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.

The pro-commuter-rail covering fire gets closer

I just had to write a response to a note written by former light-rail advocate Lyndon Henry in the Yahoo Group “LightRail_Now” in which I was mentioned in a patronizing and dismissing fashion. I’ve stored it here as well to guard against the possibility that the posting will not make it through the moderation process.

Here it is:

— In, Nawdry wrote:
> One LRT proponent (a bicycle activist) has emerged as an opponent of the
> regional rail proposal.
Lyndon, I’m disappointed that you would do this.
He’s referring to me, folks. What Lyndon left out is that I’m a member of the Urban Transportation Commission in Austin; and a frequent user of transit. Our commission, by the way, was so underwhelmed with this proposal by Capital Metro that we unanimously voted to ask the City Council’s members to force them to hold a referendum at the same time on alternative and additive plan elements (two or three additional or improved rail services of various types).
My opposition to this plan is not based on Neanderthal-thinking like that put forward by the Jim Skaggs’ of the world (rail transit bad; highwas good) but rather based on the fact that no urban area in this country has succeeded with a starter rail line which required nearly every passenger to transfer to shuttle buses at the work end of the journey. In other words, I WANT rail, but I want rail that people will actually ride (which the 2000 LRT proposal would have been) so that public perception of the system will be positive (see Dallas, Portland) rather than negative (see South Florida, Buffalo).
And the lack of other opposition to this plan is based firmly in the theory (obviously one with which I disagree) that once we pass this very very bad starter line, that we can go back and “fix it” later but that if it doesn’t pass, that we’re out of attempts (obviously untrue since the 2000 loss didn’t prevent a different plan being floated this year). I’ve expounded on many of the reasons why that’s fundamentally untrue in my blog ( if anybody’s interested.
Lyndon, please don’t descend to the level of the Jim Skaggs’ of the world. I have a lot more in common with you than I do with them; and I’d like to continue to respect you more than I do them.
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

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, (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.

Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission