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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Houston and Zoning

For a long time, Houston has been the thorn in the side of those who, like I, claim that suburban sprawl is not a natural preference of the market, but rather, the result of market distortions in the form of zoning and other anti-urban regulations and tax policies.

Houston, as anybody who’s travelled through it knows, is a gigantic metastisizing suburban sprawl which takes an hour to get through and which makes even Cedar Park look attractive. There’s no density outside downtown; and the rest of the city is about as pleasant to walk through as a pit full of angry scorpions. You have to be particularly stubborn or perhaps particularly brave to live there without a car. Those of us who like to believe that removing those anti-urban regulations would lead to the market providing more traditional urban living are often stymied with the reply, “well, Houston has no zoning, and look at it”.

Now, somebody’s finally written a paper which addresses the question of Houston head-on. As expected, they’ve found that Houston’s lack of zoning is more than made up for by a combination of other regulations and tax policies (which in Houston’s case more than make up for the lack of formal zoning in effectively outlawing new urban development). Not just restrictive covenants, but a host of other policies which effectively outlaw urban development and force all residential construction into a couple of standard suburban forms (single-family houses on cul-de-sacs and three-story apartment buildings clustered around a ring of parking lots).
A good read for anybody who wonders why we have so much of the same crap in so many places.

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.

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.

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.1.


  1. 2017 Update: I never did