Monthly Archives: December 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

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.

Term coined on aus chron

In the comments on an Austin Chronicle story, I hereby make notice that I have coined the phrase “paleoliberal patois”, defined as, “explained in terms a 1960s hippie would understand”.

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.

Why frontage roads are bad for transit

Here’s two frankly awful drawings I just threw together in the five minutes I could spare. Better versions are gratefully appreciated if anybody’s got some. I’m just an awful awful artist, but this satisfies a promise I made a few crackplogs back.

This first image is roughly what you face when you need to get to the destinations on Riata Trace Parkway on US 183 in northwest Austin. Imagine you’re coming from the left – your bus runs down the frontage road on the opposite of the highway, and you get off the bus. (This stop in this picture actually represents the Pavillion Park and Ride – i.e., this is what really happens up here – no, the good buses don’t stop at Duval either). Even though your destination is directly across US 183 from your stop, you need to walk the better part of a mile down to Duval Road, turn around, and walk the same distance back up the other side. (This is even more odious since there used to be a city street crossing US 183 here before the road was upgraded to a freeway).
For those who think this is an unlikely example, this situation is exactly what I faced when trying to take transit back home from an office I had (at Riata) a few years back. In my case, I was using the #982 bus as a boost for a bike commute, so at least I was only riding my bike this far out of the way – a walk like that would have been out of the question for a daily commute. Had I been trying to take transit both ways and intended to walk, in other words, you could have added about a half-hour walk each way just to get to/from my office from the bus stop, even though it was right across the freeway – and again, would have been a simple 2 minute walk before the freeway’s frontage roads severed this crossing.

The second image represents the area around Northcross, on which runs a bus which I have also used frequently (the #3). Note that all you need to do here is, worst case, walk across the street (since you’ll always have a stop at a light), and walk a few blocks from the light to your destination on the other side – a matter of a couple hundred feet at most.
It’s not an accident that the routes which travel on city streets like the second picture above are feasible for people walking to work, while the routes which travel on frontage roads like the first one are only feasible for unidirectional suburban park-and-ride users (who drive to the park and ride and take the bus downtown). But somehow, people over and over again think that we need to keep building these stupid frontage roads AND keep putting our major retail and office destinations on them. Frontage roads kill the ability to travel by everything except the private automobile. They destroy existing street networks – so even if your city, like Austin, tries hard to maintain alternate routes, they’re still drastically affected by this abyssmal roadway design.

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 2000screwing 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.

A Modest Proposal For Northcross

WHEREAS there exists today drastically insufficient residential density in the neighborhoods around Northcross Mall to support medium-density higher-quality retail, and
WHEREAS the neighborhoods surrounding the project insist that they are now supportive of urban infill, despite having opposed every such project in and around them for decades
WHEREAS the Shoal Creek Boulevard debacle allowed the near-Northcross neighborhoods to suck more than a million dollars from the city coffers to destroy a vital artery for transportational bicyclists, and as a reward, get new sidewalks afterwards
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED BY M1EK that Shoal Creek Boulevard be reconfigured in its existing 40 foot wide footprint as follows:
One ten-foot southbound lane; 20 feet of median space; one ten-foot northbound lane. In the 20 foot median, some very skinny but very tall apartment buildings shall be built, in order to provide the additional residential density that the neighbors claim they support, therefore providing enough nearby residents to justify a higher grade of commercial development at Northcross than low-density Wal-Mart-style retail, and as a side-effect, slowing traffic substantially along Shoal Creek Boulevard.

Everybody’s an untrusted commentor now…

Finally gave up fighting comment spam the recommended Movable Type way (which frankly doesn’t work) and have installed a plugin which requires that I trust commenters on their first comment in order for them to avoid moderation thenceforth.
Unfortunately this means everybody’s in that bucket until I pull you out. If you see the moderation message, please let me know so I can trust you.
Update: Of course, it’s not working. Just email me and I’ll manually moderate until I figure it out.

Why I Crackplog

Probably not a surprise to those few readers of mine who still think I have an intolerably liberal bent, but this nails it (thanks, Adam): the press hasn’t done its job against the batch of corrupt so-called Republicans who came in around 1994. I don’t think it’s all about anti-democratic (not the party) feeling among the media; lazy reliance on he-said she-said reporting has to be a big piece of this as well, as one side has shown themselves a lot more willing than the other to lie their asses off the last decade or two.
As for me, I started this in an attempt to share a few pitiful scraps of “access/insider” knowledge I had, in an attempt to at least chronicle the path to the commuter rail plan that effectively screws Central Austin out of rail transit for a decade or more at the expense of suburbs that don’t even pay into Capital Metro. All that access is gone now, of course. But I can see the themes in her essay at play – media who ought to have published some actual analysis of the plan instead just turned into PR arms for Capital Metro (or occasionally against, but only in the Skaggsian “all rail transit bad” mode).
I agree with some of the anti-democratic (not the party; the style of governance) designs of our Founding Fathers. The will of the masses does, quite often, need the restraining influence of republicanism (again, not the party). But the media was supposed to be the means by which the democratic influence could balance with the republican one – and that clearly has fallen apart – and it fell apart in exactly the opposite way that conventional wisdom had it: the media has been tireless advocates for democracy when exposing Democratic party scandals, but has been unwilling to do so until very recently with the Republicans.