand for public safety (or, even, a stand for parking - marked on-street parking spaces on Exposition without bike lanes would at least be a consistent and reasonable traffic marking).

June 10, 2008

Laura Morrison's McMansion

In the past, you've seen me point out the hypocrisy of two or three folks heavily involved in the McMansion Task Force for living in homes which violated the expressed spirit, if not technically the letter, of the ordinance. The spirit being "out-of-scale houses (McGraw) and/or homes which 'tower over the backyards of their neighbors' (Maxwell)".

Somehow, I missed this.

Laura Morrison chaired this task force - and lives in a home which, according to TravisCAD, is worth $1.4 million and has 8,537 square feet. Pretty big, but I had previously assumed it fit well within the 0.4 FAR required by McMansion. Yes, this is a big old historic house, but that's not the metric of the ordinance (it doesn't say "big houses are OK if they are stunners", after all). Also pretty expensive for somebody whose negative campaign ads try to paint Galindo as the rich candidate.

A few days ago, though, I was alerted by a reader that Morrison's lot is actually too small -- but she's not subject to the ordinance anyways, because according to said reader, her lot is zoned MF-4 (the McMansion ordinance only applies to single-family zoning). A little history here: the Old West Austin neighborhood plan (which I worked on in a transportation capacity) allowed landowners to choose to downzone their lots from multi-family (most of the area was zoned that way after WWII even though existing uses were houses) to single-family (SF-3) if the property was still being used that way. Apparently Morrison passed on this opportunity (many others took it up; I remember seeing dozens of zoning cases come up before City Council on the matter).

So let's check it out. Unfortunately, TravisCAD doesn't have the lot size, but Zillow does.

Home size: 8537 square feet
Lot size: 20,305 square feet
FAR (before loopholes): 0.42

Caveats: I do not know if Morrison is using the property in ways which would be comforming with SF-3, but I found it very interesting that her ads are attacking Galindo for building duplexes which actually comply with her ordinance yet the home she herself lives in would be non-compliant in a similar scenario, or require loopholes to comply. It's often referred to as a "converted four-plex", and the owners' address is "Apt 9", which may suggest continuing multi-family use, which would also be evidence of hypocrisy given her stand against any and all multi-family development in the area except for a few cases where that plan mentioned above quite effectively tied her hands. Either way, Morrison clearly broke the spirit of her own ordinance and her own activism against multi-family housing, and anyways when you write the ordinance, as she did, it's really easy to make sure your own property is just barely compliant. You notice that you're right over the edge; so you exempt attached carports, for instance, which, oops, you just happen to have!

Again, I can't believe I missed her the first time around - her hypocrisy on this ordinance is more odious than that of McGraw and Maxwell combined. I apologize for my lack of diligence on this matter.

(Hey, BATPAC: yes, your latest cowardly anonymous attack on me did indeed motivate me to finally take the time to write this! Good show! And I feel very confident that my readers find your accusation that I "like Republicans" to be one of the funniest things they've read in quite some time!)

June 05, 2008

Why progressives, transit-supporters, environmentalists, and urbanites need to vote for Galindo

I'm way late on this and way short of time - so this is necessarily brief.

The Austinist covered this race in more depth and asked smarter questions than did anybody else (thanks, Shilli). Here's Cid Galindo's answers. Laura Morrison gave answers to their questions which sound sustainable, too but here's why Galindo ought to be your choice if you care at all about sustainability and affordability (not to mention environmentalism and transit):

1. Laura Morrison has opposed essentially all density anywhere in the city. Cid Galindo supports urban development which is not only sustainable for its residents, but will lower tax bills for everyone else in the long-run. The few projects Morrison lists as not opposing were cases where her hands were tied by the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan (which I worked on), which called for mid-rise mixed-use development along those corridors (before the VMU ordinance existed). This plan was written before she obtained a position of power in the NA; and had been enacted by the City Council before she had a chance to do anything about it. She can't claim credit for these, because she couldn't have stopped them if she had tried. She did, however, try to stop Spring, 7Rio, and supposedly was even responsible for the suburban front design of the Whole Foods, burning all the hard-earned political capital of OWANA in the process. The City Council now, in my observation, rightly views my old neighborhood association as a no-to-everything joke that can be safely ignored.

2. Laura Morrison was the leader of the task force that developed the McMansion Ordinance. This ordinance's primary effect is to discourage secondary dwelling units like garage apartments and duplexes - the only true affordable housing left in central Austin. Although the Planning Commission acted on input from me and others to try to remedy this effect, the City Council was fooled by Morrison's group into ignoring the thoughtful Planning Commission recommendation. Galindo, according to press from the other side, voted against the McMansion Ordinance - which is absolutely the right position on this matter if you care at all about density and urbanism.

3. Laura Morrison is supported financially (maximum donations) by Jim Skaggs. Yes, that Jim Skaggs - he and his wife have donated the max to both Morrison and BATPAC (which in turn supports Morrison). Her base of support among the old ANC crowd is full of folks who claim to be pro-transit, but if you scratch them a bit, you find a lot of Skaggs poking through. People who will tell you they want improved bus service before building rail, which, of course, is the same thing as letting Skaggs take half of Capital Metro's budget for more freeways, since the buses are already being run as well as they can given current roadway design and population density. These folks don't care, of course; they don't bike or walk or use transit - they drive. Galindo's positions on transportation aren't much better defined than are Morrison's, but density supports rail in a virtuous circle, unlike the negative feedback loop the Skaggs/Morrison crowd prefers with lower density and highways.

4. Those policies will encourage more sprawl over the aquifer than the current state of affairs; while Galindo has a reasonable plan to lessen already-allowed development there (transferring development rights to new 'town centers' that can use the height and density in a sustainable fashion).

That ought to be enough - but keep in mind when you hear negatives about Galindo that many of the same things apply equally to Morrison. For instance, it's hard to think of a more traditionally Republican stance than her take on density and transportation - which is, of course, why people like Skaggs like her. And it's hard to credit attacks on Galindo for supposed family wealth when she hasn't had to hold a real job in quite some time despite living in a huge house on a big lot in Old West Austin.

Vote Galindo in the runoff. Tell your friends. It's critically important.

April 04, 2008

My bad neighborhood's sour grapes about VMU

My neighborhood's latest newsletter contains some thrilling sour grapes about VMU:

In June 2007, at the request of the City without any help the City staff, NUNA and the rest of the Neighborhood Planning area (CANPAC, the official planning team for the whole area) which includes Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest Caswell Heights, and UAP (University Area Partners) submitted the mandated application for VMU (Vertical Mixed Use). Vertical Mixed Use is applied to commercial zoning (CS) only; it must have a commercial and residential component on the ground floor and subsequent floors, respectively. Vertical MIxed Use does NOT affect height or height limits imposed on a neighborhood/area. VMU was based on the UNO overlay in the West Campus area, except it seems to be a watered down version of this overlay. In a sense, our planning area, CANPAC, was ahead of the curve here. VMU is something which not all areas of the City had, so this concept/zoning tool was intended to be applied widespread. The VMU ordinance was conceived by Council Member Brewster McCracken.


The determining factor for VMU was the location of properties primarily along major, transportation corridors. VMU is a fine concept which would help eliminate urban sprawl and make neighborhoods more user friendly with amenities such as restaurants and shops within walking distance of a neighborhood. VMU combines two uses on a property- retail or office usually on the ground floor and a residential component on the other floors. There are other benefits for VMU such as a percentage of affordable housing units, a reduction in parking requirements, setbacks, FAR and site area requirements. In NUNA, Guadalupe Street was the only major transportation corridor (determined by bus routes).


The NUNA Planning Team, which is separate from the officially recognized planning team for our area, CANPAC, carefully reviewed the maps and properties foisted on us by the City for VMU consideration. Then, the CANPAC Planning Team held many subcommittee meetings and submitted a completed application for the whole planning area to the City by the mandatory, designated deadline in June 2007.


Fortunately, NUNA has an NCCD (Neighborhood Conservation Combining District) which is a zoning ordinance that has more flexible tools for redevelopment and is more compatible to this older (unofficially historic) area of town. The other benefit of the NCCD, in the particular case concerning VMU, is that the zoning tools in an NCCD (which are more detailed than an regular neighborhood plan) trump any VMU. NUNAs NCCD will protect the careful planning we did during the neighborhood planning process in 2004. Nonetheless, we were required by the City to submit a VMU application.


The question arose within our planning area (CANPAC) and also with Hyde Park, our adjoining neighbor, which also has an NCCD, how does one determine fairly what might constitute VMU? The NUNA Planning Team along with the Heritage Neighborhood, our neighbor across Guadalupe, figured out that no property which abuts a residential use (single family or multifamily) would be considered from VMU. Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU. We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning teams shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application.


NUNA already had on the ground ( already built) some VMU projects. For example, the controversial Villas of Guadalupe have a commercial component- Blockbuster Video on the ground floor, and then have a residential component on the other floors. The Venue at 2815 Guadalupe has a similar makeup with commercial uses on the bottom floor and residential suites/condos above. The best part about the Venue is the underground parking arrangement which includes a parking spot per bed- more parking than the City requirement!


NUNA was requested by the City to file an application to opt in or out properties primarily along Guadalupe Street for VMU status which could also grant additional dimensional standards, reduction in parking requirements, and additional ground floor uses in office districts. NUNA opted in properties from 27th to the north side of 30th Street along the east side of Guadalupe since these properties for the most part were built as VMU - a commercial use on the ground floor and a residential component on the upper floors, but we did not opt for the additional bonuses such as reduction in parking requirements, etc. for any properties. Our application will be considered in a public hearing in front of the Planning Commission February 12 along with the other neighborhoods in CANPAC (Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest, Caswell Heights, and UAP-University Area Partners). There will be no staff recommendation for this application.


In accordance with Hyde Park, another NCCD, we decided that we would prefer to consider individual, commercial project proposals on a case by case basis. In short, NUNA has given nothing away to the City in our application for VMU; we would like first to evaluate each project to see if it is compliant and compatible with our NCCD regulations.

Here's the response I sent to the neighborhood list; which is currently stuck in moderation:

I see in the most recent newsletter a fair amount of sour grapes about VMU which may lead people to become misinformed. For instance:

"Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU."

The entire point of VMU is to put density where the highest frequency transit service already exists, so that it might attract residents without cars; households with fewer cars than typical; shoppers who take the bus; etc.

"We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning teams shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application."

The purpose of "opt-out" and "opt-in" is being misrepresented here as well. The operating assumption was that because you folks got McMansion, which will result in less density on the interior (fewer housing units, since it so severely penalizes duplexes and garage apartments), that you would support more density on the transit corridors. This wasn't you being FORCED to accept this density - it was part of the bargain you accepted in return for lowering density on the interior, and now you (and Hyde Park) are trying to back out of your end of the deal.

There is no transit corridor in the city more heavily used than Guadalupe on the edge of our neighborhood. There is no place in the city better suited for VMU than this one. It's irresponsible to continue to pretend that the city's asking for something unreasonable here, since you got what you wanted on McMansion.

And, by the way, there was a guy here on this list telling you that the VMU application you were submitting was a big mistake quite some time ago. Ahem.

- MD

And my follow-up:

Argh. As is often the case, I see when reading my own post that I left out something important; I said that the point of opt-in and opt-out was either missed or misrepresented, but I never said what the point was supposed to be.

Opt-out was supposed to be for extraordinary circumstances that the neighborhood was aware of that the city might not be - not generalized "opt out everywhere because we think we've already done enough". For one instance, a difficult alley access (like behind Chango's) might be something that would justify an opt-out.

If you opt out more than a few properties, you're doing it wrong.

Opt-in was supposed to be for additional properties outside the main corridor - NOT for "here's the only places we'll let you do VMU". IE, my old neighborhood of OWANA might decide to opt-in for VMU on West Lynn at 12th, even though it's not a major transit corridor (the bus only runs once an hour there).

If you think "opt-in" is for the few places you pick to allow VMU on the major transit corridor, you're doing it wrong.

Regards,
MD

March 12, 2008

City wastes millions of dollars...

on TOD planning. I was reminded about this by the Chronicle article, but meant to write this post this morning after watching the Planning Commission cover the TOD station plans for the MLK and Saltillo stations.

Here's how TOD (transit-oriented development) works in the real world:

You start with a rail line that goes to places a lot of people work (drops them off within walking distance of their office). You notice that the rail line is doing pretty well, but could do even better if more people lived right next to the stations instead of having to be driven to stations or transfer from buses. You loosen zoning restrictions around those stations allowing for high-density development (and maybe lease some land owned by the transit agency to developers too).

Here's how it's working in Austin:

The city is spending millions of dollars on consultants (and in-house employee time) on plans to avoid stepping on any neighborhood toes to allow for marginal increases in density around train stations for a commuter rail line which is only going to run twice an hour during rush hour, once in the middle of the day, and not at all at night. If you're dumb enough to move into one of these apartments expecting to take the train to work and the low frequency doesn't bother you, you face a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle bus ride twice a day from the train station at the Convention Center or on far east MLK to your office.

Will it 'work'? Sure... but only because current zoning is far too low-density in these areas. You could change the zoning without the train station and see exactly the same development occur - because this train service is so awful it's not going to result in any more than a trivial few taking transit instead of driving or taking existing buses to their jobs.

If only there were some other alternative. Something that has worked in cities like Dallas, Houston, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, etc. Something, I dunno, lighter, that could actually, you know, go where lots of people actually need to go.

So what could work with this awful crappy commuter rail line we're stuck with now, you ask? Precious little. If we could somehow convince a mega-employer like IBM to totally redesign their suburban-style office campus around the train station (which is going to be a long walk from their closest building as it stands today), and replicate that on each of the suburban stops, and add a bunch of offices at places like Crestview and the TODs being studied here, then maybe. But that'd be 180 degrees opposite from what the city is futilely trying to do today - in other words, the problem isn't that people don't live close enough to train stations, although they don't; the worse problem is that nobody WORKS near a train station. Because the thing about people with real jobs is: if they're not willing to take a one-leg bus trip straight to their office today, there's no way in hell you're going to get them to take a shuttle-bus trip from the train station to their office.

I need to get that last sentence made into a big rubber stamp. Or tattoo it on the inside of some peoples' eyelids.

February 24, 2008

Link of the day

"The Next Slum?" if anything underestimates how bad things are going to get for the suburbs. There's not much more ability at the margins for people to absorb higher fuel costs, and yet fuel costs in the long-term are going nowhere but up. In the meantime, as the article notes, modern exurbs cannot be reconfigured into anything useful - but even more important, it's impossible to serve them with reasonably priced mass transit due to their broken roadway design.

In the meantime, though, we still subsidize this unsustainable pattern (and every time you get suckered by Sal Costello into fighting toll roads, you persist in this unhealthy subsidy), and we still have, even in central Austin, zoning codes which outlaw the historical development patterns that generated Hyde Park and Clarksville. Even the new Mueller development is laughably suburban. At some point, somebody has to stand up to the ANC and say "enough is enough; we're going to densify with or without you". I think we're almost there.

January 30, 2008

VMU: Hyde Park goes reactionary

This is a letter I just sent to most of the City Council. I'll try to link a few things from here, but no extra analysis - I'm really too busy at the office to be spending time on this, even.

Councilmember McCracken and others,

I wanted to register my opposition to the ludicrous and irresponsible plans submitted by these two neighborhood associations in my area to completely opt out of the VMU ordinance on highly questionable grounds (claiming to have already implemented zoning accomplishing some of the same things while rejecting the rest based on parking and other typical excuses). There is no more critical corridor in our city for VMU than this part of Guadalupe.

My family and I walked up to the Triangle for a restaurant opening a week or two ago, and the streetscape along Guadalupe is just awful. This is the kind of thing that Karen McGraw's reactionaries are trying to preserve - oil change lots, gas stations, and barely used falling down storefronts which can't be made economical when they are forced to adhere to suburban parking requirements. (The only healthy business along this strip was Vino Vino, which as you may recall, she tried to force to build a bunch more parking too).

The claim that this represents the will of the neighborhoods is questionable. If you read the backup material, you'll see the same exact people who spent months and months building the McMansion Ordinance were the 'voters' on this plan - this isn't the kind of issue you're going to be able to get the rank and file of the neighborhood interested in, as you might have already figured. (But in the case of Vino Vino, you can argue that the true silent majority in Hyde Park made their feelings well known - the population in general is clearly not as reactionary about density as is their leadership).

You already gave these people way too much with McMansion - and the understood quid pro quo was that they'd have to accept additional housing units along transit corridors - and there's no better transit corridor in central Austin than this one. Parking is thus no excuse. If you don't force VMU here, you might as well throw in the towel everywhere.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

January 12, 2008

Chronicle comment of the month

From "Dataholic" on this story. I still owe you guys at least one more installment of "What RG4N cost the city" which will be focused on lost opportunities to do the site better, but in the meantime, please read this:

Two judges have ruled that the City followed its own laws when it came to approving the Lincoln site plan. When there are laws, all sides have to abide by them, including Lincoln, including the City, including the neighborhoods. If the City capitulated to RG4N's demands, it would be breaking its own laws, thus opening itself to being sued by Lincoln (and losing since the laws were followed --per 2 judges). This would be even costlier for the City (all of us), and would achieve nothing (in terms of getting rid of Wal-Mart). Even RG4N founders stated, very early on, that no public process was required to build a supercenter on that site.

Regardless of what you think of Wal-Mart, regardless of how much more preferable a different (or no) development might be, Lincoln owns the property and Lincoln followed the law.

If the laws need changing, then change them -- but RG4N demanding the City break its own laws is divisive, expensive, and only a ploy to further the political careers of its leaders at the expense of the neighborhoods.

I couldn't put that any better myself. And, no, I don't post under anybody other than "m1ek". RG4N needs to man up and admit they lost this, big-time, and the Chronicle needs to stop carrying their water just because they happen to be highly connected. Enough is enough. You're making a mockery of yourselves and you're hurting the city.

December 31, 2007

Keep Domain Subsidies

Whenever I hear this guy talk about how bad the Domain is, I wonder which ones of the strip centers filled with locally-owned businesses he owns. Because I haven't seen one strip mall with local businesses in it that isn't a pedestrian-hostile disaster.

Sign me up for MORE DOMAIN SUBSIDIES if it means that we encourage pedestrian use, even if it's only inside the project. Too many of these awful strip malls inhabited by the local businesses who are fighting this fight are like the ones on Anderson Lane where even a confirmed car-hater like me is tempted to start the car and move it farther down the road rather than walk a quarter-mile. It's just that awful.

When locally owned businesses do things that hurt us, they don't deserve a pass. When Terra Toys reacts to higher rent by leaving a good urban environment and moving somewhere where nobody will walk to, and very few will walk around in, why on earth am I supposed to support them against Wal-Mart or the Domain, when those guys are at least trying to make things a little better?

Also, for extra credit, remember City Comforts' primary rule of urbanism: it starts with the location of the parking lot.

versus

Any questions?

December 24, 2007

What RG4N cost us: part two

Another casualty of Responsible Growth For Northcross' year-long tantrum has been the truth. Yes, you heard me. People all over the city now believe varying combinations of the following absolutely incorrect, but truthy, narratives.

  1. "Anderson Lane is some kind of pedestrian utopia which Wal-Mart will make worse". This just came up yesterday, which is why it's at the top of my list. BAD FORM, TERRA TOYS. You know damn well that your location on South Congress was ped-friendly, but your strip mall on Anderson Lane? Even a standard-model suburban Wal-Mart would be no worse for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users than the awful strip malls lining both sides of Burnet Road and Anderson Lane.
  2. "Northcross Mall is in the middle of a neighborhood!" - talk about defining down to irrelevance. Notice from the map at the link that neighborhoods are actually buffered from Northcross by those aforementioned awful strip malls in most directions. The Wal-Mart in my hometown (Boca Raton, FL) directly abuts single-family homes, for comparison's sake. Which leads us into:
  3. "Big boxes belong on frontage roads!" This one had some legs - even our city council fell for it. Sadly, xenophobia in Texas prevents people from seeing how ridiculous this is - in other states, frontage roads don't exist, but it's also not true to then fall back to "well, they must be right next to the highway exits, then". I spent an hour of my life I'll never get back proving otherwise to some willfully deluded souls in Allandale, but again, refer to the two Wal-Marts closest to Boca Raton - neither one of which is remotely near a highway off-ramp (Delray Beach example); and the one in State College, PA; on a road very very similar to Burnet Road (four lane with center-turn lane; quite far from off-ramp of the real highway). And they SHOULDN'T be on frontage roads, either - you're dooming their workers and customers to perpetual car-dependence if you put them out there where they don't belong.
  4. "All we were doing was trying to get a public process, man!" (read with Tommy Chong voice for extra effect). The whole point of the zoning code is to establish a set of permissible actions which don't have to go through the public process - and don't forget the cry of this same bunch whenever a developer requests upzoning or a variance: "you knew what the zoning was when you bought the property". Well, Lincoln knew what the zoning was when they bought the property, and it unquestionably allowed for exactly this kind of development. Nobody in these neighborhoods cared to do anything about it for years and years when Wal-Mart wasn't the prospective tenant, of course. Which leads us to:
  5. "We just wanted urban VMU development!" - if you bought this, you're dumber than a bag full of hammers. The motivating force behind RG4N was primarily the anti-density brigade - the people who opposed VMU everywhere else in Allandale when asked nicely; the people who fought apartments for years and years and years; the people who pushed McMansion so hard. So now we're to believe that, just coincidentally, they changed their stripes and are now urbanists precisely at the time Wal-Mart came knocking? If so, they'd know that new urbanists would welcome big boxes - as long as they're built pedestrian-friendly - no matter HOW big. Like Harrod's in London or Macy's in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Granted, Wal-Mart doesn't have their cachet, but neither does Allandale.
  6. The city council wanted Wal-Mart all along. Uh, NO. City council members were trying desperately to find an angle to give you (RG4N) what you wanted - and ran straight into the brick wall of fact: the development had to be allowed, period.

That's an incomplete list. Suggestions welcome, and I'll update in later postings.

Your pal,
M1EK

December 22, 2007

What RG4N cost us: part one

Now that RG4N has struck out, it's time to assess the damage. RG4N is interpreting the judge's decision not to comment on three of their four complaints as evidence that they were valid which is spectacularly delusional. Good show, folks. Thanks to the Chronicle for, even now, supporting RG4N's desperate attempt to spin this as something other than a complete truth-slap. Hint: it's not "curious" she didn't address the "other claims"; it was predicted by a real lawyer quite some time ago.

I'm going to cover this in two or more parts; today's is just a conservative estimate of the direct and immediate costs and what we might have otherwise done with that time and money.

The city's legal costs are oft-quoted at $424,000. This is at least the contract with Casey Dobson. I'm going to be extremely conservative and round up the city's direct costs to $600,000, including other legal costs, the time and money spent responding repeatedly to RG4N's complaints (and to city council members who were desperately trying to find an angle to work).

Other direct and short-term costs I could have considered, but didn't:

Lost sales taxes: I'll be completely conservative and assume that every single dollar of sales tax we don't get from six months or so of delayed opening would have just been shifted from other Wal-Marts or other stores in the city. I don't believe this to be the case; if it were that simple, Wal-Mart wouldn't be so eager to build the store. More likely would be a shifting of the natural coverage area of each store - with stores on the edge of Austin becoming less crowded and hence more attractive to shoppers further out, but this is hypothetical and impossible to measure. Easier to believe but still harder to measure would be the lost tax revenue from other businesses in the center which don't have easily subsitutable competition - for instance, a delay in the move of the ice rink.

Lost property taxes - despite what you hear from RG4N trolls on the Chronicle's blog, there is a property tax impact to this development - the land value may increase, or it may not, but I guarantee the structure value will increase dramatically - and the city gets to tax that building value (as does the school district, county, etc.). Impossible to estimate now precisely what that will be, but common sense would tell you that it will be substantial enough to consider as a major benefit of the redevelopment given that the structure value of the existing ghost-mall is measured at just south of 16 million.

Lost bus fares: I'm 1000% positive that the opening of this store will result in a major bump in ridership to and through the Northcross transfer center, which gives Capital Metro more fare revenue with zero extra cost (since they probably wouldn't increase service until the buses were overflowing, given their past history). But again, hypothetical and impossible to estimate.

So let's leave the direct and short-term cost at a mere $600,000 (the cost to the taxpayers; RG4N and the careening-towards-bankruptcy Allandale Neighborhood Association have their own set of costs, of course).

What could we have done with that money? Well, me, I'm a transportation guy. So I'll give you two simple transportation options, and another one dear to my heart. Y'all are welcome to chime in as well.

12,000 linear feet of sidewalk at $50/linear foot. (Estimate obtained from a wide range of sources on the web; corrections welcome). That's two and a quarter miles of sidewalk, folks, enough to cover a big chunk of the sidewalk gap in the densest parts of Central Austin (where the pedestrians actually are).

Restriping Shoal Creek Boulevard into the safe, sane design that every other city would have done - and in fact, recommended to us. Just read those archives. And the same people who cost us the $600K this time are the ones who cost us the million on SCB in the first place, don't forget. Parking on both sides instead of just one was just that much more important than cyclist safety.

Operate a branch library for a year. Every time we go through a hiccup in the budget, we have to close libraries or delay their opening. I can't get a breakdown precisely from the city budget after ten minutes of scrutiny, but I'm betting one of the branches could run for a year on that much money (operating expenses).

So there's three. Anybody else have any suggestions? Of course, none of these were as important as catering to the tantrum of a bunch of people who just really really really REALLY don't like Wal-Mart, and want us to engage the Care Bear Stare against the legal system.

Next up: the indirect and long-term costs (such as foregone opportunities to improve the site plan with the supercenter intact).

December 12, 2007

Big boxes and the ITE

One of the many pieces of excrement flung against the wall by RG4N in the desperate hope something would stick was an ITE Journal article in which the author asserted a disproportionate (to square footage) traffic impact for "free-standing discount superstores" over 200,000 square feet. The conclusion, in other words, was that 199,999 square feet stores should have a trip generation figure of X per square foot; while 200,000 square foot stores should have a trip generation figure of Y, where Y is much larger than X.

This is counter-intuitive to say the least. One could argue that the increased size results in more trips overall - which would be the result of continuing to apply X trips per square feet (X times 200,000 is obviously more than X times 100,000). One could even argue that the increased size results in fewer trips than the same number of square feet in _two_ stores ("one-stop shopping"). But the theory that a bigger store results in, and I emphasize units here, more trips per square foot has always seemed ludicrous to me.

Anyways, as it turns out, Wal-Mart went with a slightly smaller store - which the army of anonymous RG4N trolls have used for quite a while as conspiracy fodder - claiming that they snuck it in under the threshold to avoid these supposedly more valid rules (which, again, as far as I can tell, the ITE still hasn't seriously considered adopting).

As it turns out, I wasn't alone in my skepticism. In addition to several disagreements about methodology, the respondent (another traffic engineer) points out that the study was too small to be statistically rigorous; the stores were too different to draw any firm conclusions; and that the author's supposed intuitive conclusion isn't. Some excerpts follow, since I'm not sure how long this article stays up for free. I'll leave out the most esoteric stuff.

DEAR EDITOR:

As a transportation consultant who is involved in both the performance and the review of traffic studies, my colleagues and I at McMahon Associates, Inc. are extremely concerned that the August 2006ITE Journal article entitled "Trip Generation Characteristics of FreeStanding Discount Superstores" lacks the rigorous scientific analysis and thoroughness that we have come to expect in ITE Journal articles.

As such, although ITE Journal states: "Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect official ITE or magazine policy unless so stated," the article may be utilized by transportation professionals and others as "gospel" even though its analysis is flawed, in our opinion, in many respects.

...

2. Additionally, the square footage of a gas station is not a good choice for independent variable, as compared to the number of fueling positions, when determining its estimated trip generation; i.e., a 225-square-foot building could serve four fueling positions or 14 fueling positions.

...

5. We also question whether the author confirmed, in her comparison to the ITE Land Use Code 813 rates, that the latter (ITE) square footage baselines are the same as she assumed, especially with regard to the garden center, which typically has significant (15,000 to 20,000 square feet) square footage. While we agree that the rates should be applied to "total" square footage, inclusive of a garden center, it is our understanding that the ITE samples were largely (or totally) based on building foundation square footage, not inclusive of outside garden centers. Our observations about baselines and "with and without gas pumps" are intended to reinforce our opinion that the author's analysis appears to be an "apples to oranges" comparison rather than "apples to apples."

...

7. There is also a fairly large discrepancy between the number of vehicle trips collected between different days at some of the supercenter locations. Site 3 shows an increase of almost 17 percent in site traffic between the day 1 and day 2 counts. The increases in site traffic between the day 1 and day 2 counts at site 1 and site 5 are both about 10 percent. The fluctuation in these counts suggests that there could be flaws in the data or that other factors may have been involved in the traffic generation of the site on one or both days of the counts. These discrepancies may reflect seasonal variations, as the article indicates that the first weekday count was taken in July while the second count was taken in October.

...

and here's the one that I think is the most important to laypeople:

9. We also take issue with the author's statement that "free-standing discount superstores intuitively should have a higher trip generation rate than free-standing discount stores, which by definition do not contain a full-service grocery store but have most of the other amenities of the superstore." Are not shopping centers evidence that larger stores, with presumably more services or products in one location, result in documented lower trip rates, because customers shop longer and their shopping needs can be accommodated in fewer trips due to greater availability of goods and services? In fact, the author's argument is shown not to be the case in Table 1 of the article, where the author's own comparisons show that, as retail store sizes become larger and more services/products are offered, trip generation rates decrease. We also note that the number of samples for ITE free-standing discount store (47) and ITE shopping center (407) is large enough so as to make these land uses' rates statistically more reliable than ITE's rates for free-standing discount superstore (10 samples) or the author's study (five samples).
...
In conclusion, while the author's study and article adds to the body of knowledge on trip generation characteristics of superstores in excess of 200,000 square feet, its data and analysis of that data, we submit, are not rigorous or conclusive enough to support the article's recommendation that the rates derived from the author's analysis should be used as the future norm for 200,000 square-feet-plus superstores. Until such time that more samples are collected (we would recommend at least 20); preferably from various locations in the country, as she also recommends, to test geographic differences, if any; and are computed on common baselines first (separately, without, or with gas pumps) before combined (i.e., if not statistically different), we suggest that the jury is still out on the validity of this article's rates, conclusions and future use.

November 23, 2007

The legal system should not be subject to the Care Bear Stare

As DSK notes, this isn't incredibly clear on first reading, so here's a new lead-in:

I forgot to crackplog about this when it happened: a "remodel" of a property with a duplex on it on 34th was the subject of a lawsuit filed by some of the leadership of my neighborhood association which went down in flames, since the property owner clearly satisfied the legal requirements in the zoning code (although those requirements were indeed very vague and very generous). News 8 has given the complaining neighbor some pity press (was in first link but not obvious), and I was reminded to talk about it. Here we go!

This new kind of awful seems to be cropping up a lot lately - the tendency for people who ought to know better to insist that the legal system is broken if it doesn't give them outcomes they like - in other words, since we care enough to shine our rainbows on the problem (Julian Sanchez), that ought to be enough to solve it. But the legal system doesn't operate in the world of democracy; it operates in the world where the law means something, and in this case, my idiot neighbors wasted a bunch of money on a lawsuit that was clearly doomed to failure.

In other words, even though I, personally, think that these new duplexes are actually a lot nicer for the neighborhood than the old ones (described by a more moderate person than I as "red shacks from Somalia"), and that my neighbors are just plain bad people for wanting to keep out slightly-more-affordable housing than the single-family-classic-mansions that infest that side of Speedway (34th being the dividing line on that side between historically rich mansion stuff and more modest development), it's irrelevant: in this case, the law is clear, and what's more, was clear before they bothered to file the suit. If some neighbor was building a garage apartment on a 6000 square foot lot, an action which is consistent with my preferences but against the city code since our neighborhood plan prohibits it, I'd likewise think anybody who filed a suit to do it was stupid. Still left undetermined is how much of this frivolous lawsuit's cost my neighborhood association will ultimately bear - since the leadership is overwhelmingly from that side of Speedway and on the wrong side of so many other development issues, I expect them to eventually donate some funds. Ha ha, DSK, I never joined, so it won't be my money, at least!

Are you listening, Chronicle?

November 15, 2007

TWITC: RG4N are our heroes!

Michael King writes that we should support RG4N even though their case is utterly without merit as even their news staff is beginning to discover, months too late. Here's a comment I just placed there:

Michael, this is ridiculous. Zoning means something - in this case, it means that Lincoln bought the property knowing what they should be allowed to develop (and what they should not be allowed to develop). If they were up there asking for variances or even a change in zoning, RG4N and the rest of you guys would have a point, but they're not, and you don't.

When it comes to cases where developers seek upzoning, many of these same people are very quick to tell you that the prospective developer should have known what they were getting when they bought the tract. Interesting how this doesn't apply here. Also interesting how none of the RG4N homeowners are volunteering to let Lincoln have veto power over their own development projects within current zoning. Democracy for me, not thee.

As for the comparison to the Triangle - the bulk of RG4N's supporters are using the group as 'useful idiots' here - they have shown through their actions on other projects (including very recently) that they have no interest at all in dense urban development - they want to preserve low-density stuff they already have.

A critical eye once in a while, even at your fellow travellers, would seem to me to be a basic responsibility for a journalist.

One point I should have added but forgot: this lawsuit, in which the city has to defend its legal responsibility to approve site plans that comply with city code, is costing Austin taxpayers a half-million or so at last count. Still think RG4N is so noble?

A second point I just remembered: the Triangle development was such a big fight because the state (leasing the land to the developer) is exempt from Austin zoning codes.

November 14, 2007

RG4N drainage argument: ridiculous

As reported at the Chronicle's blog:

The argument made by Responsible Growth For Northcross (RG4N) this morning is that the city's approval of Lincoln Property's site plan violated the note, which mandates that "Rainfall runoff shall be held to the amount existing at undeveloped status by use of ponding or other approved methods." The city with testimony from city engineers Benny Ho and Jose Guerrero countered that "undeveloped status" means status at the time the application is filed, not a reversion to the status of when the property was a green pasture. Attorney Casey Dobson, representing the city, said "To use a legal term, that [would be] silly." Guerrero further testified that the law only requires that a project not make flooding worse, and that Lincoln's site plan will actually reduce impervious cover and presumable send less floodwater off-site.

In other words, the Wal-Mart plan is demonstrably better for drainage than current conditions but RG4N claims code should be interpreted as if a project must (not just can, but MUST) be rejected by city staff if it adds more runoff than the completely undeveloped state would have. Also keep in mind that the RG4N 'vision' would also be an improvement over current conditions, but most definitely not over the undeveloped prairie that was there seventy years ago.

If you ever needed proof that RG4N's legal strategy was the old "throw excrement on the wall and see what sticks" method, here it is. And if there were any justice in the world, the judge would call RG4N forward and issue this speech.

As my cow orker DSK pointed out a moment ago, though, it would almost be worth yielding on this point if the judge put similar conditions on the homeowners of Allandale and Crestview.

November 12, 2007

Council announcements

Not sure if it's a typo, but Robin Cravey, who I could support with reservations (given Zilker activities), and Laura Morrison, who I absolutely could not, given her destruction of the political capital of OWANA that the previous leadership worked so hard to build, and of course, years of ANC shenanigans culminating in the McMansion and VMU opt-out spasm, have apparently both just announced for Place 4, and are both using Threadgills for their petition kickoffs, albeit on adjoining days.

Please, every reader of this blog, if it turns out they're running against each other, remember: we can't afford to have a neighborhood-pandering obstructionist sitting at the Council.

I don't have a site for Morrison's campaign (email didn't have a link), but oddly enough, the current ANC president (Danette Chimenti, who like Morrison is a McMansion activist with a big honkin' expensive house) used these words to endorse her:

Laura did so much for ANC in her two years as President; by reaching out to neighborhoods and leaders all over Austin, and providing unifying, informed leadership she is responsible for ANC achieving the high level of respectability and credibility it has today.

which is amazing, given the ANC's recent record of striking out on essentially everything except McMansion and CWS. The current city council, at least, clearly has far less respect for the ANC than they did even a couple of years ago. I don't know if Chimenti actually expects us to believe this, but it's laughable.

October 11, 2007

TWITC: Save Town Lake Kills Town Lake Trail

Of course, the Chronicle plays this up as a win for the lake:

This would have allowed them to move their secondary setback line from the river forward 50 ft, and 130ft on East Bouldin Creek, pushing their proposed developments at 222 and 300 East Riverside much closer to the waterfront.

Once again, we see the writers at the Chronicle pretty much taking the ANC line hook, line, and sinker - without any qualification whatsoever. And:

it seems likely that CWS will withdraw to lick their wounds and come up with another plan.

but here's the money quotes, courtesy of the ABJ:

If the variance request remains denied, CWS plans to build two highrises -- one 200 feet, the other 120 feet -- and redevelop dozens of apartments that sit as close as 20 feet from the lake shore to sell them as townhomes. Those apartments pre-date the 200-foot rule.

So, who are you going to trust? The developer? The ANC? Well, I'd say at a bare minimum, a journalist ought to at least report what the developer says they're going to do. The ABJ did, but not the Chronicle.

My prediction: While there's a distant possibility CWS would re-re-negotiate, the most likely scenario now is that there's two rather than three towers on the site, and that the existing buildings right next to the water get rebuilt and sold as townhomes/condos. Remember - after the sales happen, any donation of parkland (even a foot next to the water) would require a vote of that condo association. Key here: there's nothing non-trivial left to negotiate. CWS was denied just about the smallest variance that was worth anything; there's nowhere to retreat to from here. And the rich folks in Travis Heights (using the rest of you as dupes) won the battle they really cared about: keeping their property values high and their views unobstructed.

Anyways, this is what you get by standing up behind the ANC and Laura Morrison, folks. Hope you enjoy jogging on the Riverside sidewalk.

Several commissioners referred to the vote as a lose-lose situation because CWS will still rebuild close to the lakeshore and the public will lose an extension of the hike-and-bike trail.

And, Planning Commission, shame on you. Going on the record as saying this is a lose-lose situation but then voting unanimously for the ANC position? WTF?

Additional coverage:

From that Austinist piece, in comments, "Scooby" says:

I see that the Austin Chronicle is a "Waterfall Sponsor" ($2,500 donated). I wonder if that includes the in-kind donation of slanted "news" coverage?

October 02, 2007

More North Loop shenanigans

Last night's vote went 79-78 against the variance request. Now, Clay at ILoveNorthLoop has gone off the deep end. Others have noticed his deleting of most pro-variance comments which he still claims were all from non-residents of the area. Here's one of those supposed out-of-state or bicycle-activist "non-resident" comments which he deleted (which I saved yesterday when I saw it):

I dont understand how you could possibly consider this a success. I attended last night planning to oppose based upon this website and the rumors. After listening last night, it was clear that very little of this website is accurate. You have managed to damage the Parkers & Howards. You have chased off a fine developer with a plan that was consistent with our Neighborhood Plan. You have fractured the neighborhood by distorting the facts. Do you really think we can now somehow control what happens on this or any other site with CS-MU zoning in our hood? We have just sent the strongest possible signal to the development community, which is dont bother talking to us. Trust me, they no longer will. Shame on you.

Sure sounds like an out-of-state bicycle activist rant to me. What, with the having gone to the meeting and casting of the vote. Amazing they were able to do that despite not being a resident, huh?

And in the meantime, he's gone exactly where you would expect; telling me to "Have fun pimping for Endeavor". Yeah, right after I get done pimping for Wal-Mart. And Lincoln Properties. And don't forget CWS. And, of course, CJB Partners. And don't forget all that pimpin' I do for the toll roads. Let me tell you, pimpin' ain't easy. What is it about these Neanderthals anyways that makes them think that any time anybody ever supports any change of any kind, they must be paid off? I certainly don't think everybody in RG4N is taking money from Target, for instance.

If, as it seems likely, the Northfield Neighborhood Association would not be happy with the implicit endorsement of this site's one-sided position despite the 79-78 vote, they should probably say so at this point, since Clay's got the public spotlight and is making it look like the neighborhood was strongly against the variance, thanks to deleting comments he just doesn't feel like posting. Just a little friendly advice.

October 01, 2007

Shenanigans in North Loop

(Background: Endeavor is proposing a vertical mixed-use project on the old Howard Nursery tract, frontage on Koenig Lane - i.e. FM2222, a major arterial roadway. Current zoning would allow strip retail with nothing more than administrative approval. Endeavor's proposal appears quite nice and is even supported by some folks in this neighborhood, but a group of single-family-uber-alles reactionaries has popped up and is trying to stir up opposition to the project).

The author of ILoveNorthLoop has characterized the comments below as "rants" in supporting his decision not to accept comments. (He previously was a bit more civil in email - claiming that he only wanted comments from 'stakeholders' -- although that requirement is listed nowhere on the site nor anywhere the site has been publicized). Anyways, you make the call. Follow the links to get to the articles; my comments in blockquote:

In reference to this post about a 'better location' for this type of project a bit further down the street:

The problem with this retort is that it pretends that we have the authority to take that better-suited parcel from its current owners and somehow deliver it to Endeavor for development. We dont; we have to live in a world where the best choice if we were playing SimCity isnt always available.

And in reference to this one called "Tell Us What You Think":

Anything that increases housing supply in an area well-served by bicycle routes and bus routes is a positive thing for our city. The fact that Endeavor also wants to make this VMU makes it even more of a win, because it potentially provides services which might induce more of you in the single-family homes to walk to shop/eat/whatever.

The idea that without Endeavor, youre somehow going to end up with a paradise of small local shops with no homes there is just ludicrous. The next best use of the property would be as strip retail - which generates more, and more annoying, traffic than an apartment-plus-retail development would, without providing the pedestrian amenities.

Luckily, I now see that some people in the neighborhood have commented in a similar vein - so my earlier fear that this would be RG4N part deux, as austinpoliticalreport hoped appears to be overblown. As my former colleague Patrick Goetz tried to tell me, there are some responsible folks up there after all. Those responsible folks had better keep cracking, though, since the Chronicle will probably be jumping all over this in minutes to tell us how noble these neighbors are being in keeping that tract safe for future strip-mall development (one-story retail/fast food outlets surrounded by acres of parking lot).

Update:

The vote was 79-78 to oppose the variance. Note the following comment on ILoveNorthLoop from the celebratory post:

I dont understand how you could possibly consider this a success. I attended last night planning to oppose based upon this website and the rumors. After listening last night, it was clear that very little of this website is accurate. You have managed to damage the Parkers & Howards. You have chased off a fine developer with a plan that was consistent with our Neighborhood Plan. You have fractured the neighborhood by distorting the facts. Do you really think we can now somehow control what happens on this or any other site with CS-MU zoning in our hood? We have just sent the strongest possible signal to the development community, which is dont bother talking to us. Trust me, they no longer will. Shame on you.

The NA president himself indicated that some people want Endeavor to come back and talk some more, but I doubt very much whether anything good will result - since this promise they supposedly made to not pursue the project if the NA opposed the variance would likely come into play. Keep your eyes open.

Updated update: As DSK points out in comments, the comment quoted above has now been removed by the ILoveNorthLoop guy, despite his claim to only be removing comments from non-'stakeholders' (the comment is clearly from somebody in the neighborhood). One wonders why he just didn't make the site subject to manual moderation if he only wanted positive comments to stay.

August 02, 2007

Letter of the Year

From the online Chronicle letters; don't know if they'll have the guts to publish it given their overwhelming tilt towards Karen McGraw's ANC "granola mafia":

Just caught your piece [Naked City, News] in the July 27 issue about our [Vino Vino] off-site parking hearing before the Planning Commission on Tuesday, July 24, and the opposition to our proposal by Karen McGraw. It's good to see the Chronicle taking a peek, if even an ever-so-lightly colored one, at this little turf war going on right here in bucolic Hyde Park (you could have given us a ring, you know). As you correctly point out, parking in Hyde Park and along the run of Guadalupe in question (from 40th to 43rd) is extremely tight. That's why we, along with our landlord, Thad Avery, have looked into every possibility to lighten our parking load along this slowly revitalizing stretch of Guadalupe. Ms. McGraw has led a "spirited" opposition to our attempts to find a solution. In spite of overwhelming approval by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association back in February and last Tuesday's unanimous approval by the Planning Commission, we still await the green light to do our thing. We've been at this process, grinding it out, for two years now, and this is a wee bit frustrating. As to the concern Ms. McGraw expressed for her parking lot, we have no intention of letting any of our customers use her lot. Ain't gonna happen. No matter what she may say. About half of our customers are Hyde Park residents who have walked from their nearby homes, and this is part of the charm of being here in the first place. However, we are happy that some of the lunch customers of the deli located in Ms. McGraw's building use our lot to park their cars.

But that's a whole other story. In fact, there is so much more to the story. Anyway, thanks for all the coverage of all things Austin.

Sincerely,

Jerry Reid

Manager, etc.

Vino Vino

p.s. As for the mass-demolishing-of-homes-on-Avenue A-scenario Ms. McGraw fears, got a clue as to how much those houses go for these days? That would be one friggin' expensive parking lot! Oh, and the bus? Yep, we rented a bus for our supporters. With more than 30 folks turning up to show their support, it was the least we could do. We had room for Ms. McGraw and her two supporters. They should have come along.

Update: Here's the link to the letter in case anybody wants to comment. I highly encourage it.

July 13, 2007

Panderama: Jennifer Kim

While I was up in Newark at a class for work, Jennifer Kim wrote a letter to the Statesman which is just plain awful. Since AC has promised (although not yet delivered, ahem!) a fisking of the Northcross lawsuit, it falls to me to perform this one; hat tip to DSK for the link.

I am deeply troubled by the outcome of the site plan approval for Northcross Mall. It's wrong and embarrassing when residents believe they must protect the community by suing the city.

Me fail English? That's unpossible! Seriously - what is she troubled by? The outcome of the approval? The approval itself? Doesn't really matter - the process followed the rule of law. As I've said many times, the city is not allowed to, nor should they seek to, deny approval for a project based on dislike of the particular tenant involved.

I have worked with Responsible Growth 4 Northcross to prevent this. Ideas ranged from a public-private partnership to build a community center or other public facility, to limiting the operating hours of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. However, we failed to gain the support of the City Council.

That's because RG4N staked out a position very early on that the presence of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter was non-negotiable. Hint: you don't negotiate with people who have said that your presence is unacceptable.

The area is full of pedestrian-oriented businesses and family-friendly neighborhoods.

Sure it is. Why, just look at this satellite photo of Anderson Lane. Looks like new urban nirvana to me! Ignore the fact that every strip mall has a parking lot in front. Ignore the fact that the sidewalks are out in broiling heat, far away from the buildings. Ignore the first rule of urbanism. They must be pedestrian-oriented, because, well, because I say so! And when my cow orkers and I ate at various places in the area the last 2 weeks, boy, were they impressed at the pedestrian orientation near Star of India!

And what's more family-friendly than the 2nd least dense neighborhood in the city which is also one of the slowest growing, thanks to deed restrictions and super-low-density zoning which have made the area attractive primarily to empty-nesters? Even the folks at Allandale Reporter were basically forced to admit that, and I quote, it's one of the least dense, slowest growing neighborhoods in Austin. Hey, remember those wacky kids at RG4N who claimed a VMU project would be feasible in this spot? Remember how wacky M1EK pointed out the extremely low density of the residential catchment area? Those were they days, huh?

Don't forget the family-friendliness of pressuring weak-willed panderers on the City Council to allow cars to park in the bike lanes on Shoal Creek Blvd, the most important bicycle commuting route in the city - both for long distance work commuters and for kids going to Northwest Park. What's more family-friendly than making an 8-year-old swerve around parked pickup trucks four or five times before getting to the park?

It's clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic, so I sought evidence that the city could use to reject the site plan.

That's charming! Most of us would actually look for evidence first before declaring that it was clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic for a parcel zoned as a shopping mall.

I asked city staff to rerun the traffic impact analysis submitted by Lincoln Properties using the higher traffic numbers listed in a 2006 ITE Journal article on "big-box" stores, but I was told the staff lacked the software. The city asked Lincoln Properties to run the numbers, but it did not respond.

Hm. I wonder why they wouldn't respond. Maybe it's because they know they have the rule of law on their side?

I applaud the efforts of Responsible Growth and local neighborhood associations, and I support their vision. I hope this wonderful community involvement we have seen will triumph in the end.

So far, this wonderful community involvement has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the city to defend the rule of law against rule-by-mob. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to the overthrow of one neighborhood association's leadership in favor of a new group which has demonstrated their commitment to RG4N's purported VMU goals by opposing VMU anywhere but at Northcross itself. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to an increased likelihood that Northcross will end up like the Intel Shell, and that some local businesses counting on this project will go bankrupt.

So far, this wonderful letter has made me reconsider my position that Brewster was the worst panderer currently on the City Council.

May 10, 2007

Brewster, you're wrong

I dont believe this is the right land use for this location. This is not about an anti Wal-Mart thing. Its about whether a store that produces this much traffic belongs on a four-lane Anderson Lane as opposed to on a highway. But we have been told consistently two things. One is that we do not have the power to take down or disapprove this site plan and the second is that if we try to do it were on our own in a subsequent lawsuit.Council Member Brewster McCracken.

Most Wal-Marts outside Texas are on major arterial roadways(*). Some are 6 lanes, some are 4 lanes. Many, such as the one closest to my parents' house in South Florida, are miles away from the nearest 'highway'(**). Only in Texas do we stupidly build major retail and employment destinations on frontage roads, which act as barriers to travel for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. Pay special attention to the impossibility of providing cost-effective high-quality transit service on frontage roads. Pushing Wal-Marts back out to frontage roads is a step backwards, not forwards.

(* - Try Wal-Mart's store-finder on a zip code for a major metropolitan area outside Texas. Plug addresses into Google Maps. I guarantee you will see that, outside Texas, nearly zero Wal-Marts can be directly accessed from a frontage road -- and most are accessed directly from roads very similar to Burnet Rd. and Anderson Lane. Example here. Be careful to plug all the addresses into Google Maps - many roads with "Hwy" in the name are in fact just major arterials - with frequent traffic lights, cross streets, etc. For instance, the Wal-Mart in Delray Beach, when accessed from the closest 'highway', requires a drive of about 2 miles on one major arterial roadway, then a turn onto a second major arterial roadway, then a short drive, and then another turn into the store lot.)

(** - 'highway' is a definition not frequently used by transportation planners. The common usage here in Texas would be either freeways - with or without frontage roads - or rural routes with limited cross traffic - neither one of which obviously includes Burnet Rd or Anderson Lane, although Burnet at one point in history was a 'highway'. In my case, I prefer to use the limitation of access as the qualifier - since the roads here in Austin which people want to keep the big boxes out on are essentially all limited-access roadways with frontage roads).

You can also use this "plug the address into Google Maps" process to disprove the fallacy that a Wal-Mart at Northcross would be particularly close to single-family residences. For instance, consider this one in West Boca Raton. (Yes, "Hwy" in the name, but look at the satellite image and you see it's a major arterial roadway - lots of cross streets and traffic lights).

February 21, 2007

Correcting a misrepresentation

You left one out, Trish:

What is the problem right now? There are several ways you can describe it:

-Wal-Mart is trying to build a SuperCenter against the wishes of the nearby community;
-the city violated their own procedures for approving this kind of site plan;
-Wal-Mart and Lincoln, having benefited from an irregular approval process, are not willing to make the process right. They are willing to negotiate (to some degree), but not on the most important things.
-they threatened to sue the city if the city tried to undo a bad process.

Your declaration that the process was 'irregular' "as [you] understand it" is based on your unwillingness to listen to people like Chris Allen or myself, who have no direct interest in this fight, but have ten times the understanding of city zoning law (and traffic issues, respectively) as the people making public statements for RG4N.

Here's an accurate summary of the current situation:

Lincoln got their big-box application in before the rules changed; so, by law, they must be handled under the old rules which essentially allow them to do what they want with the Northcross site. Their TIA was done according to standard process, so even if you don't agree with its conclusions, it's going to stick. Minor errors in notification, if they even happened, do not qualify as substantial enough problems to justify the city rejecting the plan which, let's recall, by rule was subject to administrative approval meaning that if the rules were followed, the City Council had to approve it even if they didn't like it.

The path you and RG4N are heading down is one where you lose the ability to negotiate anything with Lincoln because you're too stupid to realize that the city is telling you the truth when they say that Lincoln's got the force of law behind them. In the process, you're forcing the city to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing to defend us all from the lawsuit that your merry band of idiots is causing, either by suing the city or by making Lincoln do so. And, and let's make no bones about this; this isn't just "as I understand it"; the city legal bill which results must be paid by all residents of Austin, not just the idiots in RG4N or in the neighborhoods which 'support' them.

Oh, and by the way, Wal-Mart and Lincoln aren't willing to negotiate "on the most important things" because the negotiating position of RG4N (unlike the pre-coup neighborhood associations) has been "NO WAL-MART". Not "a nicer Wal-Mart, please" but "no Wal-Mart at all". (Were RG4N merely advocating for a nicer, more urban, Wal-Mart within the realms of what's practical given the low-density nature of the surrounding area, I'd be first to sign up on their team).

Hope this helps.

Sincerely,
The Pig

February 12, 2007

Weekend Northcross Wal-Mart Roundup

A few things about Wal-Mart:

DSK took pictures of the people ringing Northcross, and actually asked the people at the bus stop what they thought.

A RG4N supporter took pictures all the way around.

Austin Contrarian just posted a great summary of the neighborhoods around the site. Note that I've discussed previously, to the derision of some, that it would be nice for a big box to be located somewhere where lower-income workers could practically travel via the bus. Here's the map linking all of this together - several bus routes accessible to those denser, lower-income neighborhoods, go straight to Northcross.

Note the other major transfer center at a mall in Austin - Highland Mall - which, not being a dead husk like Northcross, has high levels of both transfer traffic _and_ local (destined for the area in and around the mall) traffic. For the record, I'd be thrilled if a Wal-Mart like the one proposed here would take over some of the acres of awful strip-mall-and-surface-parking-lot area around Highland.

As I've said in some comment threads, besides downtown itself, Northcross (and Highland) are the two spots in our area which have the best transit access, bar none. Trish has disingenuously highjacked that into pedantry about the fact that the transfer center isn't in the Wal-Mart parking lot and so can't count as a bonus to the plan; but it's still true: if you're going to put a large retail center ANYWHERE, these two spots are exactly the right place to do it.

Finally, in an incredibly obnoxious and hypocritical attack-comment, Trish did bring up a point I hadn't even noticed before: in my entry detailing how the Wal-Mart site isn't in the middle of a residential neighborhood, I erred by saying that you had to go all the way to Mopac to the west before you hit residential use. I was thinking along Austin's tilted axis when I made this comment - i.e. the area roughly between Anderson and Foster is almost completely commercial (with one apartment complex I can think of) - but that's actually a diagonal line. Straight west DOES, in fact, penetrate single-family use in Allandale. Mea culpa. I also used "residential" in the same way the neighborhoods do - to mean "only single-family residential", and I should have been more explicit, but it's disingenuous to complain too much about this when the neighborhoods in the area have been so vehemently against multi-family development for so long.

Finally, wrapping up the wrap-up, a lot of arguments have centered around a practice I'm going to refer to in shorthand as "defining down into meaningless". For instance, arguing over whether Wal-Mart would be "in the middle of a residential neighborhood" can degenerate into defining how far away the building has to be from the first house before it qualifies, OR you can argue in good faith by taking a look at some other major retail destinations in the area and seeing how close _they_ are. Basically, if Highland Mall, Barton Creek Square, 6th/Lamar, etc. are closer (in several cases MUCH closer) to residential uses than is Northcross, you can't honestly continue this claim about "in the middle" unless you admit that your definition is so generous it catches almost everybody else too. That's simply not arguing in good-faith.

Same with transit access. Read this blog for even a few minutes and you discover I'm one of Capital Metro's harshest critics from an under-delivery of transit perspective. But that doesn't change the fact that if you call transit access to Northcross "bad", you've redefined "bad" so it includes effectively everywhere except downtown. Not good-faith argument, either. To be fair (and notice the RG4N folks, and Trish, never do this), this applies to a replacement development there as well, except that the RG4N folks obviously hope for retail that attracts higher-income clientele than the Wal-Mart. It'd still help the workers either way; just like how good transit service between UT and the Arboretum results in a few college-age kids getting off the bus up there to go work retail every morning.

Wrapping up the wrap-up of the wrap-up: Northcross is a great place to take the bus to, for both choice commuters and the transit-dependent. It's not any closer to residential development than most major retail centers in our area and is actually farther away from houses than most (Lakeline Mall being the one main exception). The demonstrators this weekend are slapping each other on the back, but none of them bothered to talk to the people waiting for the bus at the transfer center. Hmmm. Wonder why.

February 09, 2007

Uh, thanks, but no

RG4N's blog roundup of reaction to their plan is finally up: relevant excerpt:

we turn to M1EK, who takes issue with Councilmember Kim's comments about the inappropriateness of placing super-duper-centers in urban neighborhoods.

Clueflash: Allandale, Crestview, Wooten, and North Shoal Creek are NOT URBAN NEIGHBORHOODS. Urban neighborhoods address the street with porches and front doors, not garages. Urban neighborhoods prioritize walking over driving - and have sidewalks to prove it. Urban neighborhoods would prioritize bicycle travel over the ability to warehouse cars on not just one but both sides of a major street.

Folks, just because you're closer to downtown than Circle C is doesn't make you "urban". Urban is a style of development (and living); not a mere geographic indicator. When I sit here in my garage office typing this entry, I see more people walking on the sidewalk in front of my house than I do cars driving down my street - THAT'S URBAN. I see our one car (for a family of four) parked beside the house on a driveway rather than in front, because our house addresses the street with a porch and front door rather than with a garage. THAT'S URBAN.

Urban neighborhoods have a mix of densities (even if it's all residential, although it's better if it's not) - on the very same street in an URBAN neighborhood, you'll see apartments, single-family houses, granny flats, etc. In Allandale and Crestview, you see big apartment complexes on the edges, and nothing but large-lot single-family on the interior. That's not urban; it's just older suburban.

1960s suburban sprawl? Not urban. Not gonna be. Sorry.

January 09, 2007

McDorms happened because idiots restricted apartments

Austin Contrarian makes a good point about student rentals which further supports the contention that it's better for surrounding neighbors if students rent individually rather than sharing a big house. My argument (re-expressed through comment to his post) was based on landlord's disincentive to penalize tenants in a big house versus in a fourplex or apartment/condo building; his adds a point I've not discussed before - the "party house" factor.

Yes, all college towns have students sharing houses, but we've got a lot more than you would expect, given the size of our city, health of our central-city residential economy, etc. We have so many (disproportionate for a 'college in healthy big city') bad student rental houses because people like my neighborhood association fought true multi-family development even on Guadalupe for decades - meaning that students who want to live near campus get artificially incented to live together in houses. Many of the students sharing these houses, in other words, would have been just as happy (or more so) in an apartment - where you can count on more amenities and less hassle - but have been forced to choose between jamming into a house or moving to Far West or Riverside.

I've addressed this before:

The McMansion ordinance further exacerbates the problem. The "highest use" for small single-family houses in my area particularly has now shifted much farther towards student rental and much farther away from "sell to a family that wants to live central" since the expandability of these properties has taken a drastic hit. The too-little too-late West Campus upzoning isn't going to help now that we've thrown another obstacle in the way of families wealthy enough to buy entry on a small lot property but not wealthy enough to live on the bigger lots that the Karen McGraws and Mary Gay Maxwells can afford (or were able to buy back when they were merely expensive, not astronomical). In other words, despite what you heard about the ordinance protecting families, actual central Austin owner-occupant families like me and my neighbor are just getting screwing out of a future in Central Austin - when my neighbor goes, and he's currently looking, he'll be renting to students).

December 21, 2006

Response to McCracken

Brewster McCracken posted a response (seemingly authentic) to this austinist thread, attempting to rebut many of my points about Northcross and Wal-Mart. Here's what I said in response.

Brewster,

Obviously I disagree with much of what you posted. I'll just pick the one I know the most about, though; this peculiar idea that it's better to put large retail destinations on "highways" rather than at the intersection of two city arterial roadways, next to a major transit center. Only in Texas (where frontage roads are viewed as the normal state of affairs rather than an occasional last-ditch tool to provide access when all else fails) would we even be having this conversation; note that the new Wal-Mart in Atlanta being compared to this one is _NOT_, I repeat, _NOT_ "on the highway".

I refer readers again to my (artlessly drawn but hopefully at least readable) diagram linked to if you click on "M1EK" at the end of this posting. It's simply impossible to deliver high-quality transit service on highway frontage roads -- but it's very easy to do so on arterial roadways. All you need to do is take a look at those #3 buses going up and down Burnet Road vs. the #383 buses going up and down Research Blvd. if you don't believe me - both are operating in relatively the same density development; but one is a success and one is a failure.

Frontage roads also destroy the ability to travel by foot (for nearby pedestrians) and severely hamper travel by bicycle; but in this case, transit is probably the most important mode to worry about. Remember, though, that when dealing with frontage road development, we also have to somehow convince TXDOT to build sidewalks along the frontage road in the best-case scenario (and, of course, they've designed some 'highways' in ways that make even the provision of such sidewalks by the City of Austin impossible - US 183 near Braker Lane, for instance; in this photo-essay: http://www.io.com/~mdahmus/183sidewalks/183sidewalks.html

Pushing all our big boxes (and other employers/destinations) to frontage roads simply means the people travelling there can't do so by any means other than the private automobile. This doesn't hurt high-tech office workers on US 183 as much as it does the potential employees of Wal-Mart, of course.

As for the remaining points - I'm happy the neighborhoods have learned to not make the strategic error that NUNA did vis-a-vis The Villas On Guadalupe. That's a far cry from evidence that they now support urban mixed-use development "like the Triangle". A Triangle-style development, expanded to cover the footprint of Northcross Mall, would be bringing in not only roughly the same amount of retail as this proposal, but thousands of units of multi-family; and the nearby neighborhoods have opposed previous efforts to increase multi-family in the area quite recently (hotel conversion at south edge of property).

Regards,
Mike Dahmus (M1EK's Bake-Sale of Bile)
Urban Transportation Commission 2001-2005

December 18, 2006

Things I hate about Wal-Mart

Since some people probably think I like them, it's worth expanding on a comment I made in response to Austin Contrarian on this posting. Bear in mind that my poltical/economic bent is that, when operating in a reasonably (lightly) regulated environment where externalities are properly assessed, free enterprise generally provides for a more positive outcome than government intervention would do. That being said:

What did AC get wrong? Wal-Mart are definitely bad guys. They have done very little good, and most of the good they did do was way back in the mists of time when Sam Walton was pretty new to the job. Since being an early (good) competitor in some areas that badly needed a kick in the pants, they've devolved into a lean mean destroying machine - wiping out small town after small town after small town. (On my summer trip up to the UP of Michigan, a shiny new Wal-Mart was in the process of decimating a pretty nice old downtown - yes, they've still got places they haven't killed yet). You can make money and be a bad guy - the market often isn't the perfect frictionless machine that libertarian ideologues believe it is.

They're bad because they build suburban crap even in the middle of urban areas. No, making the store 2 stories with a parking garage isn't urban. Building to the street, not to your parking lot, is what makes a store urban. Unfortunately, many people on the other side of this argument have a similar misunderstanding of the issue. Target gets it, but unfortunately, appear to not have been interested in this location. (Not that I blame them; the added expense of a truly urban store isn't justified by the surrounding low-density residential; they'd never make their money back). Costco is nicer to their workers and sells better quality stuff, but they've never expressed any interest in changing from their own awful suburban store format.

Wal-Mart is bad because they've used their size in an adversarial (monopsonial) relationship with their suppliers that has bankrupted some and seriously hurt many -- companies which were providing at least medium-quality goods have either been destroyed or been forcibly shifted into selling junk because of what Wal-Mart did. (And don't tell me they chose to sell to Wal-Mart; in vast parts of the country that's not a 'choice').

Wal-Mart is bad because they've used their size to eliminate competitors who were providing necessary goods and services, but doing it in a way which required substantially less public investment (an old downtown area doesn't cost the town in question much if anything; but the new one-story strip with huge parking lot on the edge of town costs them a bundle). They're also pretty crappy to their workers, but I don't necessarily buy the workers' welfare arguments in rural areas, since the small-town employers weren't paying for good heath insurance either, but there are certainly parts of the country where they can lead such a race to the bottom. But these poor areas have to pay for a lot of road upgrades, police patrols, and utility costs which would not be necessary if the downtown stores had won out. Wal-Mart doesn't contribute jack-squat to make up for these public costs.

So why am I not afraid of them doing the same in Austin?

Unlike Microsoft, the area in which Wal-Mart enjoys monopoly profits (rural retailing) is merely garden-variety lucrative, not Scrooge-McDuckesque-roll-in-the-money-while-wearing-a-monocle insanely lucrative. There aren't enough excess profits there to provide enough money to destroy Target and Costco (both Significantly Less Evil) in suburban and urban areas. Believe me; if there was, they'd have done it by now.

So here, at least, Wal-Mart must compete on its own merits - not like how Microsoft destroyed OS/2 and Netscape, but more like how Apple ended up as the primary name in MP3 players. They might still successfully win the urban retail market, but they're going to have to do it the right way.

So, it's worthwhile to despise what Wal-Mart does. It's good to point out that they're doing bad things. But don't be afraid that they can do the same thing in an area Austin's size that they've done to little 5,000 person towns, because they won't. Not because they wouldn't if they could, but because they simply don't have the excess money it would take.

All we'll do if we successfully keep Wal-Mart out of this location is forego a bunch of tax dollars for the benefit of a bunch of badly-behaved neighborhoods which have, I think, already been pandered to enough for one lifetime. Nobody better wants to move in, and the neighbors are being disingenuous by claiming now to have gotten the New Urbanist religion. Even if they had, though, this isn't a very good site for urban infill - it's still too far away from the parts of town people want to live close to.

So remember: Wal-Mart is bad. But that doesn't make keeping them out of this empty mall the best thing for Austin.

December 15, 2006

Wal-Mart at Northcross: Relevant pictures

From SGML2, a pictorial tour of the environs. Go check out for the full set; he's got a lot more than this one.

Northcross is NOT "in a residential neighborhood"

One of the most odious talking points being thrown around with some effectiveness by "Responsible Growth For Northcross is the supposed fact that the development is in the middle of a neighborhood", in a residential neighborhood, etc.

It's also a load of crap.

Northcross Mall is surrounded by retail and hotel use on all sides. In several directions, you have to go a very long way before you hit what most people would consider "a neighborhood". Even in the closest direction, it's not very close.

Update: February 12, 2007: In the paragraphs below, I'm referring to the tilted axis of Austin's major roadways. If you fly directly west as the compass points, you do hit single-family residential use before you get all the way to Mopac. You can see this from the picture, of course, but some folks thought this was misleading, and I honestly forgot the difference, so keep this in mind.

To the north, you have a very wide swath of strip retail on both sides of Anderson Lane before you hit any residential development. To the east, you have a strip of retail on both sides of Burnet Road before you hit any residential development. To the west, you have to pass Mopac before you find any residential development. Only to the south is anything remotely close, and it's still not very close - you have strip retail and hotel use, and then a school property, before you come to any residential use.

If Northcross Mall is "in the middle of a neighborhood", in other words, so is Highland Mall and Barton Creek Square Mall and even Capital Plaza. To say nothing of the Whole Foods complex at 6th/Lamar which is certainly a lot closer to houses and apartments than is the Wal-Mart location. Should we disallow big boxes at these locations too? Because, after all, they're "in the middle of neighborhoods" as much as Northcross is.

This talking point is very effective, judging on how often it's being spewed on austinist and the Austin Chronicle. But it's a flat-out misrepresentation. Northcross Mall is NOT "in the middle of a neighborhood.

December 14, 2006

Why I'm Rooting For Wal-Mart

extracted from a thread on austinist, with links for some background:



I hate Wal-Mart too, and wish somebody else wanted to move in. They don't.

But I hate these neighborhoods even more. They:

1. Ruined the city's most important route for commuting bicyclists, costing the entire city a million bucks in the bargain). Their reward for screwing all of us? Brand new sidewalks at another couple hundred grand.

2. The <jerks> in Crestview voted against light rail in 2000 - screwing the whole city. Now the (much <less useful>) 2004 commuter rail line _still_ goes through their backyards, but the rest of the city gets nothing for it.

3. They're misleading you when they imply they want nice high-density urban development in Northcross. All efforts to do the same in the past at this and other nearby locations have been opposed by these same neighborhood organizations. Anyways, there isn't sufficient residential density to support good urban retail here - so nobody's going to come in and do it even if you ask really nicely. This Wal-Mart plan is actually about as high-quality a project as you could possibly expect in the middle of such low-quality car-dependent low-density 1950s-style sprawl.

These neighborhoods have been pandered to enough already. Unfortunately, thanks to term-limiting, the irresponsible council-members who are signing us up for a lawsuit that, once again, the ENTIRE CITY WILL HAVE TO PAY FOR, won't even be in office when the northcross hits the fan.

I forgot to mention the continuing bogus freeway argument. Go read that one too; it's far better for all concerned that we stop putting major retail destinations on frontage roads, so please shut up about how the other big stores are on highways.

I really do hate Wal-Mart for many reasons. But the fact is that even the crappy normal Wal-Mart design is better than what's currently there - and there's zero chance of something better coming along without drastic changes to the surrounding areas which I can guarantee the nearby neighbors will not support. The taxpayers of Austin have spent a million bucks or more just in the last few years pandering to these people; it's time to put something in this place that will generate some property and sales tax revenue to start paying us back.

September 24, 2006

The McMansion Ordinance Doesn't Hurt 9300 Square Foot Lots, You Idiots

Today's article in the Statesman is making me breathe fire. Of course this couple can build a big house - they have a 9300 square foot lot! That's a very large lot for Central Austin. And, of course, they're a family of 3.

Try running the same calculation on a more-typical lot of 7000 square feet, or on my lot of 6000 square feet. The impact of this ordinance is that families like mine (4) and my next-door neighbor (5) must choose between a normal second-story on the same footprint as the existing small house, and a garage apartment (which they already have; and I'd someday like to have). It's going to drive families out of the urban core neighborhoods; exactly the opposite of what we should be encouraging.

AustinContrarian is posting an excellent series about this ordinance. He's up to Reason 7 to hate the McMansion Ordinance as of today. Highly recommended.

September 01, 2006

Hand-holding consensus exercises play into the hands of the Bad Guys

NUPro's frustration echoes with me, obviously. I've long since come to the conclusion that the problem here in Austin is that the "good guys" are serious about gathering public input, and the "bad guys" are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don't matter, and in the process getting exactly what they want.

Take Capital Metro's worthless public meetings about commuter rail, for instance. (Before the election, I mean). The topics were basically "where should we put an extra station or two on this line we've already settled on", and "hey, would you like any other bus lines turned into Rapid Bus?". Capital Metro never really wanted public input on anything that mattered, like the actual routing of the line, but they successfully fooled a whole lot of people into going to these meetings and wasting their time. By doing this, Capital Metro satisfied the basic requirements the Feds would have put on them (if CM had kept their promise and actually applied for Federal funding, that is), and fooled a lot of naive people into giving them a free pass.

But please remember: Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan isn't the result of community input, folks. It's a result of Mike Krusee's command.

On the other hand, Envision Central Texas (the group which many Good Guys view as their platform for pushing positive change) is paralyzed by paroxysms of uselessness because they actually try to get public input about things more consequential than the color of the station platform's roof. And, of course, if you ask these neighborhood groups for input, they'll gladly fill your ear with mostly-ignorant mostly-useless stuff that the average bus-riding third-grader could have come up with on the way to school last week (about the recent streetcar meetings in which, again, the route is already decided; the technology is already decided; the sharing-lane-with cars is already decided; etc). Likewise, other urbanist politicians are too unwilling to say "this is what we need to do; now, I'm willing to accept input on these issues, but no others:...". Envision Central Texas has, as a result, contributed absolutely nothing other than PR fluff. They've completely failed at pushing their agenda; the few wins the Good Guys have seen in the last few years have been the result of actions by politicians who would have acted the same way with or without the useless blessing of ECT.

If I could say anything to folks like that, it's this: you never win by back-door compromise, and you never win by charette-driven consensus exercises. Mike Krusee won by making Capital Metro do what he wanted them to do. He didn't negotiate with them. He didn't gather their input. He told them what to do, and they did it, because the other side didn't even try to stop him; because they were too busy holding meetings and wasting their time listening to a bunch of neighborhood nitwits.

August 07, 2006

ANCTALK and Wal-Mart and Northcross

Saved for posterity since Yahoo is flaking out; possibly of some marginal interest here. This is in response to a post by Susan Moffat, fighting against Wal-Mart at Northcross Mall. The point answered by #1 was a study that correlated Wal-Marts with poverty at the county level.

my post:

I hate Wal-Mart too, especially after having to shop at one this weekend up here in Michigan (absence had made the heart grow slightly less contemptuous, I guess), but get real.

1. The studies you quote could just as easily have shown that Wal-Mart is attracted to poverty-stricken rural areas. IE, they didn't control for the pre-existing conditions.

2. I agree that Costco is a million times better than Wal-Mart, but I bet Allandale and the ANC would fight Costco too. If not, let's see them put their money where their mouth is and draft a letter asking Costco to please move in to this location.

3. If somebody better is not an option, Wal-Mart is certainly an improvement over what's there now. The mall is just pathetic - and only getting worse. How about for once hitching your wagon to the market instead of fighting against it and calling Wal-Mart's bluff - offer to at least abstain if the physical building layout is more urban and pedestrian-supportive than what exists there today, for instance.

August 04, 2006

The street is not the property of adjacent landowners.

Warning! High degrees of bile contained within! The excellent weather and low-stress environment up here in the UP of Michigan have somehow had the exact opposite effect as you might have predicted on my reaction to some more typical neighborhood association nonsense back home.

Here's the story: Some puff media are covering and some less puffy blogs are mocking the protests about the sidewalk-coverin' parking-reducin' patio on South Congress. Here's M1EK's position for you, short and bileful:

TRUDY'S SHOULDN'T HAVE TO BUILD MORE PARKING. Requiring suburban amounts of parking for this restaurant in a thriving urban area merely ensures that development will remain suburban in scope and blighted in quality. This is a city. Grow up, idiots.

COVERING UP THE SIDEWALK = TEH SUCK. Don't expect my sympathy when you cover up the damn sidewalk, you Trudy's buttheads.

MAKING FUN OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T WANT TO STEP OFF THE SIDEWALK = TEH SUCKIER SUCK. It's easy for you or me to hop off a curb for a while. Now imagine you're in a wheelchair, or walking with a cane, you smug jackasses. Real cities have sidewalks. EVERYWHERE. (Note: The smug jackasses are sort of implied here; nothing in the non-puffy blog was all that smug about this; but I've seen this sentiment displayed in other circumstances. This city is way too mellow about protecting pedestrian infrastructure).

BITCHING ABOUT NOT BEING ABLE TO PARK IN "YOUR SPACE" IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE = TEH SUCKIEST SUCK OF ALL TEH SUCKS. Again, you don't own the space in front of your house, you reactionist retards. YOU DON'T OWN THE STREET IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE. (* - RPPP notwithstanding).

I'm thinking of getting those points printed on a big sign (with protruding asterisk for maximum pointiness) and then smacking the neighborhood association jerks over the head with it. Who's with me?

(Yes, the link is to the newer, and much more acceptable, Parking Benefit District; I can't find a general site for the RPPP, so sue me).

July 16, 2006

Local neighborhoods not obstructionist enough, says ANC

Just posted to ANCTalk: a position paper on the Concordia redevelopment, which is in my neck of the woods. (I can tell you that as somebody close enough to hear I-35 during the winter months, I'd sure appreciate some big buildings, even if there's nothing there I'd ever want to go to, which is hard to believe).

Read especially the final couple of paragraphs. The responsible (only somewhat obstructionist) position of Hancock and Eastwoods is being assailed by the ANC - so now, not even restricting the project to the merely moderate levels of density supported by nearby neighborhoods is good enough for these people. In the past, the most egregious behavior by the ANC was limited to exploiting nearby (but not containing) neighborhood associations in cases like the Spring building (downtown neighborhood association was enthusiastically supporting it; so the ANC hung their hats on the disapproval of OWANA next door).

Mayor Will Wynn and City Council Members

The ANC executive committee at our July 12th meeting asked me to convey to
you the following with regard to the proposed redevelopment of Concordia
University.

The proposed redevelopment of the Concordia site presents the city with both
opportunities and challenges. The redevelopment of such a large area close
to downtown will provide an excellent opportunity for in-fill. At the same
time it poses a real challenge to ensure that scale of the development is
appropriate, the integrity of the surrounding neighborhoods is protected and
that the neighborhood planning process is respected.

The surrounding neighborhoods most impacted, Hancock and Eastwoods, have
indicated their support for the concept of mixed use for the site. Despite
what has been reported, however, they do not support the developer's initial
proposal. While there has been some discussion of the proposal, neither
neighborhood has taken a position on it. They have committed to working
with the developer and are developing negotiating teams for this purpose.
They have contacted the other surrounding neighborhoods and CANPAC to engage
them in the process. ANC supports this approach and urges the Council to
grant these neighborhoods' request for an experienced city planner to assist
them in this effort.

The neighborhoods have made it clear that the major issues that such a
planning approach should address are density, height and traffic impact.
ANC believes that the resolution of these issues should be the starting
point for any design and not an afterthought. Further, a comprehensive
traffic analysis of this area, including the St. David's PUD, is essential
to establish the appropriate density for this development as was done for
the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment plan.

ANC also urges the City Council to respect the many years of effort these
neighborhoods have invested in their neighborhood plan. While this project
is asking for PUD zoning, it should not be treated any differently than any
project proposed in an area with an adopted neighborhood plan. Any change
to the Future Land Use Map or the current Civic zoning should go through the
regular neighborhood plan amendment process. Filing for a PUD should not
exempt a project from the standard neighborhood plan amendment process.

While we support the adjacent neighborhoods' role in defining what is
appropriate for this site we are also concerned about the precedent this
project will set for the surrounding areas and for future development in
East Austin along IH 35. We sincerely appreciate recent statements by
members of the City Council on limiting high rise construction to downtown
and in TOD's. We hope that sensitivity is also extended to the Concordia
Redevelopment plan.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Susan Pascoe

Immediate past president of ANC for

Laura Morrison, ANC President

June 29, 2006

Smaller houses -> goodbye center-city schools

Here's a tip for my pals at the ANC: If you:

  1. Push an ordinance which will greatly add to existing disincentives for middle-income families to live in the central city
  2. Then, shortly thereafter, hold a radio show on the topic of center-city schools, bemoaning the lack of investment and closing of some urban schools by AISD;

we are unlikely to be impressed with your intelligence.

Next week:

ANC dumps a bucket of water on their own head; then complains that they're all wet.

June 24, 2006

Surprise! Students want to live near UT!

This is from a thread on the Austin Neighborhoods Council yahoo group. None of the people who post there are remotely likely to be convinced, but some of the people who read (including, I assume, staff members for city council) are still not entirely lost causes. Reposted here for posterity as well.

Block-quoted items are from the person I was responding to.

Mike's complaint that neighborhoods are reluctant to allow SF to MF zoning changes is completely irrelevant.

No, I'm sorry, but it's perfectly relevant. The market tried to provide multifamily housing near UT for decades, and people like the ANC got in the way. Students still want to live close to UT; so (more) of them move into houses than otherwise would have. Some who would have lived in apartments instead live in rental houses. This should not be difficult to believe - all you have to do is put yourself in their shoes. Pick between riding the shuttle bus from Far West every day or cramming into a house and riding your bike to campus. I know which one I'd pick.

I understand why these students want to live in a house. Houses are fun. You can't throw keggers in the back yard of an apartment. You can't set up a pool table a juke box and a wet bar in the garage of an apartment.

On the other hand, most new apartment buildings have party rooms and pools; and are unlikely to have people living next door who call the cops on you every time you make noise after 10:30 (see below). You don't have to worry about the trash; you're less likely to have maintenance problems; parking is a simpler issue; etc.

Only one of us is making an extraordinary claim here. Clearly if there wasn't pent-up demand for multifamily development in this area, the recent relaxation of absurd height restrictions near UT wouldn't have resulted in an explosion of new projects, right?

No matter how many apartments we build near campus (and we are building a LOT right now),

Now, after 20 years of building essentially nothing. It's going to take a long time to catch up.

there will always be people who want the party "frat house" atmosphere you can't get in a dorm or an apartment.

Yes. There will always be SOME people who want this. But a few such houses in each neighborhood would certainly be better than 2 out of every 3 houses, wouldn't it? At Penn State (where I did my undergrad years), there were a ton of apartments near campus - far more than UT, compared to the number of students who couldn't fit in dorms, and the result was that far fewer houses near campus turned into rental properties.

But that party "frat house" atmosphere really sucks for people living next door trying to raise children and wanting to enjoy luxuries of home-ownership such as being able to pull out of their own driveway whenever they want or walk down the street without fearing for their safety.

I live next door to a duplex which until this summer had UT Wranglers in the front _and_ the back. I have a 2-year-old son and a 12-year-old stepson. I've called the cops enough that they now have become fairly quiet neighbors. I can tell you from observation that the situation wasn't ideal for either one of us - they certainly didn't enjoy dealing with the police or their landlord after some of those parties.

As for the parking issue - that would merit an entirely separate discussion. Think for a moment how you can ethically support the proposition that people in one given house have a right to on-street parking, but people in another house on the same street don't.

(That's the end of the posting. It's amazing to me how quickly people of this particular ideological bent will immediately assume that anybody arguing against their position must not have a family (or, even more common, be a developer. For the record, again, I'm trying to raise a family in the urban core; and I'm not a developer).

June 19, 2006

Hyde Park Honors A McMansion

From David Whitworth: a home on the Hyde Park Homes Tour which apparently would not be allowed under the McMansion regulations. As I've posted before, don't forget that one of the leaders of the Task Force lives in nearly 3600 square feet right in the middle of a bunch of approximately 1000 square foot bungalows.

June 09, 2006

You maniacs! You blew it up!

Council last night passed the McMansion Ordinance with 0.4 FAR applying to everything (totally rejecting the Planning Commission's efforts), and while they were at it, removed the "quick review commission" which could have provided a cheap(er) quick(er) path for obvious variance cases like mine. This means my next door neighbor wouldn't be allowed to build a second floor to expand his 1010 square foot house (family of 5).

Let's review: The unmitigated evil of this task force, and yes, I'm going to name names now, includes these sterling folks:

- Karen McGraw, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (link is to one of three properties at same address for her and husband): Has worked for years to stifle multifamily development in this area - leading to unintended consequences such as superduplexes and "McDorms". Lives in a property with 3500 square feet of developed space, including a garage apartment, surrounded by properties which are more like 1100 square feet. Incompatible size and bulk, anybody?

- Mary Gay Maxwell, North University Neighborhood Association: Likewise has worked to obstruct multifamily development for years - and then has the gall to simultaneously complain about students renting houses in our area. Lives in a 2-story house which 'towers over the backyards of its neighbors'.

Chris Allen - lone person on the task force from the neighborhood side who understands anything about development - misled people for weeks and weeks into thinking the ordinance would have no effect on cases like mine, then switched tactics late in the game and started smugly telling people that I should just build "habitable attic space" or a basement, and, if that might be a wee bit too expensive or impractical, just go to the "quick review commission". Nothing to worry about, right? Except that the "quick review commission" just evaporated. Say hello once again to our old friend, the neighborhood-pandering kilodollars-wasting Board Of Adjustment!

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell me that I can't have a garage apartment and a second floor? (Neither of which would, unlike Maxwell's, 'tower over my neighbor's yard'?)

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell my next door neighbors that they can't have a second floor unless they tear down their existing garage apartment?

Tell me again why these people, who were wrong about opposing multifamily development, should be allowed to do even more to attempt to obstruct the market's desire to provide additional housing supply in the central city? (By further disincenting duplex and garage apartment development - both of which are much more affordable than single family homes, even tiny ones).

I'm disgusted. It's 9:00 AM, and I need a beer.

Contest Idea: If/When my next door neighbors move out after they find out they can't build their second floor, and we're left as the only family among about six houses full of students (thanks to the fine work of Ms. McGraw and Ms. Maxwell), what should I do about it? Most entertaining suggestion wins a prize.

June 08, 2006

Update on McMansion Ordinance

Tonight the City Council considers it. I spoke before the Planning Commission on Tuesday night (very late) and was covered by Fox 7 (including screen time I missed seeing, although my cow orker says I did pretty well) and the Statesman. Oddly, KVUE spent the most time with me but didn't even run a story on the meeting (admittedly it went so late everybody had to cover it on Thursday instead of Wednesday). Maybe once they figured out I was 'the crackpot' they abandoned the story.

The Chronicle's fluff coverage of this issue makes me sad. I alerted them to this impending fight a couple of weeks ago, but all they've done is this analysis-free notice-like blurb.

Planning Commission gave a thoughtfully skeptical endorsement - raising the FAR for lots with duplexes or garage apartments to 0.5 (which completely lets us of the hook and is a great help to our neighbors, as well as reducing MOST of the city-wide affordable housing disincentives in the original ordinance).

It's being fought vigorously by the Task Force, who, frankly, doesn't like secondary housing units in general (as well as multifamily development in the urban core. And McDorms. And superduplexes. Keep pluggin' them loopholes!).

Meanwhile, the one city council member who bothered to respond to me is apparently using boilerplate about how this ordinance is a supposed "compromise". (Not the PC version, but the original 0.4 FAR version). How, exactly, is this a compromise? I give up the right to develop my property and in return I get to live among people who already developed their property in the way I'm now not allowed to do?

The rhetorical gymnastics people will go through to avoid simply opposing bad neighborhood actors are just amazing.

No further crackplogging for a while - parents are in town.

June 06, 2006

Letter to council member - and "compromise"

One of the city council members wrote me back with a comment that they appreciated my letter but were going to vote for the ordinance on first reading anyways since it was a 'compromise'. I just sent the note below in response, but wanted to expand on the 'compromise' notion too.

A 'compromise' in this case would mean that I'd be giving up the right to develop some of my property, and in return, my neighbors would be giving up some of the right to develop their property, which would presumably benefit me (if I believed that they were likely to build McMansions and that those buildings would cause me some sort of harm).

The problem is that in my case, I already have a big duplex on one side (two stories, built to the minimum side setback line next to my backyard), and on the other side is my neighbors who would, like me, like to build a second story on their house.

So what have I obtained from this compromise? Compromise, by definition, isn't "I give something up, and you get the benefits". It's "we both give something up, and we both benefit". So what's the benefit for people like me - who already live in dense areas and would actually PREFER that their next door neighbors go ahead and build that second floor (since it's the only thing that could keep them in this neighborhood)?

The note I sent:

Thanks for the response.

I don't know that 'compromise' is the right word here. I didn't consent to negotiating away any of my minimal property rights in this case - so it's really more accurate to say that I'm being robbed of the ability to develop this property (which we paid a premium for at the time over other properties which could not be expanded according to SF3). A thief could rob you and only take half your money - but it's not a compromise.

The most likely outcome of this is that the family next door to us will decide to move out of town (can you blame them? A family of 5 in 1010 square feet is pretty cramped even by the standards of past generations) - at which point MY family has to decide what to do - stay as the only family left in a sea of deteriorating rental housing (since nobody's going to want to buy these things and fix them up) or move out of central Austin (which means leaving Austin entirely, since I would never live farther out than this).

I doubt that's the consequence the task force (or especially the city council) has in mind, but I honestly believe that's what's going to happen.

The only positive changes I could make to this are to prepare for the state to overturn these regulations in 5-10 years. If they wouldn't allow you to impose SOS on properties without grandfathering, there's no way these SF3 rules will stand, since SOS at least was in response to a clear and evident negative externality. If these regulations really addressed drainage instead of merely using it as a convenient launching point, the city would be in a SOS-like position; but as it stands you're on even shakier legal ground.

But again, that'll take years to resolve. Unfortunately, I can't see my neighbors sticking around with a family of 5 in 1010 square feet for that long.

June 05, 2006

Oppose the "McMansion Ordinance"

Just sent this to Council:

Council members: My name is Mike Dahmus; I own a condominium unit in Old West Austin and currently live in a house I own in the North University neighborhood. I'd like to ask you to oppose the "McMansion ordinance" at Thursday's meeting. I will be brief.

I've corresponded extensively with the task force on their bulletin boards, but frankly, there was little common ground to be had. Like many "smart growth" people, I think restricting residential density is exactly the wrong way to go. There wasn't any room to compromise with these people - because, frankly, I'd prefer to go in the entirely opposite direction.

In my own case, these rules will force me to choose between a garage apartment (every other lot on my block has at least 2 dwelling units) or the second floor we'd like to build someday for our family of 4 (currently living in 1200 square feet). My next-door neighbors, about to be a family of 5, face having to tear down an existing garage apartment so they could build their second floor under these proposed rules.

The most ghastly thing about all this, though, is that the task force members themselves are comprised mainly of two groups: childless couples living in small houses, and people who are living in very large homes which violate the spirit (but not quite the letter) of the proposed regulations. Two examples: (name), in my neighborhood, lives in a two-story home which, thanks to an incompatible front setback, 'towers' over the backyards of her neighbors (who have small one-story homes which are set much closer to the street, and are much more pedestrian-friendly). (name) lives in a home with 3600 square feet on a corner in Hyde Park; her immediate neighbors live in tiny, tiny bungalows.

The same people who opposed every single multifamily project in the urban core for decades with drastic unintended consequences like the explosion of single-family-homes converted into rental properties for students now want you to do even more to prevent the market from responding efficiently to the demand for urban housing.

What unintended consequences could one predict from _these_ rules? I can think of a couple: a net decline in central housing units (due to dilemnas like the one my neighbor and I will face), and a net INCREASE in impervious cover (it will now be even more proportionally difficult to build up rather than back).

Please do the right thing, and stand up to these irresponsible neighborhood groups for the good of the city and for the rights of property owners.

Thanks for your time,
Mike Dahmus

and this to some neighborhood groups in response to some pro-ordinance politicking:

The task force's work stands to destroy the rights to develop property for families like myself and especially my neighbors - forcing them to either tear down an existing garage apartment or move, since they're about to become a family of 5 in about 1050 square feet.

There are plenty of people opposing these regulations who don't want
to build McMansions and aren't developers. I'd like to eventually have
what every other property on my lot already has - a secondary dwelling
unit, while still maintaining the right to develop a second floor.
The task force's work absolutely precludes me from doing so.

Like previously foolhardy opposition to all multifamily development in
the urban core, this ordinance will likely have unintended
consequences which will be worse than the problem they tried to solve
- for instance, one could easily predict a decline in net affordable
housing units as people like my neighbor now must tear down their
garage apartments in order to expand their home to what was previously
allowed. One could also predict quite easily that the new 'building
envelope' rule will lead to a net INCREASE in impervious cover and
concomittant drainage problems, since it further incents property
owners to expand back rather than up.

My block consists of 6000 square foot lots - every single lot except
mine has multiple dwelling units on it already; and on one side of me
is a duplex full of undergrads - who are attracted to rental housing
like that because many of the same people who formed this task force
succeeded until recently in preventing the market from providing real
multifamily housing close to UT. If I want to build up AND build my
garage apartment, I can't see any reason why I should be forced
through the hostile variance process just to do what everybody else on
the block already _has_ done; but the task force sees no problem here.

This ordinance goes exactly the wrong direction for Austin in so many
ways. If you have any concern for families like ours, please express
your opposition.

May 17, 2006

FUH GUH BUH

My cow orker's IM just reminded me to crackplog in short about this quote in this puff piece about the McMansion ordinance:

People, like Karen McGraw, who live in smaller homes, say bigger homes mean more residents -- and more cars. They also worry about drainage and trees. McGraw is also a member of the Hyde Park Planning Association.

MCGRAW LIVES IN 3600 SQUARE FEET IN HYDE PARK, DAMMIT. That's HUGE compared to her neighbors. In the meantime, my neighbor will likely face the 'choice' between demolishing the garage apartment in his backyard or foregoing the second floor on his house (current size: 1010 square feet; family about to grow to 5).

Also, this, again from McGraw:

"Trees are actually retention devices and help to retain a lot of water that otherwise might run off. So, we're very concerned with losing tree cover," said McGraw.

The most likely effect of FAR regulations on my family's eventual expansion plans is that we will build back rather than up. Hence, MORE IMPERVIOUS COVER. LESS TREES.

May 16, 2006

Facts about the McMansion proposal

Some answers to questions raised by my letter to the Planning Commission and today's Statesman article. Updates will be made here as I think of them and/or receive comments or emails.

  1. I believe the greatest effect of this ordinance is going to be to make small-lot bungalow homes less attractive to buy than they are today which will probably lead to more deteriorating rental stock rather than an owner-occupied renaissance. McMansions themselves are hurt less by these rules than are traditionally styled two-story residences which are quite common on the narrow lots of Hyde Park.
  2. Despite being a response to a "drainage emergency", the sum effect of the regulations being proposed is that it will become even more proportionally expensive to build "up" rather than "back". Consequence: more impervious cover; worse drainage.
  3. Garage apartments appear to count towards the FAR total. Consequence: fewer housing units in the central city. Existing garage apartments would be more likely to be demolished so that the owner could put a more practical second story on the "front house".
  4. Detached and attached garages count, over a certain square footage. More credit is given to detached than attached garages, which is good from an aesthetic perspective but stupid from a drainage perspective.
  5. Yes, one of the proposed solutions for those who want more space than the new regulations would allow is to just build a basement. Yes, apparently they were serious. After all, if you live in central Austin, what's another hundred grand or so worth of cost, right?
  6. I don't yet know where the "height" measurement is taken from (average elevation of lot or front elevation or minimum or maximum). This affects the practicality of a second story dramatically in our cases.

More to come as I get comments / emails.

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.


Regards,
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.

May 08, 2006

Tree Trimming and Power Outages

I'm experiencing a bit of schadenfreude as the folks pushing hardest for restrictions on Austin Energy (AE)'s trimming plans in the neighborhoods with the most power outages due to tree limbs (and entire trees) falling down are forced to defend themselves against the quite accurate charges that a more vigorous pruning regime would have resulted in less problems overall. One example:

Last week's storms and some gratuitous vilification of those of us trying to preserve as much of our shade canopy as possible present something of a difficult environment for saving the trees in our alleys and especially along our numbered strees where lines cross, so if you want to support our work, I hope you wll attend.

It doesn't help that these same people form much of the nucleus of the abominable "let's further restrict residential development in the Center City while claiming to be against suburban sprawl" contingent.

However, I also don't want to see beautiful trees hacked to pieces, and, frankly, AE will do it if they're not reined in.

So, here's my proposal:

Each AE customer gets to choose between the following:

1. AE gets to do whatever they want.

2. AE can't trim anything, but residents at this address will be assessed a (fairly large) monthly charge designed to build up funds for putting electric lines underground (where, in more civilized parts of the country, they generally would be). This doesn't include wires from the street to your house; just the wires along the street. AE pays 50% of the cost of any such projects; the remaining 50% comes from the local residents' contributions and must be spent within the local neighborhood planning district (i.e. maybe not on your individual street but not too far from it).

Problem solved. Those who want to preserve their trees at the possible risk of cutting off their neighbors' electricity must pay for the privilege, and the money must go into a much better long-term solution than trimming.

(I'd choose #2 myself, by the way, depending on the charge. I don't want my trees hacked up either; but I don't assert the right to cut off power to my entire neighborhood).

Next up: M1EK solves the "Drainage Emergency".

March 26, 2006

Bad Neighborhoods Shouldn't Get Help

Inspired by a survey pushed by Tarrytown neighborhood activists, I've re-entered the fray on McMansions. Read the survey, and note that if those regulations were enforced, essentially none of the best streets for pedestrians and residents in central Austin would be remotely legal (as opposed to current suburban-oriented zoning code, under which they're only MOSTLY illegal).

My latest contribution on the residential regulations discussion board relating to the McMansion debate follows. Please sign up and comment in the thread if you have an interest in this stuff. The perception that most homeowners believe that this stuff is OK is what gives these people the disproportionate power that they have today.

In other words, right now it looks like eeevil developers are the only people who would oppose these additional restrictions, since most of the responsible adults in Austin have stayed silent. It's my belief that the City Council will cave and essentially do whatever the task force comes up with, if it looks like their regulations have the support of a sufficiently large majority of people who expressed some interest in the process, just like another recent cowardly pandering dodge of their responsiblity as city leaders.

This builds on a thread by Chris Cosart.

I suppose you could sum up my "responsible urbanism" position this way:

Neighborhoods which have vigorously fought all density and infill over the years which could have helped the city achieve its overall goals should not receive extra protection from the market forces they have distorted in the process.

Specifically: if your neighborhood's plan doesn't allow for additional multifamily development not only on the fringes but on the inside of your neighborhood, in some non-trivial way, you shouldn't expect the support of the city to defend you against incompatible development. Period.

Living in a city entails responsibilities as well as rights. Too often, central neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and especially NUNA, have irresponsibly fought density which would have helped the city as a whole (the Villas on Guadalupe, for instance). Now, those same people who fought responsible multi-family development in places where it was drastically needed (even far away from their homes), and who, by the way, live in homes which are already big and/or incompatible with their neighbors, want additional city protection from the market distortions they themselves helped create through decades of obstructionism.

What we need is additional multifamily infill EVERYWHERE - not just on the big roads like Guadalupe and Lamar (where you've fought it), but also in garage apartments, even on small lots (where you've fought it); in duplexes (where you've fought it); two and four-plexes and rowhouses even on the inside of neighborhoods (where you've fought it). All that fighting only resulted in gross distorting loopholes like Super-Twos and Super-Duplexes, when a more rational response to the market would have resulted in quality multi-family infill. Who knows what will result from this latest attempt to stick another finger in the dike - but I can guarantee it won't be nice, and it won't be what you expect.

You won't get my support. I hope you won't get the City Council's support either.

March 17, 2006

Shoal Creek Summed Up

Michael Bluejay made an outstanding presentation (Quicktime slides with audio) which everybody needs to read. (He presented this before the City Council right before they approved the cyclist-endangering Option III).

Again, I can't recommend this video enough. It's the best quick summary of this issue, with pictures, that I've ever seen. Watch it now.

March 13, 2006

I Got Mine, Now You Can't Have Yours

Disappointing one of my three loyal readers who has been bugging me for Part II of Capital Metro's Broken Promises, I thought I should call attention to the bulletin board being used to hash out permanent version(s) of the McMansion Ordinance.

Specifically, I noticed that on the Task Force, the three representatives closest to my area have one guy with whom I don't have much problem with in general, but also two people who I most certainly have: one from Hyde Park and one from NUNA.

I did a little sleuthing on zillow.com, since I can't yet walk as far as Hyde Park thanks to the still-mostly-unresponsive-to-treatment-arthritis. The representative from Hyde Park's home is friggin' huge compared to its neighbors and the typical Hyde Park bungalow.

I did make it by the representative's house in NUNA, which, despite not being as huge, was arguably even more incompatible with its neighbors, having the cardinal sin of "looming over its neighbor's backyards" which is an oft-heard complaint against McMansions.

I'd also like to call attention to an excellent thread started by Chris Cosart, who has commented here in the past.

I'll close with those quote from another thread on that very board:

As I've pointed out with the two examples from the task force, though, this boils down to "I got mine; now you can't have yours". Both 111 Laurel and 4315 Avenue C are incompatible with their neighbors. Why should they be allowed to tell me how compatible I must be with mine?

February 24, 2006

The Drainage Emergency

Following up on yesterday's excitement where I got involved in the McMansion debate on an austin neighborhood planning email list, pointing out that the rationale used to justify adding MORE rather than LESS regulation of what people do with their property is shoddy,

and in which I accidentally mailed something to the whole list which I meant to send offline to one person in particular, for which I then had to apologize, to which I then received a snarky, obnoxious, rejoinder that I might want to read the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan (which I printed out and have had on hand for 3 or 4 years now, as I've done with all center-city neighborhood plans, since, heck, I was a committee chair on one back in the day),

to which I then wrote this mean, mean, mean retort...


Today, I call your attention to the Planning Commission recommendations for the issue. Note how few of the items listed have anything to do with drainage.

Here's a radical idea: If the problem being addressed here really is "drainage", i.e. storm sewers, and it MUST be, since the center-city neighborhood associations who pushed this through used the DRAINAGE EMERGENCY as the justification for their immediate moratorium, why not attack the actual problem? Here's a simple idea. (Using single-family here; multi-family fees would require another formula).

  1. "Normal" drainage fee on monthly utility statement = X (today's amount).
  2. Adjust for size of single-family lot. Larger lot = bigger fee.
  3. Adjust for amount of impervious cover, by percentage. More greenspace = smaller fee.
  4. Adjust for on-site detention such as rain barrels.

That's all it would take. Anybody who wanted to live in a McMansion would be faced with a higher drainage bill. Anybody who lives in an existing house which has similarly large impervious cover ALSO pays. Make these multipliers high enough that they generate enough money for the necessary drainage facilities, and you then have a way to harness the power of development to solve the actual problem.

I wonder how interested in this actual solution to the DRAINAGE!!!!!! EMERGENCY!!!!!! the center-city neighborhood associations will be. Any guesses?

I should probably start adding this disclaimer: M1EK hates McMansions more than you do. M1EK just doesn't like punishing property owners who don't want to build a McMansion but might want to build a bigger house. M1EK is especially pissed off by people who use bogus excuses to hide what they really want, which is to keep 'those people' out of 'their neighborhood'. M1EK is even more especially pissed off by neighborhood associations whose leaders bleat about keeping housing affordable, yet have resisted every multifamily development in and near their neighborhood for years..

February 23, 2006

Irresponsible Center-City Neighborhoods And Their Plans

Just posted to AustinNP, in response to a long-running thread originally about the McMansion ordinance.

Those neighborhood plans are very, very, very underwhelming. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan calls for barely more density than exists today, and the CANPAC 'trades' density which ALWAYS should have been allowed in West Campus for the right not to have any more multifamily or mixed-use development in most of the rest of the area.

When I chaired the transportation committee for the Old West Austin neighborhood plan, as long as we're trading bona-fides, we operated under the understanding that our responsibility was to tell the city where and how our neighborhood and surrounding area could accomodate additional density, both multifamily and mixed-use commercial, since the will of the city (including these neighborhoods) was to redirect development inwards (slowing suburban sprawl). The goal was _NOT_ to push it purely onto the fringe of our neighborhood so that apartments would only go up on the loud, busy, streets; or that it would become another neighborhood's problem. This is in direct contrast to the Hyde Park and especially CANPAC plans - where a responsible process would have resulted in much more density being called for on Guadalupe; somewhat more (as mixed-use or multifamily) on the interior streets of Speedway and Duval; loosening rather than tightening of secondary dwelling rules; etc.

So, if you ask me, do I respect the amount of time that you and the others spent making those neighborhood plans - yes, in a sense, I do, in the sense that I can respect how hard-working Karl Rove is, even though he works for my political enemies. You achieved your goals completely; but the outcome is not one I can respect.

- MD

February 20, 2006

Shoal Creek Attractive Nuisance Boulevard

(just posted to the austin transportational cycling list)

As I've tried to point out before but obviously not succeeded, the danger for SCB is that it becomes an 'attractive nuisance' - i.e., if you stripe a 'bike lane' or a 'shoulder' or even a 'shared use area', you are making an implied recommendation that this is where cyclists should be riding. (Well-established in both legal and traffic engineering circles).

Thus, the facility to which you're 'attracting' the cyclists to had better meet some basic, bare minimum, safety guidelines such as AASHTO. As many have pointed out, AASHTO standards for bike lanes next to parking are still not great - a good chunk of the bike lane would be in the door space, but the Gandy design would have had all of the bike lane within the door zone, and the 'space' shrinking to perhaps a foot when being passed by a motorist while you yourself were passing a parked truck - i.e., you would get brushed even if the parked vehicle never opened its door. The 10-foot shared space has this same exact problem; the absence of the stripe separating 'bike lane' from 'parking lane' makes no difference.

I get the sense that many people still haven't looked at these pictures, which tell the story far better than my words possibly could.

Take a look. That's not "normal bike lane bad" where the door would extend part of the way into the bike lane when it's open. That's "guaranteed collision bad" where the cyclist fundamentally doesn't have enough space to travel even when the truck's door is closed.

Some people (who must not have looked at that picture) drastically underestimate how bad a facility this is - thinking that they (good rider) would just get into the travel lane to pass the parked car. This forgets that:

1. Most inexperienced riders don't know to do this, and will thus 'swerve' at the last moment, or maybe not even go out into the lane at all, and

2. Experienced riders will take the lane well in advance of the parked car, and will (in my, and Lane's experience at least) get honked at, or possibly someday worse.

A facility which encourages inexperienced cyclists to perform unsafe manuevers and which causes conflict with other road users when experienced cyclists do what they're supposed to do has no place on our roadways. It doesn't matter how the other roads in the city are designed - if this one fails some basic minimum safety standards, it's a horrible, horrible design and needs to be rethought. If this means removing SCB from the city's bicycle route system, so be it.

That's the bottom line here - the city is basically signing up for a huge potential liability lawsuit, and if it ever happens, I'll be glad to testify that they were warned early and often.

February 17, 2006

Fifty-Fifty Journalistic Balance Sucks

Whether it's in science (usually global warming or evolution) or local politics, journalists addicted to "he-said she-said" should turn in their press pass. If that's all we needed, simple links to a couple of ideological websites would suffice.

With global warming, you effectively have an overwhelming scientific consensus and a couple of skeptics - bought and paid for by oil companies (and, of course, a college dropout Bush appointee trying to censor one of this country's most experienced climatologists). The media usually covers this as "he-said, she-said", which is OK when there truly IS no consensus, but we passed that point ten years ago.

In the Shoal Creek debacle instance, the Chronicle didn't bother to tell you that the TTI, hired by the City Council in an obvious attempt to provide at least some political cover for choosing "Option 3", reported back to them that the peer cities fairly unanimously recommended "Option 2", and that all of them recommended very strongly against "Option 3". Paraphrased, the response was, essentially, "why don't you idiots just restrict parking on one side of the street?".

Did the Chronicle mention this, either at the time or now that the council subcommittee ignored everybody who knows diddly-squat about traffic safety and ordered Option 3? Of course not. It's "car-free bike lane guys say X. On the other hand, neighborhood people say Y". No mention of which position might be more credible. No mention of the fact that the experts the city hired to consult were firmly on one of the two sides.

Fifty-fifty balance sucks. A chimp could collate two press releases together and turn them into an article. Chronicle, have another banana.

February 12, 2006

Houston outlaws density better than Austin does

A pseudonymous trogolyde in this well-commented thread on Metroblogging Austin has just invoked the second component the "Austin no-growther duo", the first being "It's all the Californian's fault".

M1EK if you are so in love with density. And the idea of quaint neighborhoods with small houses is too much to take move the fuck out of Austin. Move to fucking Houston. Developers have less restrictions. You can tear down houses and build condos and no bats an eye.

The charm, it just oozes off the screen.

It's probably a good time to repoint readers to this article on Houston in which the author alleges a similar, perhaps even greater, interference by the government there in the processes which would otherwise create density, despite the oft-celebrated lack of zoning. One example, in case you don't want to wade through the PDF,

Until 1998, [FN37] Houston's city code provided that the minimum lot size for detached [FN38] single-family dwellings was 5000 square feet. [FN39] And until 1998, [FN40] Houston's government made it virtually impossible for developers to build large numbers of non-detached single-family homes such as townhouses, [FN41] by requiring townhouses to sit on at least 2250 square feet of land. [FN42] As Siegan admits, this law "tend(ed) to preclude the erection of lower cost townhouses" [FN43] and thus effectively meant that townhouses "cannot be built for the lower and lower middle income groups." [FN44] Houston's townhouse regulations, unlike its regulations governing detached houses, [FN45] were significantly more restrictive than those of other North American cities. For example, town houses may be as small as 647 square feet of land in Dallas, [FN46] 560 square feet in Phoenix, [FN47] and 390 square feet in Toronto, Canada. [FN48] Houston's anti-townhouse policy, combined with its minimum lot size requirement for detached houses, effectively meant that almost all single-family development in Houston had to be on a lot of at least 5000 square feet [FN49] (which means that single-family areas in Houston could have no more than 8.7 houses per acre).

There's a lot more. Again, I highly recommend you read this if you've ever heard that "Houston has no zoning".

February 08, 2006

"Stick the renters in high-rises"

The past position of essentially all central-Austin neighborhoods (and, unfortunately, current position of many, including my current one and the last one) regarding high-density development was "none, never".

Now, there appears to be, in some of the more enlightened neighborhoods, a position which they believe to be sufficient which is certainly BETTER than the old "none, never", but still has some problems. I call it "stick 'em in high-rises downtown", and it goes something like this:

"Preserve our single-family character by banning all apartments in and near our houses - instead, support more density downtown. Apartment dwellers want to be where the action is, anyway, don't they?"

Unfortunately, in my response to a thread along these lines in one neighborhood's yahoo group, I completely forgot the economic argument - namely that condos like my unit in Clarksville are affordable, but neither the high-rise downtown nor the single-family house in Rosedale ever will be.

Here's what I wrote in that last response to that group. (I've paraphrased the quotes I responded to in parenthetical double-quotes below).

("Central Austin is still desirable because most people want to live central in houses")

I prefer to live on Congress Avenue in a mansion. There appears to
only be one way to do that, though, and as Tony Sanchez can tell you,
being rich doesn't necessarily cut it.

There is a lot of unfilled demand to live central. When all other
things are equal, the majority of people would prefer to live in close
proximity to their job or other frequent non-home activity center.
When all other things are equal, the majority of people would prefer
to live in single-family housing on big lots. Where things get
interesting is where we are now, when those two forces come into
conflict (i.e., there is no possible way to satisfy both to their
fullest degree).

("The multi-family building, not the tenants, being the problem" - part of this discussion centered on renters being bad neighbors, to which I responded with my theory about rental houses being much worse for neighbors than apartments or condos)

With all due respect, I do not think this is a strawman argument at
all, given how many people in this very discussion have complained
about the behavior of renters (usually packed into HOUSES). It's
fairly obvious to me that if you restrict the development of
multifamily buildings in the central city, you will get more people
living together in rental houses, and that those tenants are more
difficult to control when they are renting from one landlord each
without the oversight of a HOA (as in a condo building). What about
this is difficult to agree with?

("Center-city neighborhoods restrict multi-family housing; leads to downtown becoming like Vancouver; and I'm OK with that", implication being that this satisfies the 'problem').

This leaves no room for moderate-density housing, which, for most of
US history, was the development style which the market provided for
most people. The fact that, before zoning restrictions and many of the
governmental economic activity that affects housing development today,
the market tended to provide mostly townhouses, rowhouses, etc. shows
to me that this style of moderate-density housing IS the sweet spot
where the demand for central living and the demand for space are best
compromised.

For instance, the condo unit I lived in for 6 years (and still own) is
one of 14 on Waterston Avenue (Clarksville) which takes up the space
of about 3 single-family houses. I slept with my windows open at
night. Can't do that in one of those high-rises. On the other hand, I
can't walk to the grocery store from my single-family house. Frankly,
if we had rowhouses here in Austin in a walkable neighborhood, that's
where I'd be. We don't have them, not because there's no demand, but
because neighborhoods have forcibly kept them out.

To say that there's no place for anything between (single-family
house) and (high-rise) seems to me to be not much better than saying
that everybody must live single-family.


If I forget, I'm counting on my three devoted readers to please remind me to expand on the rental house vs. apartment/condo issue in the future. OK THANKS BYE.

February 03, 2006

On bicycle lanes, and dense areas

I just made this comment to this post on Jamie's site which made my morning bright. I rhyme! Thought it deserved its own entry, to at least put some transportation back at the top.

Wow, thanks for the endorsement! That made my morning!

Kyle,

I've spent a lot of time in Seattle for work and for a wedding, and my wife lived there for about 7 years. One thing's for certain: Austin has much higher speed roadways in general than Seattle does - or, put it another way, the part of Austin where the roads are like "all of Seattle" only extends out from 6th/Congress about a mile and a half. And in that part of town, I usually advocate against bike lanes (one of my fellow commissioners at the time pushed for bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca downtown, for instance; I pushed against).

There are other reasons to support bike lanes even on roads with slower traffic. For instance, the primary bicycle arteries heading to UT are a block and three blocks away from my house (Speedway and Duval). Each has so many cyclists that without the bike lanes, the road would probably not be able to function for motorists - in that sense, the bike lanes help manage high levels of bicycle traffic. Likewise, the whole Shoal Creek debacle is a mess because the bike lanes are needed due to both high volumes of cyclists and high volumes of child cyclists (for whom the speed differential rises to the normal 'justifies bike lanes' levels, I think).

and my second comment once I realized I hadn't read his closely enough:

Kyle,

Upon reading my comment it seems to be responding to an implication which wasn't there in your comment. I'm way too tired this morning, so please treat mine as an expansion of yours rather than as an attempt to refute, since it's obvious upon further reading that you weren't saying Austin's level of bike lanes were too high, but rather that our area of town where bike lanes aren't needed is too small. Couldn't agree more.

Things are glacially improving on that pace, set back by bad neighborhoods who prefer suburban parking codes. And there are a lot of cyclists heading down Speedway and Duval each day, at least.

January 31, 2006

"Build it and they'll come" is no way to run a city

So the end-result of the Parlor problem appears to be that the neighborhood isn't going to budge on the parking variance, which means that another local business is in danger of going under unless the notoriously neighborhood-friendly Board of Adjustment suddenly becomes more responsible.

The end of the thread on the hydeparkaustin mailing list occurred when a member of the "Circle C in downtown Austin" party commented that a plan (in the works now for a long time and seemingly not close to fruition) to arrange for parking at the State Hospital (across Guadalupe) to be used for employees of businesses on Guadalupe would be the only way out of this mess.

I replied that it was unlikely that any customer or employee of those businesses would find it attractive to park at the state hospital, walk out to Guadalupe, wait a long time for the light at 41st and Guadalupe to change, walk very quickly across the street, and then and only then arrive at their destination (as compared to parking on a side street or Avenue A).

The person replied (and was supported by the moderator, who then ended the discussion with the attached unpublished rebuttal in hand) that "the boss can make the employee park whereever they say". This may be true in an abstract sense, I replied, but it's unlikely that any such boss would want to spend the energy enforcing a rule which prevented employees from parking in PUBLIC spaces such as on Avenue A, even if they did want to keep employees out of their own private lot.

This goes back to thinking of a type which is unfortunately prevalent here in Austin and among many other progressive cities - that being that people will do things that are good, as long as we provide opportunities to do them. IE, build it and they will come. What you build, given this thinking, doesn't have to be attractive compared to the pre-existing or forthcoming alternatives; its mere existence will suffice.

For instance, in this circumstance, they think that simply providing available parking in an inconvenient and unpleasant location will get people to park there who would otherwise park on neighborhood streets. Likewise, Capital Metro thinks simply providing any rail will get people to use it, even if the individual incentives are pretty awful, given the shuttle bus transfers.

I have a whole blog category analyzing 'use cases' which I think is a far more useful way to look at the problem. In this case, for instance, put yourself in the shoes of that potential parking consumer a few paragraphs back and remember that your boss probably (a) isn't going to be able to stop you from parking on Avenue A, and (b) probably couldn't catch you even if he tried.

But like with the naive pro-transit suckers that bought the MikeKrusee ScrewAustin Express, it's unlikely that it's possible to get through to these people. And so, the consequence is that another local business which probably would have improved Guadalupe as a place we actually want to be is thwarted. Good work, geniuses.

This is not to say that we should never build transit or highways. What it does mean is that somebody ought to spend at least a few minutes figuring out whether the thing you're going to expect people to use is actually attractive enough for them to choose to use it. By that metric, light rail in 2000 was a slam dunk, despite the lies spread by Skaggs and Daugherty. But in this parking case and with this commuter rail line, nobody seems to have bothered to put themselves in the shoes of the prospective user.

my sadly now never-to-be-published response (remember, this is to somebody who said "But the Heart Hospital doesn't let their employees park in their lot!" follows.


Those cases have some clear and obvious differences to the one
we're talking about here -- one being that the employees are being prohibited from parking in a private lot (which is still difficult to enforce, but at least defensible). You're asking that these business' employees not only refrain from parking in the business' lot (private) but ALSO from the public spaces on Guadalupe and the street space on Avenue A. And nobody's 'requiring' those state employees to park in Siberia - if they could find an open metered space somewhere else, for instance, they're free to take it. Likewise, the Heart Hospital can't force its employees to mark at the MHMR pool.

So it's easy to prohibit people from parking in a given private lot. Unless you're going to turn Avenue A into RPPP as part of this, though, they'd still park there instead of across Guadalupe. And any boss who tried to force them otherwise would probably be experiencing the fun world of employee turnover.

January 20, 2006

Our lunch, and parking

I'm still not over the current flare-up of my stupid arthritis (now six months and counting since I was able to do, essentially, anything) so even though Julio's is within a good walk, we drove to lunch. My wife wanted to pick up some vegetables at Fresh Plus too. Here's what we had to do:

  1. Drive by Julio's. All spaces taken. Oops.
  2. Drive by the lot at Fresh Plus. Note that it's 2/3 empty, unlike the other big lot in the area. Sign says you will be towed if you leave the premises. Oops.
  3. Drive by the other big lot. Full. (Not really allowed for Julio's either; probably towable).
  4. Park on street amidst many people doing the same.
  5. Walk past Fresh Plus and that other lot over to Julio's.
  6. Eat lunch
  7. Walk back to Fresh Plus and buy vegetables
  8. Walk past 2/3 empty lot back to car

The even-more-suburban version of this would have entailed us parking at a lot for Julio's, then having to move the car to the Fresh Plus lot, then driving home. Some folks would prefer that business customers don't park on the street even in Hyde Park so that's not that far off. In fact, a local small business opening was/is being held up over such concerns. (if you can't read the hyde park group and you're really interested in the details, email me).

This shopping center was used before by Karen McGraw as an example of a good solution to the parking-versus-neighborhood-streets 'problem' when another business on Guadalupe was trying to get a variance to open with far less than suburban-norm parking. Didn't seem that good to me - pretty damn inefficient to have 2/3 of Fresh Plus' lot sitting there empty (and the big lot shared by Hyde Park Bar & Grill and other businesses is often underutilized as well, although not today).

We're not that unusual - when people do drive to this commercial node (many walk or bike), it's quite often to hit several places at once. Most either do what we do and park on the street (thus pissing off the neighbors) or risk getting towed because they 'left the premises'.

Does this strike anybody else as good? What the hell's wrong with just abolishing these stupid parking requirements anyways - businesses that absolutely can't live without dedicated off-street parking would continue to build it; but we wouldn't be left with these wide expanses of mandated, but empty, parking. And if there was a huge demand for off-street parking, somebody could build (shudder) a pay lot instead of forcing businesses to subsidize drivers at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians.

Folks, if you want to live in a real city, you have to get to that place where you realize that forcing every business to have its own parking lot is just stupid, stupid, stupid. You end up with blight (like on Guadalupe) because you just can't pound that square suburban peg into the circular urban hole.

January 09, 2006

More on 37th, NUNA, and bad neighbors

I just posted the following in the comments of this post on Austin's metroblog (which, somehow, despite my focus on Austin politics, mostly ignores this blog's existence). Adam Rice also posted a good article on his theories on why the lights are going away which is much more informative and doubtlessly much more correct than my own.

Since the comment appears to have been held for moderation, I reproduce it here (this is in response to both Ray, who lives a bit to my east, and the other guy, who is a member of the Suck It Up You Knew What You Were Buying Into contingent):

To present a third pole to the geography of this discussion, I, personally, blame the folks running the center-city neighborhood organizations for the last couple of decades who basically shut down all apartment development near UT for most of that time (finally starting to have their grip on the City Council loosened about the time the Villas on Guadalupe made it through despite their vicious and obnoxious opposition).

If, as would have happened in a city run by responsible adults rather than pander-to-neighborhood-lunatics-at-all-costs-types like Jackie Goodman, we had built BIG BIG BIG buildings along Guadalupe and points further west (within walking distance of campus) when demand was indicated, instead of playing catch-up only TODAY, we wouldn't have nearly as many kids in rental houses - because, frankly, most college kids could give a crap if they have a yard - they'd probably rather have a pool and a workout room. But they sure as hell might rather live in a house within a bike ride of campus than in a crappy apartment on Far West or Riverside where they get a long, unreliable, and jerky shuttle-bus ride to school every day...

(I live nextdoor to a duplex full of UT Wranglers who have been problematic at times despite having a very responsible landlord - the guy who sold me the house and moved near Far West to be closer to Anderson High. Even with a good landlord, I feel bad about calling as much as I do - this is Not Fun Stuff).

January 05, 2006

Crackpot Letter, Part XXIV

From today's Chronicle, in reference to last week's 37th street lights / student housing complaint:

More Apartments Near UT Dear Editor,

Mary-Gay Maxwell's complaints about houses rented out to too many students strike home for a lot of us ["Are Partiers Dimming the 37th Street Lights?," News, Dec. 30]. I live in her neighborhood, next to a duplex full of undergrads who are occasionally a problem despite a landlord who's more responsible than most.

But let's be clear: Most college kids don't particularly want to live in a house. It's more work than an apartment, you don't get a pool or an entertainment room, you have more worries about parking and roommates, etc.

So why are so many UT students living in rental houses, compared to cities with other large colleges (such as Penn State)? Well, for one, UT doesn't have many dorms. Not much we can do about that out here in the community. But there's another contributing factor here: This area doesn't have anywhere near enough near-campus apartments to satisfy demand. Some students would doubtlessly still live in rental houses, but a large majority would switch back to apartments, as they do at other big universities. It's ludicrous that there's so much low-density development (single-story even) along Guadalupe close to campus.

Living off Far West or Riverside (in low-density apartment sprawl) is a poor substitute to being able to walk (or ride your bike) to class - a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle bus isn't going to win the battle against close-in rental houses. So it's clear we need more near-campus high-density apartment development - and the recent rezoning of West Campus is a good start, but not nearly enough. The problem today, though, is that we're still dealing with the effects of the last 20-30 years of ill-advised obstruction tactics by near-campus neighborhoods to any and all apartment development. Villas on Guadalupe, anyone?

Unfortunately, this lack of near-campus high-density apartment housing was, in fact, created by neighbors like Maxwell through their irresponsible opposition to essential projects like the Villas. Too bad that people like me (living a few blocks from those 37th lights) have to suffer the consequences with her.

Mike Dahmus

December 06, 2005

Sprawl isn't the result of the free market

Finally somebody in the mainstream press gets it. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12/5/2005:

There are two kinds of people: Us and them. And where the line falls between the two depends entirely on context.

Sometimes us and them is a matter of gender — "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," as the book title goes. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd asks in her new book, "Are Men Necessary?"

At other times, we define us and them by racial or political differences, or even by something as frivolous as the sports team we follow. In fact, a lot of the appeal of sports is the opportunity to root hard for our side against their side; as a lifelong New York Yankee hater, I can personally attest to the pleasures that can bring.

Then there's the line we draw depending on how and where we live. To suburban dwellers, the city is often viewed as a corrupt heart of darkness, in more ways than one. To city dwellers, the suburbs are perceived as rather soulless and pale, again in more ways than one.

Those tensions play out in a lot of ways, even coloring discussions about how booming areas such as Atlanta ought to develop. Too often, what ought to be a straightforward, even technical discussion of various land-use approaches can devolve into just another battleground in the ongoing culture wars, just another example of us against them.

For example, one of the Atlanta region's biggest challenges is controlling sprawl, a development pattern that consumes tax dollars and open land and greatly complicates transportation planning and environmental problems. One of the options available to mitigate sprawl and its impact is an approach called "smart growth" — areas of higher-density development that mix residential, commercial and business uses.

Unfortunately, though, some suburban dwellers hear criticism of sprawl as some sort of a value-laden condemnation of suburban life. They respond by launching a defense of sprawl that can be paraphrased with the following:

"What others deride as sprawl is actually just the free market at work, the result of millions of Americans choosing the lifestyle they prefer. And any effort to control or limit 'sprawl' is a misuse of government power promoted by elitists who want to instruct us common folk how to live."

Well, I've covered enough county commission and zoning board meetings to know that's just romantic mythology.

First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that's how they make the most profit; you don't see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre.

Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market's tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like "smart-growth" policies.

In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers' property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative's dream.

The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you'll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses.

Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect "us" against the incursion of "them."

That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region's success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice.

Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.

• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

Unintended Consequences of Irresponsible Zoning

I just posted this to the allandale yahoo group but it bears repeating to a more general audience.

--- In allandale@yahoogroups.com, "kayn7"  wrote:
>
> Some of the neighbors in HPWBANA tried the nice approach and working
> with them - the students were - to say the least - not responsive and
> some were abusive. The neighbors on Hartford call the police and
> Varisty Properties owners on a regular basis because of parking on
> lawns, loud late night parties, beer cans thrown in yards.

This entire process (and I live next door to a duplex full of UT Wranglers who occasionally cause similar problems) is an unintended consequence of something which your neighborhood and mine probably supports - that being restrictions on multifamily development.

Most of these kids (not all, but most) don't have any particular interest in living in a house instead of a condo or apartment - but the artificially low-density development around UT for decades has forced them to either live out in Far West or Riverside and take a slow poky shuttle to school, or get together with a bunch of buddies and rent a house (and be able to carpool to school or take a much quicker and shorter bus ride, or bike or walk). I'd probably pick the same thing if I were in their shoes - I've seen how long it takes to bus in from those areas; my next-door neighbors can walk the 10 blocks to campus in half the time it takes those other schlubs to bus there.

(I know from my experience in college that when the market provides enough near-campus apartments, far fewer kids end up in rental houses - this was at Penn State, in case anybody cares).

So you can thank the decades of foolhardy opposition to density (height restrictions and moronic suburban parking requirements) in West Campus for a lot of this. Unfortunately, the recent rezonings are too little too late for most of us - it will be another decade or two before the number of new apartments there can begin to stem the tide.

Summary: for decades, inner-city neighborhoods pushed the city to keep building heights low, require way too much parking, and otherwise restrict high-density development near UT despite the fact that students living in this area WALK to class. UT doesn't provide even half as many dorms as the students would seem to need; the near-campus market doesn't have enough tall buildings to make up the difference (not even as many as Penn State has, despite having an oversupply of dorms); so students end up in rental houses, even though they have no interest in yardwork and get hassled a lot more by the neighbors (like me) than they would in an apartment in West Campus. Be careful of what you ask for.

More on Yesterday's Whiff

Councilmember McCracken wrote me back, defending his successful attempt to draw this out further, by claiming that there was "no data about any of the options". This is true, if you restrict the question to "what are the motor vehicle speeds on a roadway with bike lanes and on-street parking on one or both sides with various treatments". However, as I noted above, the TTI was quite clear about the safety recommendation from peer cities - that being, do option 2 and do it now.

The other things McCracken wanted to put on the road in test sections, if I'm remembering correctly, were:

  • Current design (with curb extensions) - there's really no point in doing this, unless your ONLY goal is to measure motor vehicle speeds - it's a well-known safety hazard for all road users.
  • Painted bike lane (presumably this is in the original Gandy 10-4-6 configuration which doesn't provide enough space for a driver to pass a cyclist who is passing a parked car)
  • Bike lane with raised markings next to either parking lane, driving lane, or both (I'm unclear whether this treatment would include parking on both sides or on one side only - the raised markings would take up enough space that it would seem to rule out the Gandy configuration, but at this point who knows).

As you can see from the linked items above, to imply that these facilities haven't been studied isn't particularly accurate - they have, and substantial safety problems have been noted. It's true that nobody bothered to measure motor vehicle speed next to these various bicycle facilities - frankly because nobody cared - the speed of a car when it hits you on one of these roads isn't particularly important - whether that car is going 25 or 35 when it runs over you because you slipped on a raised curb marking, for instance, isn't very relevant.

December 05, 2005

Council Whiffs Again On Shoal Creek

About 3/4 of the way through the subcommittee meeting and it looks like the 3 council members are falling back into a "let's get a consensus plan together which meets all stakeholder interests" mode which, in case anybody's forgetting, is what ended up giving us this abomination and all of the nightmare since then.

This is not a situation where compromise works. This is a situation where the Council has to CHOOSE between:

1. Parking on both sides of the street, and the elimination of Shoal Creek Boulevard as a safe and useful link in the bicycle route system for Austin (no alternates exist which come close to the length and right-of-way advantages of SCB).

2. Bicycle lanes on both sides with no parking (in the bike lanes); and on-street parking restricted to one side of the street (also known as "Option 2").

But instead, it sure as heck looks like they're ignoring the advice of the TTI (which was absolutely clear about what other cities do in cases like this - they do #2) in favor of kow-towing to the neighborhood yet again; inevitably ending up with some stupid combination of Option 3 and the Gandy debacle.

The worst part is Brewster's gang of "stakeholders" which includes nobody credible from the transportation bicycling community (no, the ACA doesn't represent these folks) and has come up with a plan to try a BUNCH of different things on the road, all but one of which (option 2) are heartily discouraged by modern roadway designers.

This is so depressing...

December 02, 2005

Why The Drag Sucks

This was going to be a comment at infobong to his entry about another local business biting it on the Drag, but I realized it was getting way too long and probably way too wonkish for that venue.

It's a simple but sadly misunderstood formula:

# of potential customers in area has been going up (more students; more residents).

Amount of retail space has been staying the same (stupidly limited by zoning regulations which effectively prevented any redevelopment along the drag which has way too much single-story car-oriented retail and even surface parking.

Result? Higher demand (from customers); stagnant supply; more demand (from businesses) for static space = higher rents = more national chains

Solution? No parking requirements and very very very generous height limits along the Drag. But even the recent West Campus rezoning didn't go far enough down that path - there's still way too much emphasis on parking minimums. Properties right along Guadalupe as far north as 38th and possibly 45th should have NO required parking, in my opinion. If you think this gives them too much of a leg up (even given the much higher rent they'll pay than their suburban competitors), consider having them pay an "in-lieu parking fee" dedicated to mass transit and pedestrian improvements along the corridor.

That's another piece of the formula of course, which ends up leading to a few big tenants being healthy because they can lock up access to a lot or a garage; while the little individual (usually local) tenants blight out - like what's happening up on Guadalupe between 29th and 45th. Properties can't redevelop because change of use between one type of commercial business and another make the grandfathered variance go away, which means they're suddenly subject to suburban-style parking requirements.

November 10, 2005

tagged

This is the first time I've done one of these.

Gregg passed along this game...

1. Delve into your blog archive.

B. Search the archives for the 23rd post.

2. Find the 5th sentence, or closest to.

III. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions. Ponder it for meaning, subtext or hidden agendas.

C. Tag 5 more people

My 23rd entry was The Shoal Creek Debacle, Part III which had NOTHING TO DO WITH MASS-TRANSIT, SO THERE!

The 5th sentence was:

To be fair, the bike lane stretch between Steck and Anderson has one large gravel patch in it as well.

Analysis: Well, I was trying to give the wide curb lane guys a fair shake, but honestly I don't buy the claim that a wide curb lane has less debris than a bike lane - and it shows. This entry remains relevant today - see this blog category and this fun yahoo group for more.

This entry particularly sucks since I can't ride my bike now (maybe not much, ever) due to my body trying to kill me (had another subflare in the intervening time and was on crutches for another week; have not ridden bike since that posting). The good news(?) is that screwing up Shoal Creek won't matter much for me from here on out.

Guess it should have been a mass transit entry after all, dammit!

I don't know if anybody beyond a few kooks reads this thing, but what the hell: Steve Casburn can probably regale us with tales of Houston yore; Mark Hasty probably exorcised somebody on about that day; Chris was probably predicting a Democratic landslide; Jim was surely claiming to be non-partisan; and Thomas Gray was, I'm sure, still insisting it wasn't a blog.

September 29, 2005

On Misrepresentation (Willful, that is)

So The Triangle is almost open, and in a thread on the Hyde Park mailing list, I called a Hyde Park resident on the "students are going to drive to UT from there" canard which was so abhorrently misused by NUNA during the Villas on Guadalupe fight. It's obvious to anybody with half a brain that students aren't going to drive from 45th/Guadalupe to UT, considering the parking situation at UT -- in fact, it is quite likely that their car, in the garage at the Triangle, is already as close as it could get to the campus without spending way too much time circling. (Many student drivers drive to the IM fields, and take a shuttle-bus the rest of the way in - the Triangle is already no further away than that, and there's a BETTER bus right outside their door). Yeah, a couple of them might do it once in a while because they need to run an errand right after class, but they'll just displace a student who's currently parking down there at a pay lot, since the supply of near-UT parking is COMPLETELY taken up by the current demand for same.

Now the guy who I responded to is pissed, having sent me a curt response demanding an apology, and I replied with a fairly inflammatory note back asking if he'd prefer I assume he's stupid and apologize, or assume he's smart and not do so. Like most center-city neighborhood partisans, I think he's willing to bend what he knows to be true about traffic in order to win points at City Council, i.e. "the ends justify the means". But is my response to such the right way to handle things? Is it better to remain respectful, courteous, and get played for a sucker; or is it better to not take any crap and call it what it is?

I see too many people being played for fools by bad actors who make statements they know to be false - like certain posters on the new Shoal Creek Boulevard group. Is it better to pretend that these bad actors are genuine and risk giving them credibility they don't deserve? Is it better to call them what they are? Is it better to do what I typically do and attempt both, and depending on who you ask, fail at both? I figure there's enough people out there who pretend like bad actors are genuine; the world doesn't need another one. Am I wrong here?

Ironically, my original post to the hydeparkaustin group got rejected by the moderator for being too inflammatory - the one which has got the original poster up in arms was the nicer version that got approved.

(For the record, I'm not this mad at my old neighborhood over Spring; it is conceivable that somebody could honestly believe it would make traffic worse -- but for me to believe that somebody who lives and apparently works in central Austin would be unaware of the parking situation around UT requires an unsustainable suspension of disbelief).

Update: Got a bounce from him - apparently my response got sent to his spamtrap. So I guess we'll see.

September 16, 2005

Claims about Spring don't Spring

I don't have time for a full write-up on my old neighborhood's irresponsible opposition to the Spring project but one thing I talked about with my coworker yesterday merits a quick jotting down so I don't forget.

The neighborhood (and my coworker) assert that you shouldn't build this project because it would make traffic much worse at the 5th/6th/Lamar intersection, which already fails during rush hour. This seems like a reasonable proposition, but I assert otherwise. Consider a simplified model of the Spring residents - there are two residents, both of whom work downtown. Wendy Walker and Dave Driver.

Dave Driver is going to get in his car and drive east. This won't make the intersections at Lamar any worse, since he's already east of Lamar. Oops. (Note: during my conversation with my cow orker, both of us forgot the fact that Spring is east, not west, of Lamar - if it makes this more worthwhile, you can pretend that we're now talking about the intersection of 5th and Guadalupe, or that Spring is west of Lamar for the hypothetical).

Wendy Walker is going to walk to her job downtown. This can't make things any worse either.

Now, consider what happens if the project isn't built. Wendy and Dave still have their downtown jobs, but now they must drive there. Both will now go through the intersection at 5th and Lamar in the mornings and through 6th and Lamar in the evenings. Oops.

Like most opposition to densification, OWANA settled on the traffic argument since it's an easy one to win, even if it lacks merit. In this case it's clear - many (possibly most) of the people moving into these downtown complexes aren't going to bother driving to work, and even if they do, they're either 'reverse commuting' (driving OUT of downtown in the morning, where there's plenty of spare capacity) or they can't be making things any worse, since otherwise they'd be driving downtown from further out.

September 13, 2005

SCB: Speed Is Not The Problem

A lot of folks (especially Stuart Werbner and Preston Tyree, who normally do a lot of good work for the cycling community) fell hard for the position that "the problem on Shoal Creek Boulevard isn't the bike lanes, it's the traffic speed". Since this position continues to rear its ugly head in discussions before and after yesterday's meeting, I thought I'd address it here.

The key is that all other things being equal, higher car speeds do indeed result in less safety for nearby cyclists and pedestrians. This is unquestionably true.

The problem is that all things aren't equal. This picture shows a cyclist trying to pass a parked vehicle at the same time he is being passed by a moving vehicle. It doesn't matter if the passing vehicle is going 45 or 25; if the cyclist veers out unexpectedly into the through lane and is hit, they're in bad, bad, BAD shape. (Note: you have to imagine that the stripe between the 4-foot 'bike lane' and 6-foot 'parking lane' isn't there to match the current conditions on SCB).

Likewise, this infamous accident happened despite the fact that the conflicting vehicle's speed was 0 MPH and the vehicle which ended up killing her wasn't going very fast either.

On the other hand, hundreds of cyclists use Loop 360 every day with no conflicts with motorists. Automobile speed in the through lanes of that roadway is typically around 60 MPH.

What can we conclude? Traffic engineering seeks to avoid presenting users with unexpected conflicts; and having a cyclist veer out into the travel lane when the motorist in that lane thinks they're not going to have to is the very definition of unexpected. A safe pass by a car going 40 is far preferrable to a collision with a car going 30.

How does this apply to Shoal Creek Boulevard? It's clear to me at least that the original city plan probably wouldn't have reduced automobile speeds much, but definitely would have resulted in fewer conflicts with cyclists who need to leave the bike lane to get around obstructions. As on Loop 360, if you rarely need to leave the bicycle facility, you don't need to worry as much about the speed of the cars in the lane next to you.

Another thing Preston in particular got wrong was the theory that riding on Shoal Creek is 'easy' once you 'learn' how to pass. Even for an experienced cyclist like myself, the conflict with motorists during a pass is irritating (the motorists don't understand why I go into the travel lane and are sometimes aggressive in expressing their displeasure). For a novice cyclist, it's likely to be so intimidating that they will (unwisely) stay in the far-too-narrow space between the white stripe and the parked car, and someday soon somebody's going to get killed that way.

Finally, of critical importance to the City of Austin is the following paragraph, excerpted from a detailed analysis of the Laird case in Boston:

The City might be held negligent for creating what is called in legal language an "attractive nuisance" -- that is, a baited trap. Ample evidence exists that the City of Cambridge had been notified of the hazards of bike lanes in the "door zone" before the Massachusetts Avenue lane was striped, yet the City continued to stripe them.

This is basically why Shoal Creek Boulevard doesn't have bike lanes today, it has a "multipurpose shoulder". Unknown whether this will do enough to shield Austin from liability in the event of an accident, but cyclists ought to think about this when you decide to ride on this facility.

September 12, 2005

Shoal Creek Meeting Is Done

Largely as expected - council members want to remove the islands, and then were going to talk some more about what to do. Some indications that they're either not willing to admit or not capable of understanding that a compromise solution is impossible for this roadway. Neighborhood people largely against the curb extensions but still adamant that parking on both sides must be preserved -- which means that we're back to bike lanes with parking in them, which pretty much the entire rest of the world views as an oxymoron.

Here's the letter I just sent to the three council members on the subcommittee:

Councilmembers:

I watched most of the meeting today while working at my desk, and had a couple of comments:

1. 2-way on-street bike lanes are not accepted in traffic engineering circles and have not for quite some time. They will not be an option for Shoal Creek Boulevard unless you want to override your staff.
2. Bike lanes down the median - same story.
3. A reminder: We already know there is no way to reconcile "parking on both sides" with "car-free bike lanes" on this street. There is insufficient width. Either one or more bike lanes must be abandoned, or one or more sides of parking must be abandoned.

Comments that you made in regards to #3 were especially disappointing - the failure of the previous council was in attempting to avoid this painful choice, which MUST be made. EITHER car-free bike lanes OR parking on both sides - you cannot have both. I would argue that the correct choice is to preserve on-street parking on ONE side of Shoal Creek Boulevard - this is not an unreasonable imposition on residents (my own neighborhood has highly restricted on-street parking; many streets allow it on one side and a few not at all).

Regards,

Mike Dahmus
mdahmus@io.com

Letter to Council on Shoal Creek Debacle

A subcommittee of the City Council is getting some kind of an update on the Shoal Creek Debacle. I just sent this email to them.


Dear Mayor and councilmembers:

My name is Mike Dahmus, and I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 through 2005. I cast the lone vote in opposition to the plan which (with modifications) ended up being constructed on Shoal Creek Boulevard. During my terms on the UTC, I served as the lone member who utilized both an automobile and a bicycle to commute to work -- i.e., I'm not a pure cyclist, and I'm not a pure driver. I used Shoal Creek Boulevard as part of my bicycle commute for years and occasionally drove it as well.

I understand you're going to address this issue in a subcommittee meeting this week, and I thought I should comment.

For those of you who don't bicycle; Shoal Creek Boulevard is, without hyperbole, the most important route in the city for bicycle commuters. (It has a lot of recreational traffic as well, of course). It forms the spine of the route between northwest Austin and central Austin - alternate routes either are far too hilly for normal use (to the west) or do not connect with routes which can get cyclists across the Mopac/183/360 barrier.

Years back, Shoal Creek's turn came up in the "let's do what every other city does and put up no-parking signs in our bike lanes" process. Since the bike program staff at the time knew that Shoal Creek had long blocks and (some) short driveways, they offered a compromise plan which would have allowed parking on one side of the road, with smaller-than-typical bike lanes on both sides. This plan was opposed by the neighborhoods, for whom on-street parking was the priority over through cyclist travel.

Years ago, thanks to neighborhood pressure, Shoal Creek Boulevard was reclassified from a minor arterial to a residential collector (an inappropriately low classification by engineering standards). This allowed the neighborhood to then push back against that eminently reasonable plan to allow parking only on one side of the street (neighborhood partisans could declare that SCB was a 'residential street' and that therefore parking was more important than through traffic). The bike program plan was rejected thanks to a few neighbors who valued both-sides on-street parking more than cyclist safety.

At this point, as I'm sure many of you remember, the neighborhoods got Councilmember Goodman's approval to start a planning process which ended with the absurd plan by Charles Gandy which none of your engineers would sign their name to, and which made Austin a laughingstock in other cities around the country. The modified version of that plan (removing the stripe between the 'bike lane' and the parking area) is nearly as ludicrous, but since it's not marked as a 'bike lane' is nominally acceptable to engineers, I suppose.

The Shoal Creek Boulevard plan as implemented is a liability problem for the city of Austin (although not as bad as the original Gandy "10-4-6" plan would have been, since city engineers were smart enough to remove the "bike lane" designation). Sufficient space does not exist for a cyclist to safely pass parked cars and remain in the bike lane, yet drivers in the through traffic lane expect them to do so. This is a textbook example of bad traffic engineering (when one street user performs a safe and legal manuever, another street user should not be caught by surprise).

This isn't about the curb islands, by the way. The safety obstacle for cyclists is parked cars. The curb islands must be passed in a fairly narrow space, but there's zero chance that one of them is going to open their door while you're passing it.

But what the curb islands and striping HAVE done is encourage more people to park on the street; increasing the frequency of the street user conflict which will eventually result in a serious injury - a car passing a cyclist while the cyclist is passing a parked car.

This entire process was nothing more than an abrogation of responsibility by the City Council. Your job is to make decisions, not to encourage a make-believe consensus when none can be found. There simply is no way to reconcile both-sides on-street parking with car-free bike lanes (and, by the way, the rest of the world views parking in bike lanes as an oxymoron). A decision either way would have been better than the mess you left us with -- and cyclists are getting hurt already as a result.

I urge you to learn from this horrible mistake, and remember that your job is to make the tough decisions. Shoal Creek Boulevard has already been ruined for bicycling commuters - please don't take this precedent anywhere else.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus



August 27, 2005

Blandburbs and 'choice'

Continuing my recent theme of pointing to other works that explain my thinking, here's a quite good explanation of why suburban sprawl isn't natural; isn't the result of consumer 'choice'; and isn't healthy. Highly recommended. The only thing I'd add is the role of irresponsible inner city neighborhoods in preventing cities from doing responsible things to promote infill.

The idea that suburban sprawl is just a natural 'choice' ignores the reality that without the massive subsidies and regulatory restrictions which prevent anything ELSE from being built, a large minority of current suburbanites would actually live in neighborhoods like mine. All you need to do is see how cities developed before WWII, i.e., before the advent of both zoning and automobile subsidies (when there were plenty of cars, just not massive subsidies for their use by suburbanites).

I promise I'll get to my Pfluger Bridge stuff next week.

August 13, 2005

Commuting To Riata

I had a nice conversation with Jonathan from Another Pointless Dotcom while doing some work last night, and it came to light that he works in the same complex I did for about a year and a half. This reminded me to share with him my old slideshow of that commute, which I've probably never mentioned on the blog. I also then chatted about it this morning with my current cow orker who has a lot of experience in the area. Since this might be of general interest to people who work in the area, I'll initiate this new Bicycle Commuting category with this oldie-but-goodie.

Riata is a cautionary tale of any number of my hot buttons, including the problems that frontage roads cause transit and pedestrians, neighborhoods being irresponsible, developers getting to claim credit for being 'near' transit when it's not feasible to actually use, high tech offices and apartment complexes metastasizing along sprawl corridors rather than being downtown where they ought to be, etc. There's at least a few thousand employees of various companies in there now - probably still down from the pre-bust peak.

The key things to remember about commuting to Riata, which is halfway between Duval and Oak Knoll on the north/east side of US 183 are:

  1. Use Jollyville. Now with bike lanes!
  2. When transitioning to Riata Trace Parkway, your choices are to go all the way up to Oak Knoll and come in the back way, or go over on Duval to the 183 frontage, and go in that way. In the morning, the northbound 183 frontage is very civilized and not a problem.
  3. When going home in the afternoon, you'll want to use the TI/Oak Knoll back way. Don't mess with 183 then.
  4. Think about using the bus for a boost uphill in some mornings, if you're like the (old) me and commuting from central Austin.
  5. Decide whether you want to cross Mopac on Spicewood or Steck. My current cow orker prefers Steck all the time; I prefer Steck uphill and Spicewood downhill. Depends on your tolerance for the stress of the crossing at Mopac/Spicewood versus the speed you'll give up at the 4-way stop on Steck.

(Technical details: I wrote the crappy slideshow script which reads pseudo-XML a long time ago and have never touched it since; it BARELY works; don't look at it cross-eyed or you might break the internet).

July 15, 2005

Free Parking Kills Cities

I've known this for a long time, but for most people living in the 'burbs, this is highly counterintuitive. Here's the latest article on why, if you want to have a city you actually WANT TO DO THINGS IN, free parking is the worst possible of all land uses.

Unfortunately, most of Austin's irresponsible inner-city neighborhoods (including the two in which I own property) still push for exactly the opposite - suburban-style off-street parking which end up killing street life and (gradually) the center-city in which we all live.

(An aside - my current neighborhood apparently pushed for increased parking requirements in mixed-use development on Guadalupe. It doesn't get any more brazen than that.)

June 07, 2005

Still Yes For Office Towers On Lamar

Another note I sent to the OWANA mailing list is below, recorded here for posterity and crackpottery.

I would take issue with the following characterizations made by charles:

charles price wrote:

>
> I am very much in favor of downtown densification, but very against
> allowing a zoning change here.

To most of Austin, including many people living in OWANA, downtown
begins at Lamar Blvd.

> Bear in mind that office is the highest dollar return on investment,
> the movie industry is in a slump, and there are two Alamo Drafthouse
> Cinemas within one mile.

You can't walk to one of those two Alamos from OWANA or from downtown
lofts, and the other one is likely not going to be at its current
location much longer.

> The Nokonah got the neighborhood's agreement to not oppose a variance
> when the developers promised retail and restaurants on the lower
> floors on Lamar. After it was built they rented it as office space to
> a realty. The Hartland bank Building got a height variance after we
> didn't oppose when they promised forty percent residential usage. The
> residential didn't happen. The AISD building got a density variance
> after they promised a significant residential component, which never
> happened. I don't think we should let the city relinquish control
> unless it is tied to a specific proposal. And we need to not pay much
> attention to the promises until they are made in writing with an way
> to enforce them.

Agreed 100%. Any agreement the developer promises should be backed up
with a deed restriction, CO, or other such arrangement.

> The site is zoned to allow commercial and office development already.
> They want the zoning change so they can build a significantly larger
> office component and a large parking garage.

The site is currently zoned to allow typical low-density retail strips
and small-scale office. Not an appropriate scale for Lamar Blvd.

> A large parking garage doesn't seem compatible with the types of
> arguments being presented here regarding creating an incentive for
> mass transit.

As a matter of fact, getting buildings built with parking garages is far
superior to keeping current buildings with surface parking. Yes,
ideally, they'll provide less parking than suburban alternatives. Some
do, many don't. But at least the streetscape is vastly improved, as is
the possibility that the parking won't be free.

> If we want to encourage mass transit, which I do, we want new office
> projects to be built downtown, not on the perimeter in an area
> surrounded by quality residential fabric.

The east side of Lamar _IS_ downtown.

> Leave the zoning as it is and they can build a reasonable amount
> of retail and offices including their movie house, but they can't
> build a ten-story office tower which would be very bad at this site.

A ten-story office tower ANYWHERE in downtown is EXACTLY what this city
needs, and quickly. Developing more offices in the suburbs, given the
oil situation we face, is criminally irresponsible.

>
> It is clear that offices increase traffic at peak traffic hours. More
> offices = more traffic. Downtown offices as an encouragement for mass
> transportation sounds good, but most office traffic will always be
> single occupancy vehicles.

1. When parking isn't free (as it isn't at many downtown garages),
there's an incentive to carpool or use transit which most of us don't
enjoy at our suburban jobs.

2. You can feasibly build HOV lanes (or managed lanes) which go
downtown, but you can't feasibly build them out to sprawl-land. (You can
BUILD them, but they'll never be used to capacity - this is why places
like Silicon Valley have poor performance from HOV while places like DC
do really well with them).

> Downtown densification is better if it includes residences, shops, and
> restaurants which encourage living downtown so that a significant
> component of the people do not need transportation because they're
> already there.

Agreed. How many of the people living downtown currently work in the
suburbs? Shouldn't we bring more office development to them? (I'd kill
to work downtown, but there simply aren't enough technology firms down
there to make it possible for more than a privileged few - luckily I
just took a job that allows me to work from home, so I can finally end
my trip out to the 128, I mean 101, I mean 183 corridor).

> We need people living downtown, not finding new ways to get to
> downtown from their suburban sprawl.


We need both, unless you're going to empty the suburbs entirely. People
commuting downtown from their suburban home is far better, overall, than
people commuting from one suburban location to another.

> I won't repeat at length the arguments concerning fairness or justice
> regarding changing a zoning that was in place when neighbors bought
> their properties understanding what could and could not be built
> across the street.

None of the people complaining live on Lamar Blvd, so characterizing
this as "across the street" is disingenuous.

> Obviously, no one wants an atrocity to be built next to their house or
> condo. Can you imagine buying a beautiful fifth floor condo in the
> Nokonah with floor to ceiling windows and then find the city is
> changing the neighboring zoning to allow a parking garage at the same
> height forty feet away!

Yes, I can. It's called "living downtown".

> We need to work together as a neighborhood to oppose this type of
> sprawling, profiteering commercialism,


This is the worst misrepresentation in your note - this project is the
antithesis of "sprawling" by any reasonable definition of the term. Good
or bad is an opinion, but it's NOT "sprawling".

> even when it doesn't directly negatively impact you as an individual.
> If we don't all fight against negative developments all around our
> neighborhood, we will become like the area across Lamar from us or
> like West Campus.


Ironically, had West Campus allowed tall buildings, they'd be a lot
better off today. The poor investment in old low-density multifamily
student properties is a direct unintended consequence of ridiculously
STRICT zoning codes imposed on an area which should have been allowed to
grow UP, and never was.

June 02, 2005

Yes To Office Towers At Old Whole Foods

My old neighborhood has really gone downhill since I left. Now many of them* are vehemently opposing infill at the Old Whole Foods on the grounds that it'll create too much automobile traffic.

What a load of garbage. The SAME folks who signed the Move AMD petition with me are apparently ALSO against developing high-density office and retail ON TOP OF A PARKING LOT IN THE URBAN CORE. This is exactly why I can't hold my nose and vote for Margot Clarke. Hint: SOMETIMES THE NEIGHBORHOODS ARE WRONG.

And too much automobile traffic? Here's a clue: At some point, you have to accept that TRAFFIC IN THE URBAN CENTER ISN'T GOING TO FLOW SMOOTHLY, PERIOD. If you want to live in OWANA and expect free-flowing traffic on neighboring arterials, you're insane. The whole POINT of living there is that you don't HAVE to drive (or not as often). Embrace it and get out of your car like I did when I lived there.

You can't get any more wrong than this unless you opposed student housing on Guadalupe at 27th. Oops.

Pros for this PUD: A lot of these office workers would otherwise work in the suburbs, which creates more traffic overall, since you mostly can't carpool, bike, walk, or take the bus to jobs out here (and believe me, I try). It doesn't use up any more pervious cover. It doesn't wreck the aquifer. Some of these office workers will no doubt 'commute' from nearby high-density residential development already completed or planned; and the presence of more offices downtown will encourage even more residential development.

In short: this project would fuel a virtuous cycle of urban development instead of the vicious circle of suburban sprawl. I don't see how any responsible Austinite can be against it.

(* - updated to reflect supportive offline and online comments at the OWANA group, and my own lack of surety on whether opposing the PUD is an official position of the neighborhood association or not - although I still suspect it is)

Not much room for optimism

Thought I'd copy this here for posterity - this is a comment I made to an excellent entry by Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly blog, in reference to somebody who thought that since we adjusted to the 1970s oil shock (he's right on that one) that we could just as easily adjust to the oncoming (soon or later, depending on your alarmism) peak oil shock.

Adding this comment to my blog has made me recall that I still owe an analysis of "fire stations per capita" back to the Texas Fight guy. I'm sorry, I've been busy at work and at home, and will try to get this done soon.

My comment:

John,

The answer to why this shock will be much worse than the one in the 1970s is two words:

suburban sprawl

One thing Kunstler gets right is his analysis of the complete lack of options in a modern suburban development (really exurb) to the single-occupant vehicle and truck delivery to strip malls. There's no way to carpool. There's no way to use transit. There's no way to ride your bike or walk. There's no way for the store to switch to freight rail deliveries (not even the way it used to be, which was truck for only the last very small N% of the trip, if even that).

The ONLY things modern suburbanites can do are:

1. Trade in their SUV for a compact car - works well if you're one of the early adopters, but what if everybody else is trying to trade down at the same time?

2. Move back to the cities - see above.

We would have had to change our development laws twenty years ago in order to have a prayer of solving this problem, but instead we've been operating on a regime that not only requires urbanites to subsidize wasteful suburbanites, it actually PROHIBITS BY LAW (through zoning codes) the development of additional urban neighborhoods.

For reference, my last two homes have been in two center-city neighborhoods where 80-90% of the dwellings would be impossible to build today due to suburban-influenced zoning code which applies even in these older neighborhoods. Of course, to even get to that point, you'd have to overcome their fanatical opposition to infill, but every bit counts.

May 19, 2005

Shoal Creek Update - May 17, 2005

I biked home from work on Tuesday (Too bad it's Bike To Work Week, Not Bike From Work Week!) and went down Shoal Creek from Anderson to 41st. Report at the end.

The Chronicle has covered the recent brou-ha-ha, and kudos on the title. I have submitted a crackpot letter (check in a couple of days) which attempts to correct the misinterpretation of Lane's excellent soundbite (the obstructions he refers to are the parked cars, not the curb extensions).

The ride home was pretty good, actually. About five passing manuevers were necessary, and on two of them I had a motorist stuck behind me; and neither one showed evidence that they were perturbed. Definitely above par for the new striping. I wish I could believe that the motorists are getting the message about the necessity to take the lane to get around parked cars, but the comments from the neighbors at that meeting lead me to believe that I was just lucky to get a couple of reasonable motorists this time.

May 13, 2005

The Shoal Creek Debacle Keeps Rolling On

There was a public meeting on Wednesday night about the Shoal Creek Debacle in which many previously uninformed local residents complained about curb extensions and cyclists riding too close to the line (forced to do so, by the way, by the fact that there are CARS PARKED IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A BIKE LANE).

I just posted the following to the allandale yahoo group, and thought it might have some general interest:

--- In allandale@yahoogroups.com, Barbara Frock wrote: >I, like Rhonda, wonder about those who > don't live here who have come out swinging. Is it the cyclists who really > wanted a "veloway" through our neighborhood from 38th to Foster?

That's one way to put it.

Another way to put it is that Shoal Creek Boulevard is the most important route for bicycle commuting in the city. It forms the spine of the main route from points northwest (disproportionately recent residential growth) to the center-city and vice-versa; and serves as the bicyclist equivalent to at least Burnet Road, if not Mopac.

Yes, a bunch of people also ride this road for fun. And I'm as frustrated as you are (probably more) when the brightly-plumaged folks out for a training ride treat stop signs as matador capes.

But every day during rush hour you'll also see dozens of cyclists clearly heading to or from work. This isn't because they want to turn your neighborhood into a "veloway"; it's because SCB is the recommended route for people who, in their cars, would be using Burnet or Mopac. And this is the way it's SUPPOSED to work - you're not supposed to turn your major arterials into cycling routes, you're supposed to find a lower-traffic parallel road which can feasibly serve the same purpose.

Without SCB functioning as a major "cyclist artery", you'd be complaining about these same cyclists slowing you down on Burnet Road.

The city's legitimate interest in promoting bicycling as transportation requires that some routes like SCB be "major bicycling routes", which implies that the interests of cyclists should AT A BARE MINIUM be considered above both-sides on-street parking. The city council failed miserably in this case in understanding that those two interests could not be served by a compromise solution; and the neighborhood has failed miserably in understanding that the parking-on-one-side solution already represented a signficant compromise for the bicycling interests, since it still required riding slightly in the "door zone" on the parking-allowed side of the street.

And, by the way, "through our neighborhood" smacks of an 'ownership' of SCB which isn't supported by the facts. Even when misclassified as a residential collector, it's still "owned" by the city, and the street MUST serve the interests of people who don't live on that street (or even in that neighborhood). Even if SCB was misclassified all the way down to "residential street", no automatic right to park in front of your house is conveyed - I have to pay for a permit to park on my street; and some residential streets in my area have large sections where parking is only allowed on one side.

- MD

April 13, 2005

Shoal Creek Updates

I will hopefully move some of this content to my old moldy Shoal Creek Debacle Page when I get time.

Brief introduction: Prior to around 2000, Shoal Creek Boulevard was a minor arterial roadway with extensive bicycle traffic in fairly wide bike lanes which allowed parking (which presented a problem, since modern engineering practice does not allow parking in bike lanes). Shoal Creek's turn came in the "put up no-parking signs in bike lanes" carousel, and the city came up with a plan to preserve on-street parking on one side of the street. The neighbors freaked; a consultant came up with a ridiculous cyclist-killer proposal; the city rejected it; and then a small group of neighborhood people came up with the idea to just stripe a wide "shared lane" for parked cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. With curb extensions to theoretically slow traffic, although since the extensions don't go out to the travel lane (so cyclists can pass), their effect is likely to be minimal.

Here's some stuff that's been happening recently:

1. The neighborhoods' email groups (allandale and rosedale) have been full of complaints about the curb extensions, as well as observations about bad driver behavior, including running over and up onto curb extensions. Additionally, neighbors have complained that the bike lane stripe (separating the bike lane from the parking lane) never got put in, which shows that some people didn't realize that the awful Gandy plan was shelved when no engineers would sign on to it. Finally, motorists have (as I predicted) been using the shoulder as a driving or passing lane.

Gandy's plan, endorsed by the neighborhood:

The current striping is basically the image above, with no stripe separating the bike lane and parking lane.

2. Neighbors still think there's a "bike lane" here. There isn't. There's a shoulder, with insufficient space in which to safely pass parked cars. (the absence of the stripe separating the 10 feet into 4 and 6 a la the Gandy plan doesn't change the geometry here - bicyclists must still enter the travel lane in order to safely pass a parked vehicle).

Images copied from Michael Bluejay:




3. Motorists are still expecting cyclists to stay in the bike lane. I rode home down Shoal Creek on Monday, and had some indications of impatient motorists behind me as I passed parked cars (no honking this time at least). Remember that even when there's a bit more room than in the pictures above, you still have to worry about the dooring problem. Even the city compromise with parking on one side had this problem (although to a far lesser degree).

4. Parked car and passing car conflicts continue to be high. Many people who supported this debacle from the beginning are still cowering behind the idea that since parked cars are "scarce" (average of ten on each side for the entire stretch from Foster to 38th), that we don't need to worry about the passing conflicts. The problem, however, is that due to the higher speeds of automobiles, there is a very high chance of conflict on each one of those passes, meaning that it is very likely that a motorist will slow down and wait behind a passing cyclist on each pass. In fact, on Monday, my experience was that 4 out of the 5 times I performed this passing manuever, there were motorists stuck behind me by the time I went back into the shoulder area; and the fifth time I found myself stuck while a car passed me (I didn't get out into the lane early enough).

5. People continue to misrepresent this process as a compromise (implying that cyclists got something, parking motorists got something, drivers got something, neighborhood got something, etc). In fact, any rational observer can compare conditions before this change to conditions now and make the following judgement: Parking won. Period. Cyclists got less than they had before, and far less than they should have had. The neighborhood got curb extensions (even though they won't work). Cyclists got the middle finger.

6. The City Council member most responsible for this debacle, Jackie Goodman, is being term-limited out of office. Unfortunately, I hold little hope that a stronger (i.e. decision-maker rather than consensus-hoper) member will emerge from the pack seeking election.

7. Neighborhood troublemakers are still misrepresenting the history of this debacle; failing to mention that the original proposal from the city for this roadway preserved on-street parking on one side of the road, which is more than almost any minor arterial roadway (SCB's original classification) has, and about average for collectors (SCB's new neighborhood-forced underclassification). This city proposal represented a substantial compromise of bicycle interests, but because it didn't preserve ALL on-street parking, several malcontent nincompoops in the neighborhood fought it bitterly.

8. The same neighborhood troublemakers continue to misrepresent Shoal Creek's role in the city's transportation system. SCB was originally (correctly) classified as a minor arterial, which means that its main purpose is not for property access, but for a combination of traffic collection/distribution and small amounts of through traffic. For cyclists, SCB is a critical transportation link, since it's so long, and has right-of-way at all intersections (meaning it never has a 2-way stop where through traffic doesn't stop; everything's either a 4-way stop or traffic light). SCB was reclassified thanks to neighborhood pressure to a "residential collector" around 2001ish, against my objections (I-TOLD-YOU-SO-MARKER: I told the other members of the UTC at the time that this change would make it easier for them to then prevent no-parking-in-bike-lanes). Also note that this makes SCB, by far, the longest collector roadway in the city. The neighborhood, ever since then, has claimed that SCB is a "residential street", which means something very different from "residential collector". A "residential street" is supposed to serve property access first, parking second, and distribution a distant third, with essentially no provision for through traffic. A "residential collector", on the other hand, is supposed to serve distribution first, property access second, through traffic third, and parking last.

The original city plan, preserving on-street parking on one side:

9. (Humor value only): One of the malcontent neighborhood nincompoops has surfaced again on my old fan group (from my undergraduate days; no, I didn't make it).

March 23, 2005

I'm back

Was in Hawaii for 10 days; back now. I have a backlog of things to write, but for the time being, here's a link to Michael Bluejay's Shoal Creek page which has now been updated with new pictures.

March 09, 2005

Shoal Creek Report #2

Well, I ended up driving down Shoal Creek last night on the way home from work (from 2222 to 41st St.) due to a traffic jam, ironically right after reading a thread on the Allandale neighborhood group in which residents are grumbling about the project now that they're seeing it 'in action'.

This trip confirmed some things that I saw before, and conflicted with some things that residents of the street have previously said.

  1. I saw more cars parked this time
  2. I saw one vehicle turn into the 'shared lane' and drive down it for at least a block before turning right off Shoal Creek
  3. The apparent space between the white line and the parked car looks much smaller when I'm driving than it does when I'm biking, and it didn't look big on my bike. Hopefully this will result in drivers being more patient when cyclists take the lane.
  4. I only passed one cyclist (going the opposite direction) during my drive. It's not surprising that most motorists thus think conflicts with cyclists and parked cars are rare -- for each motorist trip, there's a very low chance of conflict; but for each cyclist trip, there's a very high chance of conflict. (There's ten or twenty drivers for each cyclist at a bare minimum - even though this road has a lot of cyclists, there's still far more motorists).
  5. Most motorists I observed drifted over the white lines on turns. I don't know how to solve this.

March 07, 2005

TOD isn't going to help ASG

This weekend, the Statesman (link coming later if I can locate the story online, which so far is not happening) ran a story summarizing the current state of the TOD (transit-oriented development) ordinance(s) centering around the stations for the commuter rail line being built by Capital Metro in their ASG (All Systems Go) plan.

Summary:

  • Neighborhoods are against it in every case.
  • Up north, where there's a ton of space around the station, neighborhoods mainly just want the area covered by the ordinance to shrink.
  • Down southeast, they want affordable housing targets which are going to be too onerous to be practical, AND they want reductions in height and density.
  • Nearly all mandates or requirements in the ordinance, other than affordable housing set-asides, have been watered down to suggestions and incentives.
  • Maximum height and density levels originally proposed around stations will likely be drastically reduced in the final ordinance.

Remember what I told you last month - unlike the light rail plan in 2000, this commuter rail line operates down right-of-way which runs through neighborhoods that don't want any more density (and there's not enough political will to do it against their wishes). And, of course, they don't have (much) density now either. Compare to the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, where neighborhoods that do irresponsibly fight density end up losing anyways -- because there IS political will to stand fast and tell them that single-family-only low-density sprawl doesn't belong in the central city. And, of course, substantially more density currently exists there than anywhere along the commuter rail corridor. Hyde Park and North University and West Campus already have the kind of density that TOD would bring to these commuter rail line neighborhoods.

So this rail line relies much more heavily on future development around stations to produce its intended passenger load than did the more traditional light rail line proposed in 2000 (that line had enough current residents within walking distance of stations to make the Feds very enthusiastic about its prospects - TOD would have just been an added bonus there).

Thus, the additional ridership generated by TOD is a critical piece of the 'business case' for this commuter rail line. Unfortunately, thanks to the Council basically rolling over and dying for these neighborhoods, there won't be much TOD at all when the thing's finally done. Capital Metro can only hope that the Feds ignore the technical wording of the ordinance which eventually passes and instead responds to the meaningless empty words promoting it. Unfortunately, the Feds have shown little willingness to get this deep on other projects around the country (meaning that they give money to projects that don't merit it, and don't give money to projects that do).

March 04, 2005

Why Central Austinites Should Support Toll Roads

Excerpted from a discussion on the austin-bikes email list, where one of my self-appointed burdens is to be the voice of reason towards those who live in the center-city echo chamber (where everybody bikes; where nobody wants sprawling highways; etc).

The last paragraph of my response is the most relevant piece, and the one that the person I was responding to and many other wishful thinkers just don't get. I, thanks to moving here with suburbanites, and working with exclusively suburbanites, have learned the following painful truths:

  • There are more suburbanites around here than urbanites. A LOT more. And the most recent election, they finally WON a seat in our city council (McCracken over Clarke) DESPITE much higher turnout in the center-city.
  • Outside Austin, there are no urbanites. CAMPO is now 2/3 suburban, for instance.
  • Suburbanites cannot conceive of any lifestyle other than the suburban one. Really. I get blank stares when I tell them I rode the bus to work today, or when I say I walked to the store.
  • The sheer population and geographical coverage of suburban neighborhoods means that even if gas gets really expensive, they're still going to be living there. Resistance to their redevelopment in ways which aren't so car-dependent and the cost of such modifications means we're stuck with what we have now for at least a few more decades. Yes, even at $5.00/gallon.

Here's the thread:

Roger Baker wrote:

> On Mar 4, 2005, at 9:34 AM, Mike Dahmus wrote:
>
> Roger Baker wrote:
>
> McCracken is the immediate hero here, but he likely wouldn't
> have done it without Sal Costello, SOSA, and all the
> independent grassroots organizing.
>
> On CAMPO, McCracken's resolution got defeated about 2 to 1,
> with Gerald Daugherty on the bad side, along with CAMPO
> Director Aulick. TxDOT's Bob Daigh deserves a special bad
> actor award for expressing his opinion just before the CAMPO
> vote, with no reasons given, that any independent study of the
> CAMPO plan would be likely to threaten TxDOT funding for our
> area. -- Roger
>
>
> Just like the transit people in Austin with Mike Krusee, you've
> been completely snookered if you think these people are your friends.
> The goal of McCracken et al is NOT to stop building these roads;
> it is to build these roads quickly as FREE HIGHWAYS.
> In other words, McCracken and Costello ___ARE___ THE ROAD LOBBY!
> Keep that in mind, folks. Slusher and Bill Bunch don't want the
> roads at all, but pretty much everybody else who voted against the
> toll plan wants to build them as free roads.
> And these highways built free is a far worse prospect for Austin
> and especially central Austin than if they're built as toll roads,
> in every possible respect.
> - MD
>
>
> All that is easy for Mike to say but, as usual, lacks any factual basis or
> documentation. Furthermore, he does not appear to read what I have previously
> documented.

As for factual basis or documentation, it should be obvious to anybody with the awareness of a three-year-old that McCracken's playing to his suburban constituents who WANT THESE ROADS, AND WANT THEM TO BE FREE, rather than Slusher's environmentalist constituents, who don't want the roads at all.

As for reading what you've previously documented; oh, if only it were true. If only I hadn't wasted a good month of my life reading your repeated screeds about the oil peak which have almost convinced me to go out and buy an SUV just to spite you.

POLITICAL REALITY MATTERS. The suburban voters who won McCracken his seat over Margot Clarke WANT THESE HIGHWAYS TO BE BUILT. AND THEY DON'T WANT THEM BUILT AS TOLL ROADS BECAUSE THEY'LL HAVE TO PAY (MORE) OF THE BILL IF THEY DO.

Here's what's going to happen if Roger's ilk convinces the environmental bloc to continue their unholy alliance with the suburban road warriors like McCracken and Daugherty:

1. We tell TXDOT we don't want toll roads.
2. TXDOT says we need to kick in a bunch more money to get them built free.
3. We float another huge local bond package to do it (just like we did for local 'contributions' for SH 45, SH 130, and US 183A).
4. The roads get built, as free highways.
5. Those bonds are paid back by property and sales taxes, which disproportionately hit central Austinites, and especially penalize people who don't or only infrequently drive.

Here's what's going to happen if the toll roads get built, as toll roads:

1. TXDOT builds them.
2. The current demand for the roadway is large enough to fill the coffers enough to keep the enterprise going without the bonds defaulting.
3. (Even if #2 doesn't happen, we're at worst no worse off than above; with the added bonus that suburbanites still get to finally pay user fees for their trips on the roads).

Here's what's going to happen in Roger Fantasyland:

1. McCracken, Gerald Daugherty, et al have a Come To Jesus moment and decide that we Really Don't Need Any More Highways In The 'Burbs.

Now, be honest. Which one of the three scenarios above do you find least likely?

YES, EVEN IF GAS TRIPLES IN PRICE, SUBURBANITES WILL STILL DRIVE. THE OIL PEAK IN THIS SENSE DOESN'T ****MATTER****. The people out there in Circle C aren't going anywhere in the short term, and it'll be decades before their neighborhoods are redeveloped in a less car-dependent fashion, assuming we can afford to.

- MD

March 01, 2005

New Shoal Creek Report #1

I'm going to try to bike home on Shoal Creek (at least from Anderson to 41st) once a month or so to track the results of the debacle. I plan on executing a polite but firm passing manuever out of the "shared lane" whenever passing a parked car, since there is insufficient space to safely pass a parked car in the space provided (even if you know ahead of time that the vehicle is empty). This passing manuever is likely to generate conflict with through motorists ("conflict" in this sense not meaning emotional or physical but simply that the through motorist behind me will have to slow down and wait for me to pass - although on many occasions on the pre-striped street, the motorist did in fact get angry enough to honk or swerve).

I made my first trip (post-stripe) yesterday (Monday).

The striping is done, but the islands are just getting started - post holes have been cut, and some markings made, but that's it.

First impressions:

  • When no cars are parked, this lane is really wide. Wider than the usable shoulder on Loop 360.
  • Cars are going to try to use this as a lane, at least the way it's striped now. When you're turning onto Shoal Creek, it's not altogether clear where you should go.
  • Few parking conflicts so far; most of the vehicles that were parked Monday night were parked on the northbound side. I passed four or five parked vehicles on my stretch, and only once did my passing manuever cause a conflict with a through motorist (and this one was polite).
  • When a small car is parked near the curb, there is enough room to pass in the lane, if I could be 100% positive that the car was unoccupied. However, with larger vehicles (SUVs/trucks) this is not true. Also, one of the two cars was parked far enough away from the curb (you get up to 18 inches legally) that it might as well have been a fire engine.

Verdict so far: Not enough data. Far more vehicles were parked northbound; I don't know why southbound was so comparatively empty yesterday. (Perhaps this side was striped last?).

January 13, 2005

The Chronicle gets Shoal Creek badly wrong

This week's Chronicle badly misremembers the history of the Shoal Creek Blvd. Debacle of '00; casting city staff as villains and Jackie Goodman and the neighborhood as heroes. Here's a short (correct) timeline, along with what they got wrong:

1. Prior to 2000, SCB allows parking in bike lanes. This is something which nobody would do today; these bike lanes predate modern bicycle traffic engineering practice.
2. SCB's turn comes in the "let's ban parking in existing bike lanes" carousel. The past couple of years saw the no-parking signs go up on about a half-dozen streets with old bike lanes such as Mesa Dr.
3. City staff from bike/ped program decides to be nice and come up with a plan which allows on-street parking on one side of the street (see this picture). Chronicle writer misconstrues this as a bike lane "on one side of the street".
4. Neighborhood freaks. Jackie Goodman sides with them, of course.
5. Staff and neighborhood come up with an "alternating sides" strategy where there's still only parking on one side, but it winds back and forth every so often.
6. The "alternating sides" strategy is tested and fails.
7. Charles Gandy comes in and convinces the neighborhood and a couple of well-meaning but naive cyclists that this plan can work.
8. City engineers reject that plan for liability reasons (damn straight - look at the pictures again if you have to).
9. Fallback plan of maintaining slightly modified original layout with some bulb-outs. IE, instead of 12-13 ft travel lanes with 7-8 ft "bike lane with parking", we get 10-ft travel lanes with 10-ft "bike lane with parking". Chronicle writer misrepresents city engineers' opposition as against this fallback plan rather than to Gandy's 10-4-6 disaster.

And of course the conclusion to the article comes from Paul Nagy. As one person on Michael Bluejay's page put it:

Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process -- however slight -- was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his "solution" would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don't feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others -- except Dahmus -- were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it's clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an "expert," and clearly he is not.

At the point where the original design -- which was agreed upon by the original consensus committee as final -- was tossed back, Nagy and Gandy jumped on the opportunity to assume the helm without any input from anyone else. There is NO cycling voice in the process AT ALL now.

Pure hatchet-job. Where are you, Lauri Apple and Mike Clark-Madison?

Here's the letter. Let's see if it makes it in.

In reference to this week's column by Daniel Mottola, allow me to suggest that in the future a columnist who picks up a long-running issue for the first time be encouraged to familiarize themselves with the history of the issue before writing a wrap-up. For one thing, the city staff proposal originally presented by a long-serving and dedicated employee of the bike/ped program had bike lanes on both sides of the street, with on-street parking allowed only on one side. No proposal with a bike lane on one side of the street only was ever proposed.

More importantly, both Michael Bluejay (http://bicycleaustin.info/roadways/shoalcreek.html) and myself (http://www.io.com/~mdahmus/trans/shoalcreek.html) have long had summaries of the issue with diagrams. I highly encourage people to look at the picture of Charles Gandy's original proposal at http://www.dahmus.org/iofiles/trans/consultplan.html (showing a cyclist narrowly avoiding getting disembowled as they attempt to travel between a SUV and a parked truck) before coming to conclusions that Jackie Goodman's "give the neighborhood whatever they want no matter what" position was the right one.

The city engineers deserve medals, not ridicule, for standing up for the safety of cyclists and against the bogus 4-foot-bike-lane next to substandard-parking-lane design supported by Gandy and the neighborhood. The "shared multipurpose lanes" were a REACTION to their threat not to sign off on Gandy's plan, another thing your columnist gets wrong.

In short: the Shoal Creek debacle showed that even on the most important route in the city for commuting cyclists, the city doesn't have the guts to put safe travel for cyclists ahead of on-street parking (even when on-street parking is preserved on one side of the street). The multipurpose lanes are essentially what was on the street to begin with - a solution that no traffic engineer or bicycle coordinator would today approve -- bicycle lanes which cars can park in at will.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commissioner
and Only No Vote on Great Shoal Creek Debacle of '00

January 05, 2005

New observations from South Florida, Part One

I've just returned from South Florida and will be assembling a few observations over the next couple of entries. This one focuses on bicycles - the transit article (mostly about Tri-Rail and its implications for Austin) comes next.

Delray Beach, the town immediately north of Boca Raton (where I grew up and where we stayed with my parents during most of the last 3 weeks), is obstructing a plan by the state highway department to rebuild state route A1A with standard bicycle lanes on each side. A1A is the main (in most parts the only) north-south route on the barrier islands which separate the ocean from the Intracoastal Waterway. In other words, this is the beach road, and not surprisingly, this is where the rich people mostly live. This is also where most people want to ride their bikes, for obvious reasons.

The state highway department in Florida seems to be very progressive, at least compared to TXDOT. On previous visits home, I've noticed a lot of (narrow but usable) bike lanes painted on major arterials throughout the region (this area, being mostly suburban, gets most major roads built and paid for by the state, as is the case here in Round Rock but not in Austin). In fact, A1A throughout Boca Raton was granted nice new bike lanes a few years ago, and they enjoy heavy use. This has resulted in a much saner trip for both drivers and cyclists on this road.

Anyways, the folks up in Delray who live on the road aren't happy with the plan to extend this facility further north; and they got their city commission to listen. The city came back with a proposal to build 3-feet wide mini-shoulders on the road, combined with 10-foot car lanes. Sound familiar? It's even worse when applied to South Florida, where so many drivers are marginally skilled and elderly. If the state bows to the wishes of the locals and builds this facility, people will be far worse off than with the current shared lane -- it will appear to drivers that it is safe to pass cyclists without crossing the double-yellow line, and people will get hurt and killed. There is some hope that the Florida DOT will overrule the local decision, and the local mainstream press has some opposition being heard in op-eds (which doesn't happen here thanks to the gutless Statesman), so it's all not yet lost, but I wouldn't say I'd bet on a positive outcome there.

This is a timely development since the restriping specified in the Great Shoal Creek Debacle of '00 is about to finally be implemented here in Austin -- the local neighbors, who glibly assert that "curb
extensions and lane stripping will be installed finally under a compromise
agreement between the Allandale and Rosedale neighborhoods, the city, cyclists,
pedestrians and emergency services." while participating in a process which showed that neighborhood thuggery will still beat sound engineering and progressive politics any day of the week, are going to see 10-feet "shared parking and bike" lanes next to 10-feet travel lanes. In other words, the most important bicycle route in the city (a "bicycle arterial" as I like to call it) is held hostage to on-street parking, and rendered less safe than it was before. This is a compromise in the sense that a deer and a wolf "agree" that the wolf will eat the deer.

This "compromise" (which I voted against at the UTC, all on my lonesome) was nothing more than a slap in the face to reasonable cyclists who want to coexist with drivers and parking -- as demonstrated by the original plan (with on-street parking preserved on one side of the street). And anybody who voted for this farce should be banned from ever claiming to be pro-bicycle-commuting for the rest of their life. It shows that you can't expect to get good results when you sell your basic principles for the sake of getting along, or, as an anonymous contributor to Michael Bluejay's list put it:

I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning. Although originally, I was very hopeful that a community consensus could be reached that could benefit everyone (and possibly even improve relations amongst the diverse users of SCB), I see now that I was completely naive. What we have now is little better than what we had originally: parking in bike lanes. I'm still hopeful that traffic will be a little calmer, but I doubt that drivers will remain in their lanes, and cyclists riding near the stripe will be at risk of being struck. Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process -- however slight -- was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his "solution" would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don't feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others -- except Dahmus -- were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it's clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an "expert," and clearly he is not.

September 30, 2004

Lessons from the Shoal Creek debacle

Michael Bluejay, who runs the largest and most comprehensive site on bicycling in Austin, wrote a letter which appears in this week's Chronicle. The letter refers to the infamous Shoal Creek debacle.

Lessons can be learned here.

Lesson 1: Don't bet against Mike Dahmus. He'll lose, but he'll be right. :+) This comment comes from an anonymous contributor whose missive is stored for posterity on Michael's site on the Shoal Creek debacle:

I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning. Although originally, I was very hopeful that a community consensus could be reached that could benefit everyone (and possibly even improve relations amongst the diverse users of SCB), I see now that I was completely naive. What we have now is little better than what we had originally: parking in bike lanes. I'm still hopeful that traffic will be a little calmer, but I doubt that drivers will remain in their lanes, and cyclists riding near the stripe will be at risk of being struck. Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process -- however slight -- was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his "solution" would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don't feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others -- except Dahmus -- were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it's clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an "expert," and clearly he is not.

Lesson 2: Don't negotiate away your core positions. On Shoal Creek, car-free bike lanes should have been non-negotiable. (They were, for me).

Lesson 3: Don't dig yourself in a hole. The Shoal Creek neighbors successfully (against my vote) got Shoal Creek downgraded to a residential collector (from a minor arterial) which then made it easier for them to make misleading claims like "this is a residential street so we have to have on-street parking on both sides of the street". ("residential collector" is not the same thing as "residential street" in technical terms - the former is expected to maintain traffic flow and access over parking). Shoal Creek is, by objective measures, a minor arterial (it's almost 5 miles from 38th st to Foster, the length which was downgraded; and has no intersections where cross-traffic does not stop or have a light). So in an effort to be nice, the UTC supported the downgrade, which made it easier later on to mislead some people into thinking that restricting parking on the road was an unreasonable imposition.

Applications to the current commuter rail situation:

1. Obvious. :+)

2. Non-negotiable positions should be that at least one and preferrably two major employment attractors should be reached within walking distance without a transfer. IE, no change to shuttle-bus; no change to streetcars. Center-city folks should have fought Capital Metro when it came to running rail down corridors where people wanted it in '00 rather than where Mike Krusee wants it in '04. This is the most critical error in my estimation - people who really want rail to succeed in Austin got snookered into thinking that they could negotiate it with Capital Metro when Capital Metro already had its own non-negotiable position (i.e. do what Mike Krusee wants). The result was: no rail to Mueller; no rail to Seaholm; transfers to all major attractors; no service in the center-city residential areas.

3. Mike Krusee won here, big-time. Capital Metro's allies should have fought the early election he forced in 2000 (making CM go to the polls with a rail plan they weren't really ready to discuss - they hadn't even figured out what streets it would run on downtown yet; they were clearly shooting for a timeframe of May 2001 or so until Krusee wrote the infamous bill).

Now, for the big finish:

What damage was done?

This isn't a silly question. There are those who think that the Shoal Creek debacle didn't do any harm, since we started out wth parked cars in bike lanes and are ending up with parked cars in marked shoulders.

Damage in the Shoal Creek case: Precedent was set that car-free bike lanes can be vetoed by neighborhoods. The previous bike coordinator had already made it city policy not to build new (or support existing) bike lanes on residential streets; and it was commonly understood BEFORE this debacle that any city changes to collectors and arterials would, while soliciting neighborhood INPUT, NOT be subject to an implicit VETO. IE, collectors and especially arterials serve the needs of far more than the immediate residents.

Now, not so much. Notice that Michael correctly points out that the media now thinks the SCB process was a model of new consensus-based charette-including everybody-holding-hands everybody-won neighborhoods-centric bike-friendly delicious-candy-flavored planning that resulted in sunshine and butterflies for all.

In addition, at the city level, because so many smart people in the bicycle community were part of this process (snookered by it, you might say), the city thinks that the end-result was what the cyclists and the neighbors wanted. Basically, the cycling community (except yours truly) is now implicitly linked to this plan, in the minds of the people who matter.

In short: their names are on this piece of garbage.

As for commuter rail - the same lesson holds. The groups who lobbied so hard to work WITH Capital Metro before the final ballot proposal was set were fighting very hard for some minor improvements to the ASG plan, but made it clear from the beginning that they'd support it anyways. Now, these center-city groups are linked to this plan irrevocably - if I'm right, and it doesn't attract riders, then they'll have been on the record as supporting a plan which will have been found to be a stupid failure. Do you think that'll affect their future credibility?

Don't sign on to something you can't support. The end.

September 14, 2004

Response to naive person

A well-meaning but critically naive person wrote in response to a post on one of the many local discussion groups that the attacks on Capital Metro were not fair. I've posted my response there and here:

In ANCtalk@yahoogroups.com, (Cap Metro defender) wrote:

I think it's great that there is so much discussion going on around
the commuter rail proposal. but the information included in Tom's
message is not accurate [...]

In fact, most of Tom's information was fairly accurate.

Ridership it will serve: estimated 17,000 by 2025 based on the federally required and created ridership model that does not account for reverse commute,

This will only happen if the system is drastically expanded, which it
cannot be without an additional election. Our leadership have declared
"let's ride and then decide" - so if the initial line doesn't do well,
there will be no expansions, because the voters have been instructed
to watch the performance of the first route (with only rush-hour
one-way trips ending in shuttle-bus distributors).

Length of time for the trip: 55 minutes (it takes over an hour in the car during peak time according to a friend that makes the samem commute daily during peak commute time)

This does not include the shuttle-bus transfer, which will be highly
unreliable (some days it might be fast; others quite slow). It also
does not include drive-time to the park-and-ride and waiting time at
the station.

Will people ride it if it takes this long? the ridership model takes into consideration length of trip, as well as many other factors

Capital Metro has not modeled ridership on this route in the way that
most people would consider appropriate - that being a direct
comparison to an individual's car trip.

Number of riders to break even: fact of life - all transportation modes are subsidized, including roads, buses and rail

Will fares cover the operating costs? see above

One needs to ask this question, and not accept the answer glibly given
above. Note: I'm a strong supporter of light rail (i.e. a starter
system which delivers passengers where they actually want to go
instead of to a shuttle-bus), so the typical response won't work
against me.

The subsidy per rider on Tri-Rail's South Florida commuter line and
Seattle's commuter railroad is huge compared to that on recent
successful light rail systems. Guess which one this ASG plan is more like?

Also, there are 9 stations, 8 of which are IN THE CITY OF AUSTIN.

This is true but extremely misleading. There are no stations in the
urban core of Austin; and most of the stations within the city limits
will function as drop-off only (i.e. there aren't a lot of people
within walking distance of the station, and they won't have big
parking lots for drive-in commuters).

Realistically, the major stations where people will get on in the
morning are at the big northwestern park-and-rides. Since this ride
doesn't go near any dense residential areas such as West Campus or
Hyde Park, virtually nobody will be walking to the station - and
nobody who can choose to drive will accept taking a bus to the rail
station just to ride the rail a couple of miles back around to
downtown only to get on ANOTHER bus to get to where they're going.

And remember that reverse commutes aren't going to be an option
without further expansion of the system (i.e. the initial line only
runs inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening).

This line is nearly useless for Austin, especially for the urban core.

And yes, I hope that people from Cedar Park and Williamson county ride it in droves, less people on 183 and MoPac (no matter who they are) is good in my book.

This is a good thing if those people are willing to get back into
Capital Metro and pay the sales tax. If they're not, I don't think
it's appropriate to subsidize their transit at the expense of the city
of Austin, which has always been a strong supporter of transit both
economically and at the ballot-box.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

May 03, 2004

Neighborhood Plans: Threat or Menace?

I just sent the following to the City Council. Not much time to blog lately; but this is some relevant content at least.

Mayor and councilmembers:

My name is Mike Dahmus and I currently serve on the Urban Transportation Commission. I was also the chairman of the transportation committee for the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan.

The story in Sunday's statesman about Envision Central Texas finally compelled me to write about a subject which has been bothering me for quite a while: neighborhood planning. When we worked on the OWANA plan, we were operating under the assumption that we were supposed to be telling the city _where_ we wanted additional density to _go_, NOT _whether_ we wanted it at all. The Statesman and ECT have noticed what I've also seen: that other neighborhoods have not been held to this responsible position.

My current residence is in the North University neighborhood. I've witnessed weeks of self-congratulatory hype over the fact that building height limits will be loosened in West Campus, and that in return, no additional density (in fact, less than currently exists) will be required in NUNA.

However, when I explain to other people that West Campus building heights will be allowed to go as high as 175 feet or so under the new amazing plan, the typical response is not, "wow, they're being very responsible"; rather, it is, "I can't believe they weren't allowed to do that already".

In other words, the best that the current batch of neighborhood plans are able to come up with is restoring West Campus to what it always should have been while allowing nearby roads like Duval and Speedway to maintain a purely single-family pattern, which is ludicrously restrictive.

I've not become involved in this neighborhood plan because I only moved to the area a year ago, and then my wife had a baby; so my time is limited. In my limited interactions with the planning team, it is clear to me that my input would not have been welcome anyways; for this team (and most recent neighborhoods) have clearly been using the planning process as a club to drive out redevelopment (as you have noticed them doing with inappropriate uses of historic zoning).

I urge you to view this plan with a skeptical eye; and please hold this and future neighborhoods more accountable in the future. We will not get where we need to go if we codify restrictive single-family-only-zoning even on major transit routes like Duval and Speedway.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus

April 15, 2004

Shoal Creek Debacle, Part XXXVII

Well, I rode down Shoal Creek yesterday (I've taken to alternating between two routes home - one east on Morrow to Woodrow and then south to North Loop; the other south on Shoal Creek and east on Hancock, then down Burnet and Medical Parkway). This one trip brought up several recent and not-so-recent points:

  1. Debris - Shoal Creek is now effectively a wide curb lane facility from Foster (just south of Anderson) to 45th. The debris is horrible - worse than I remember it. To be fair, the bike lane stretch between Steck and Anderson has one large gravel patch in it as well. This reinforces my thinking that the absence of the stripe does not in fact encourage cars to act as street-sweepers, or at least, that they don't do a very good job of it.
  2. Parking - at the time we went over the Shoal Creek debacle, some claimed that the criminally negligent design sponsored by the neighborhood would not be a problem since it would rarely happen that you would be passing a parked car at the same time a car was driving past you. This happened six times during my short trip on Shoal Creek yesterday.
  3. Neighbors - during one of those six times, I took the lane as I always do, and a car turned left onto Shoal Creek behind me, and proceeded to lay on the horn. I told her via a charming pantomime that she was number 1 in my book. So it goes; even when you ride legally, sometimes some motorists don't get it. (This is a bone thrown to my colleagues who disobey every traffic law they find inconvenient on the theory that all motorists hate them anyways).

Years later, Shoal Creek has no stripes and no calming. Read up on this page for more background on why the neighbors won, and why we never should have negotiated away the flow of traffic on a top-5 bicycle route in the city (and in my opinion, why we never should have supported their downgrade of this road from arterial to collector in the CAMPO plan).

January 20, 2004

Envision Circle C in Downtown Austin

Well, the neighborhood associations of the center city are at it again; this time trying to rally the troops against the clear consensus expressed in the Envision Central Texas surveys.

The Austin Neighborhoods Council, umbrella wing for most of the worst of the lot (the kind of people who opposed the Villas on Guadalupe by claiming that rush-hour traffic would get horrible because of all of the students driving their SUVs to UT) is now fighting the Envision Central Texas project because people voted in huge numbers to direct new development to "infill", i.e., build stuff closer in to the city so we don't destroy quite as much of the environment around Austin that we (a) depend on and (b) enjoy. This consensus was overwhelming.

And yet, it still doesn't penetrate these peoples' heads that perhaps they'd get more support from the public at large if the sum total of the last ten neighborhood plans wasn't "please don't build anything new in or around our neighborhood, and please get rid of a bunch of existing multi-family development here, and please spend ten million dollars on these improvements when you're done with all of that". Their tack, instead, apparently, is going to be More Of The Same: Obstructionism in the name of "preserving neighborhoods", as if we're too unintelligent to notice that "neighborhoods" in real cities consist of more than single-family homes.

Here's the note they sent:

Continue reading "Envision Circle C in Downtown Austin" »

January 16, 2004

Bad Neighborhood Plans, Part Three

Well, the neighborhood that destroyed light rail's chances in 2000 ("yes, we moved next to an active railroad; but NO, we don't think we should live with light-rail for the benefit of the city") has finished their neighborhood plan.


Big surprise: Calls for a drop in multifamily development.


Once again, the point of this exercise was supposed to be for neighborhoods to tell the city where they want additional density, NOT to tell the city that they want less density.


This is a city. Grow up, people!

January 12, 2004

Irresponsible Neighborhoods, Part Two

I was watching Channel Six for a bit while waiting for my wife to get ready to go out to a childbirth class, and I saw a zoning case being debated in front of council which has come up in a couple of the Yahoo groups I read. This particular case involves a SF-3 lot with two houses on it, each one fronting a different street (the lot has frontage on two parallel streets - not a typical corner lot) which the owner wants to subdivide into two SF-4A lots, so that each house can be a legally separate property.

A bunch of caterwauling has occurred from the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association over the fact that they explicitly rejected this kind of lot during their neighborhood planning process. The assumption is that the City Council would hear this, and rule against the zoning case because of it. (Note: the City Council ruled in favor of the applicant 7-0 on first reading; displaying what has become their typical pragmatism, but see more below).

This assumes, of course, that the City Council finds banning small lots throughout a neighborhood in the center city to be a reasonable thing to do in a neighborhood plan. I hope they didn't; but I wonder why the plan passed in the first place.

I worked on the Old West Austin neighborhood plan. We were responsible. We allowed for densification with character throughout the neighborhood. We allowed for some multifamily which wasn't only on arterial roadways (see future piece on Asshat Neigborhood Clowns Who Think Multi-Family Residents Don't Care About Noise). We were specifically seeking to satisfy the intentions of the neighborhood planning process, which was NOT "Tell us WHETHER you want density", but rather, "tell us WHERE you want density", and we also didn't think saying "only on Lamar" was a responsible answer.

Sadly, it seems more and more that the City Council has allowed other neighborhoods to get away with joke neigborhood plans which boil down to: Do these 20 transportation projects for us, and prevent any densification from occurring to our neighborhood, OK thanks bye.

October 06, 2003

Bad Neighborhoods, Part One

Austin's neighborhood Nazis are at it again. In an article about the current activities of the Envision Central Texas project, a inoffensively driven planning exercise which seeks to lay out in broad brushes whether people all over the place are really against sprawl or not; the Statesman wrote:

Austin neighborhood leaders also are worried the scenarios could hurt the character of their neighborhoods. Bryan King, president of the Austin Council of Neighborhoods, said the type of density envisioned for neighborhoods in Scenario D could be disastrous. "Any scenario that is chosen must respond to neighborhood plans," King said. "The neighborhood plans come first. Envision Central Texas comes second."

Back when I worked on the Old West Austin neighborhood plan; it was understood that this exercise was fundamentally a way for central-city neighborhoods to show where additional density should occur; not whether it should occur. And we took that responsibility seriously; advocating additional development (both commercial and residential) on the edges and in a few places in the interior of the neighborhood. Since then, every neighborhood of note in the city, including my new neighborhood in North University, has used this process to try to push all densification out to commercial arterials; and even there in absurdly limited terms. The same people who fought the Villas, a reasonable apartment complex right next to Guadalupe Street within walking distance of UT, are fighting future similarly smart infill projects throughout Austin's central city. And all of these wankers drive cars with SoS stickers on them. Oh, the irony.