Category Archives: This Week In The Chronicle

Dear Lee Leffingwell And Rob Spillar

In yesterday’s Chron article, you appear to have the wrong idea of what those of us who demand reserved guideway are concerned about.
This (somebody ‘messing up the track’):

is a minor concern. It happens rarely.
This:

is a major concern. It will happen every single day, and will make the train slower and less reliable than the existing city buses on Congress.
Any questions?

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.

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 A Group 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.

Best of Austin

Best Urban Development Echo Chamber with Chris Bradford, the Austin Contrarian, and Shawn Shillington from the Austinist (they pulled off the hat trick).
Thanks, Wells. And it was nice to meet you and Richard and the Austinist crew in person. Also congrats to Jason Abels, who I wish I’d have talked to more later, but never had a chance.
And as always, thanks to Baba for hosting this thing, which started after the ISP (I was actually paying!) turned out to not be backing up their mysql database.

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).

TWITC: They get to the Convention Center. Then what?

As usual, the Chronicle’s coverage of commuter rail, this time the Elgin branch, basically ignores(*) the most pressing issue of all, which is NOT “how will people get to the train station in Elgin” or “are there enough people out there”. It’s “do they work at the Convention Center, and if not, how will they get to their offices?
The residential end (Elgin or Leander) of these trips is obvious. People will drive to the train stations, which will have lots of parking. (The Leander station already does, as does the “Austin” station which will really be serving mostly Cedar Park, who of course don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes). (All the supposed transit-oriented development along the first line is really just transit-adjacent-development taking advantage of political cover to get the density that should already have been granted for locations that close into the city, of course – Leander’s TOD, by the way, is on hold due to bankruptcy proceedings for one of the developers and was never anything more than a joke as far as I’m concerned.)
So what about the office end of the trip? Are people going to walk to their office from the train station? NO. This is obvious for UT and the Capitol, but there are some naive folks who think that since they currently walk a long distance to ride a train, that everybody will. Not gonna happen here.
The key here, folks, is that these commuter rail lines are targetting “choice commuters” – and in the actual case of Leander and Elgin, they’re way down on the skeptic end of the “choice commuter” spectrum. What “choice commuter” means is that they have cars, and are using them right now – so they will have to be convinced to CHOOSE transit. In Leander’s case, excellent express bus service already exists which will take passengers straight to UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown in which office workers actually work – nice, comfortable, touring buses with internet connections; we’re not talking normal city buses here. In Elgin’s case, not as much. And what this also means is that they’re precisely the people who will NOT be willing to walk 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile from the train station to their office – these are exactly the people for whom the 1/4 mile rule was devised. People who are so in love with taking public transportation that they will take extra-long walks to do so are already riding the express bus, in other words.
So how, Chronicle writers, are the passengers on these 2 commuter rail lines going to get to work? Shuttlebuses. Yes, the same people who (in Leander’s case at least) can’t be convinced to take relatively luxurious express buses straight to their office today are somehow going to be convinced they enjoy getting on and off much more spartan, jerky, shuttlebuses each and every day to get from the train station to their final destination.

While the 2008 TWG proposal may improve things slightly, it’s still going to be a transfer, and, repeat with me: choice commuters hate transfers – you’re asking them to give up a 1-seat ride (their car) for a 3-seat ride (car, train, bus/streetcar). Even if the last 2 seats are reserved-guideway, you’re going to turn off a huge proportion of your potential audience with that transfer – it happens even in Manhattan, where an investment of over six billion dollars is being made to move the LIRR just a bit farther into the core to allow more LIRR passengers to walk to work instead of having to transfer. They’re not doing this just to make things nicer for existing riders, people; the Bush administration doesn’t play that game – they’re doing it based on recovering a bunch of choice commuters who are now driving. And, people, we’re not Manhattan, nor will we ever be – we will never have parking so expensive or traffic so difficult that many people will be willing to take the extra transfer if they can just drive.
Christof in Houston put this best quite a while back, emphasis mine::

Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.
Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.

What’s the solution? Tear up commuter rail, right now, and go back to the 2000 light rail plan, which served all the same suburban northwest commuters in precisely the same locations as does commuter rail, but also hit the major residential density in Austin itself, and went straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown. Until then, the best we can do is try to support the salvage effort in that 2008 CAMPO TWG plan which makes noise about distributing commuter rail passengers but unlike Capital Metro’s stupid proposal, can also serve as a modest start to an urban rail system that actually serves Austin residents without relying on the commuter rail line itself. And, of course, the 2000 and 2008 rail plans would actually serve more of the transit-positive population of the city that would be willing to take a longer walk just to ride transit, but that’s just a bonus.
* – there is brief mention of the TWG proposal in the final paragraph along with a mention that it will enable the commuter rail line to “really work” – I don’t believe this qualifies as serious consideration given the points above – the work end of the trip is by far the most important aspect of any rail start, and even reserved guideway streetcar won’t save commuter rail thanks to the fact that it’s, repeat along with me: still a transfer. If brand-new rail lines are to succeed in cities with mostly choice commuters, they have to serve a large proportion of their ridership with a one-seat ride; transfers can build ridership from there; but any city which is trying to start from nothing while relying 100% on transfers is dooming themselves to failure (see Tri-Rail, South Florida).

TWITC: Krusee’s change of heart

A fairly good article this time about Krusee seeing the light on new urbanism and stepping down. I’m honestly not sure how much I believe, which is a huge step up for me on this guy, actually. Here’s some interesting quotes:

“It’s an article of faith for Democrats that the sales tax is regressive. The gas tax is much, much more regressive. The gas tax is, literally, a transfer of wealth from the poor to the middle class – to the upper-middle class.”
That’s not some blogging transit activist or Green Partier speaking on the inequitable burdens of highway costs. It’s District 52 state Rep. Mike Krusee, who’s currently best known – for better and worse – as the legislative face of Texas toll roads.

Gosh, I wonder if anybody else has been talking about that for years now. Couldn’t be, huh? I presume the “transit blogger” might be me, given that every other blogger in the universe has swallowed Costello’s tripe “TOLLS BAD. HURRRR.”
As for the rail issue:

There are those who say his successful advocacy of suburban commuter rail instead of the light-rail lines initially proposed clumsily destroyed the possibility of effective Downtown mass transit for another decade – and that instead, we’ll be trying to retrofit a system conceived for the very suburban sprawl it’s supposed to replace. But as Mike Clark-Madison wrote here, about a year after Krusee was having his New Urbanism epiphany, “It’s also pretty obvious that the only way Austin will ever have rail transit is if we start with a commuter system serving western suburbanites” (“Austin @ Large,” April 9, 2004).

It’s too late, Mike. The first quote is right – we’re screwed; but Michael King is as wrong now as Mike Clark-Madison was then; there is literally no way to start with this commuter rail line and end up with a system which both suburbanites and urbanites can ride and get some benefit from. Even a transfer from “good rail” to “good rail” (both running in their own right-of-way) is enough to turn off essentially all suburban commuters not currently taking the bus, unless we reach Manhattan levels of density and parking costs (which we never will). And that presumes that we’re somehow able to surpass tremendous obstacles and get a light rail stub built down Lamar and Guadalupe, which I doubt very much that we can (now that we wasted all our money on “urban” commuter rail that serves the suburbs poorly and the urban area not at all).
My comments posted there (some repetition of the above):

I can’t believe Krusee gets it about inner-city drivers. That makes precisely ONE politician that does.
Of course, that doesn’t make the gas tax regressive by itself – it’s the fact that we pay for so many of our roads (even parts of our state highways) with even more regressive taxes (property and sales) which do the trick.
As for the rail thing – Krusee has destroyed it here, forever. You can’t start with commuter rail and end up with something good – suburban passengers won’t transfer from one train to another train (even if by some miracle we GOT a second train running down Guadalupe in its own lane) to get to work until we’re reaching Manhattan levels of density. He doomed us to the point where we have to abandon transit to the suburbs, even though we spent all of our money building it. Good show.

TWITC: Sad confirmation on local retailers and parking

This story is kind of sad, but also a bit of an I-told-you-so moment. I’ve expressed in other forums (comments, mostly) that local businesses around here have sadly not been prepared to adapt to a more urban environment – ref among others the locally-owned businesses around Northcross in pedestrian-hostile parking-loving strip centers protesting against a slightly-more-urban and slightly-less-hostile-to-pedestrians Northcross redesign, and don’t forget Karen McGraw’s shenanigans in Hyde Park. And now, from 2nd street:

Speaking confidentially, other tenants are concerned that there’s no interest in keeping them in business and that the lack of parking in the area makes life as a retailer virtually impossible.

(Of course, an anonymous commenter has already said that they think shopowners/employees were hogging the few curbside spaces that existed – hard to verify, but wouldn’t surprise me). The idea that you can’t have retail without free nearby parking is a suburban mindset – which is the most clear indication that these people weren’t prepared for urban retail.

Here’s a clue: Don’t move downtown if you can’t figure out a way to attract customers who arrive by any means other than the private automobile parked right in front of your store. Sadly, there are a lot of national retailers who DO know how to do this – and we’re probably better off with a pedestrian-oriented national business than a local business that doesn’t know how to play in an urban center. That’s going to result in a lot of backlash from the paleoliberals, and I won’t be thrilled either, but I don’t see any other way forward.

This might get worse before it gets better – transit ACCESS downtown is good, but competitiveness is poor, unless you have to pay to park. People who have free parking at their offices in the suburbs aren’t going to enjoy paying to park to shop – so again, these businesses need to not rely on that type of customer to survive, but the other type of customer – the local (urban) resident – may not exist in large enough numbers (yet) to make up for a retailer that doesn’t have a lot of experience marketing to those urbanites.

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.

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?