Laura Morrison’s McMansion

In the past, you’ve seen me point out the hypocrisy of two or three folks heavily involved in the McMansion Task Force for living in homes which violated the expressed spirit, if not technically the letter, of the ordinance. The spirit being “out-of-scale houses (McGraw) and/or homes which ‘tower over the backyards of their neighbors’ (Maxwell)”.

Somehow, I missed this.

Laura Morrison chaired this task force – and lives in a home which, according to TravisCAD, at the time of this post is worth $1.4 million and has 8,537 square feet. Pretty big, but I had previously assumed it fit well within the 0.4 FAR required by McMansion. Yes, this is a big old historic house, but that’s not the metric of the ordinance (it doesn’t say “big houses are OK if they are stunners”, after all). Also pretty expensive for somebody whose negative campaign ads try to paint Galindo as the rich candidate.

A few days ago, though, I was alerted by a reader that Morrison’s lot is actually too small — but she’s not subject to the ordinance anyways, because according to said reader, her lot is zoned MF-4 (the McMansion ordinance only applies to single-family zoning). A little history here: the Old West Austin neighborhood plan (which I worked on in a transportation capacity) allowed landowners to choose to downzone their lots from multi-family (most of the area was zoned that way after WWII even though existing uses were houses) to single-family (SF-3) if the property was still being used that way. Apparently Morrison passed on this opportunity (many others took it up; I remember seeing dozens of zoning cases come up before City Council on the matter).

So let’s check it out. Unfortunately, TravisCAD doesn’t have the lot size, but Zillow does.
Home size: 8537 square feet
Lot size: 20,305 square feet
FAR (before loopholes): 0.42

Caveats: I do not know if Morrison is using the property in ways which would be comforming with SF-3, but I found it very interesting that her ads are attacking Galindo for building duplexes which actually comply with her ordinance yet the home she herself lives in would be non-compliant in a similar scenario, or require loopholes to comply. It’s often referred to as a “converted four-plex”, and the owners’ address is “Apt 9”, which may suggest continuing multi-family use, which would also be evidence of hypocrisy given her stand against any and all multi-family development in the area except for a few cases where that plan mentioned above quite effectively tied her hands. Either way, Morrison clearly broke the spirit of her own ordinance and her own activism against multi-family housing, and anyways when you write the ordinance, as she did, it’s really easy to make sure your own property is just barely compliant. You notice that you’re right over the edge; so you exempt attached carports, for instance, which, oops, you just happen to have!

Again, I can’t believe I missed her the first time around – her hypocrisy on this ordinance is more odious than that of McGraw and Maxwell combined. I apologize for my lack of diligence on this matter.

(Hey, BATPAC: yes, your latest cowardly anonymous attack on me did indeed motivate me to finally take the time to write this! Good show! And I feel very confident that my readers find your accusation that I “like Republicans” to be one of the funniest things they’ve read in quite some time!)

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.

Update on McMansion Ordinance

Tonight the City Council considers it. I spoke before the Planning Commission on Tuesday night (very late) and was covered by Fox 7 (including screen time I missed seeing, although my cow orker says I did pretty well) and the Statesman. Oddly, KVUE spent the most time with me but didn’t even run a story on the meeting (admittedly it went so late everybody had to cover it on Thursday instead of Wednesday). Maybe once they figured out I was ‘the crackpot’ they abandoned the story.

The Chronicle’s fluff coverage of this issue makes me sad. I alerted them to this impending fight a couple of weeks ago, but all they’ve done is this analysis-free notice-like blurb.

Planning Commission gave a thoughtfully skeptical endorsement – raising the FAR for lots with duplexes or garage apartments to 0.5 (which completely lets us of the hook and is a great help to our neighbors, as well as reducing MOST of the city-wide affordable housing disincentives in the original ordinance).

It’s being fought vigorously by the Task Force, who, frankly, doesn’t like secondary housing units in general (as well as multifamily development in the urban core. And McDorms. And superduplexes. Keep pluggin’ them loopholes!).
Meanwhile, the one city council member who bothered to respond to me is apparently using boilerplate about how this ordinance is a supposed “compromise”. (Not the PC version, but the original 0.4 FAR version). How, exactly, is this a compromise? I give up the right to develop my property and in return I get to live among people who already developed their property in the way I’m now not allowed to do?

The rhetorical gymnastics people will go through to avoid simply opposing bad neighborhood actors are just amazing.
No further crackplogging for a while – parents are in town.

Oppose the “McMansion Ordinance”

Just sent this to Council:

Council members: My name is Mike Dahmus; I own a condominium unit in Old West Austin and currently live in a house I own in the North University neighborhood. I’d like to ask you to oppose the “McMansion ordinance” at Thursday’s meeting. I will be brief.
I’ve corresponded extensively with the task force on their bulletin boards, but frankly, there was little common ground to be had. Like many “smart growth” people, I think restricting residential density is exactly the wrong way to go. There wasn’t any room to compromise with these people – because, frankly, I’d prefer to go in the entirely opposite direction.
In my own case, these rules will force me to choose between a garage apartment (every other lot on my block has at least 2 dwelling units) or the second floor we’d like to build someday for our family of 4 (currently living in 1200 square feet). My next-door neighbors, about to be a family of 5, face having to tear down an existing garage apartment so they could build their second floor under these proposed rules.
The most ghastly thing about all this, though, is that the task force members themselves are comprised mainly of two groups: childless couples living in small houses, and people who are living in very large homes which violate the spirit (but not quite the letter) of the proposed regulations. Two examples: (name), in my neighborhood, lives in a two-story home which, thanks to an incompatible front setback, ‘towers’ over the backyards of her neighbors (who have small one-story homes which are set much closer to the street, and are much more pedestrian-friendly). (name) lives in a home with 3600 square feet on a corner in Hyde Park; her immediate neighbors live in tiny, tiny bungalows.
The same people who opposed every single multifamily project in the urban core for decades with drastic unintended consequences like the explosion of single-family-homes converted into rental properties for students now want you to do even more to prevent the market from responding efficiently to the demand for urban housing.
What unintended consequences could one predict from _these_ rules? I can think of a couple: a net decline in central housing units (due to dilemnas like the one my neighbor and I will face), and a net INCREASE in impervious cover (it will now be even more proportionally difficult to build up rather than back).
Please do the right thing, and stand up to these irresponsible neighborhood groups for the good of the city and for the rights of property owners.
Thanks for your time,
Mike Dahmus

and this to some neighborhood groups in response to some pro-ordinance politicking:

The task force’s work stands to destroy the rights to develop property for
families like myself and especially my neighbors – forcing them to
either tear down an existing garage apartment or move, since they’re
about to become a family of 5 in about 1050 square feet.
There are plenty of people opposing these regulations who don’t want
to build McMansions and aren’t developers. I’d like to eventually have
what every other property on my lot already has – a secondary dwelling
unit, while still maintaining the right to develop a second floor.
The task force’s work absolutely precludes me from doing so.
Like previously foolhardy opposition to all multifamily development in
the urban core, this ordinance will likely have unintended
consequences which will be worse than the problem they tried to solve
– for instance, one could easily predict a decline in net affordable
housing units as people like my neighbor now must tear down their
garage apartments in order to expand their home to what was previously
allowed. One could also predict quite easily that the new ‘building
envelope’ rule will lead to a net INCREASE in impervious cover and
concomittant drainage problems, since it further incents property
owners to expand back rather than up.
My block consists of 6000 square foot lots – every single lot except
mine has multiple dwelling units on it already; and on one side of me
is a duplex full of undergrads – who are attracted to rental housing
like that because many of the same people who formed this task force
succeeded until recently in preventing the market from providing real
multifamily housing close to UT. If I want to build up AND build my
garage apartment, I can’t see any reason why I should be forced
through the hostile variance process just to do what everybody else on
the block already _has_ done; but the task force sees no problem here.
This ordinance goes exactly the wrong direction for Austin in so many
ways. If you have any concern for families like ours, please express
your opposition.

Letter to Planning Commission – McMansion Ordinance

Just sent the following to the Planning Commission, which is the most likely place for a rebuke to the ridiculous McMansion people. (My bet is that the City Council will be more afraid of angering center-city neighborhood associations).

Dear Planning Commissioners:
My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the city’s Urban Transportation Commission for about 5 years, and I live and own property in two central city neighborhoods. As a resident of OWANA, I chaired the transportation subcommittee for our neighborhood plan, and remain to this day very proud of the work we all (especially Dave Sullivan, who chaired the zoning subcommittee) did in making sure our neighborhood answered the question “where do you want your additional density” with a more responsible answer than “NO”.
Since then, many other central neighborhoods have failed in their responsibility to identify appropriate infill and have instead attempted to stand athwart the market and yell “stop”, as the saying (sort-of) goes. Today, you find yourselves considering yet another attempt to artificially retard the market from solving our housing problems for us — all under the guise of a so-called “drainage emergency”. The same neighborhoods that prevented and delayed multi-family housing from being built anywhere in or near their neighborhoods for so long (resulting in a plague of superduplexes and other rental housing as the unstoppable demand for close-in living by students could not be denied) now want you to further restrict residential development at precisely the time when we should, in fact, be allowing more density and more infill. And, of course, these same groups claim to be against sprawl.
Consider our case – I have a family of four living in a 1250 square-foot house on a 6000 square-foot lot in NUNA. My next-door neighbor is about to have a new addition, raising their family to 5, in a house about 1050 square feet. We’re both presumably the kind of people who you’d rather have in center-city neighborhoods than party houses full of rowdy undergraduates; but we’re precisely the ones who will be most hurt by these overreaching regulations. In fact, both of us bought our houses assuming that we would eventually build up; and yes, even the supposed compromise engineered by the working group will drastically affect both of us – likely making it financially impossible to expand our homes. We both have detached garages (his with an apartment overtop) and we both have narrow lots. The task force’s “solution” to cases like ours is to build a basement, or seek a variance. Fat chance.
My family will probably stay, although our rights to develop will be unfairly eliminated. My neighbor, on the other hand, probably won’t. Neither of us would seek to build a McMansion, but we (especially they) need more space to be comfortable – even my grandparents’ family of 12 had more square feet per person than my neighbors will without building up.
The beauty of this is that I already live next to a duplex – built “straight up from the 5 foot setback line” on the other side of my home.
The drainage emergency itself is a joke – yes, there are real drainage problems, but notice that the only item in the regulations which could possibly have a direct effect on drainage is OPTIONAL (impervious cover changes). And, of course, regulations which only apply to new homes can’t be said to be a fair response to a drainage problem which older homes of course contribute to. I’ve mentioned several times on the group’s discussion board that there’s a trivially simple way to address drainage problems – simply change the utility’s drainage billing to a formula based on the square feet of impervious cover. That way, old houses which cover too much of their lot will have to pay more to solve the problem, and so will new houses.
Finally, the task force itself is a joke – it’s staffed by people who mainly fall into two groups – 1: those who already have big homes which violate the spirit, if technically not the letter, of the new regulations, see footnote below; and 2: those who have small families, i.e., childless couples.
The only correct answer to this group is “NO”. Instead of further restricting center-city development, we need to be allowing more small-scale multifamily infill to relieve the demand for close-in living. We need to make it easier, not harder, for families to stay in the city for the sake of center-city schools. And we need to make it clear that those who have been irresponsible in the past by obstructing worthwhile projects ought not be rewarded now for their bad works.
I chose not to become engaged with this group despite Chris Allen’s invitation because I firmly believe that you do not negotiate over how MUCH to drag your city in precisely the wrong direction – you simply say “NO. That’s the wrong way”. I hope you’ll join me in opposing this plan on those grounds.
Thank you for your time.
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
1: (member), NUNA, on Laurel Lane – lives in a home with an ‘incompatible’ front setback, and her second story ‘towers over the backyards of her neighbors’. (member), Hyde Park, lives in a huge house which dwarfs its neighbors. Several other task force members live in huge houses, albeit on bigger lots than the two mentioned specifically, and I haven’t seen them personally.