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?

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

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).

Big Box stores DO belong in the urban center

Macy’s in Manhattan

Macy’s also has flagship (very large) stores in San Francisco and Chicago – and their Chicago store is pursuing adding a grocery store in the basement.
Harrod’s in London

Wal-Mart doesn’t have their cachet, it’s true, but Allandale also doesn’t have the cachet of central Austin. Nevertheless, the contention that big boxes belong out on the highway (which, in Texas, inevitably means on the frontage road where pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users mostly can’t get to them), is absolutely false – the normal pattern, before suburban sprawl took over, was that the biggest stores were downtown, not out in the boonies.
As for the inevitable claims of “bbbbbut if it was in YOUR neighborhood, you’d feel differently”, there was an Urban Target slated for 6th and Lamar (much closer to true central Austin – not just center of population) when I lived in Clarksville and I was thrilled to death at the prospect. Don’t remember square footage, but it was supposed to be 2 floors with some kind of neat cart escalator and whatnot.

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.

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.