What now for VMU?

In yesterday’s post, steroids seek I showed that transit service along our best VMU corridor (Lamar/Guadalupe) has been significantly degraded by the introduction of Rapid Bus. Along this corridor, bronchi you used to be able to count on “show up and go” local service, but now you absolutely cannot.

The vast majority of tracts directly abutting the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are eligible for VMU development like the one I used as an example in yesterdays post, based on an ordinance passed back in 2008.1 The arguments in favor of VMU on core transit corridors, made by people including yours truly, rested on the premise that because there was frequent, useful, transit there, we should allow denser development and reduce parking requirements for that development. Since we could assume that a larger percentage of tenants of those buildings would be willing to use transit than for the city as a norm, in other words, we would not listen to the complaints of the nearby neighborhoods that they’d all be driving on Lamar and Guadalupe every day making their lives more miserable.

Now it’s 2014, and this statement:

On this VMU corridor, transit is frequent and useful


If we were debating the set of attempts by neighborhoods along Guadalupe and Lamar to opt-out of the VMU ordinance today, in other words, it would not be honest to make the statement above.

So what, you say? Well, remember, the VMU ordinance and the approval/rejection of the opt-in and opt-outs were not unanimously done by committed urbanists. The council at the time had one committed urbanist, one urbanist with some checkered history, one anti-urbanist, and four moderates.

Four. Moderates.

Do you know what sold those four on VMU? Over the objections of neighborhood associations that tried to opt out of almost everything? After all, Hyde Park’s neighborhood association attempted to opt out of essentially all of Guadalupe!

So what worked with those four moderates? It was this:

On this VMU corridor, transit is frequent and useful

Note that we do not need to count how many people in apartments on Lamar/Guadalupe use transit to understand this point. Politically speaking, the presence of useful frequent transit allowed those moderates to make what we urbanists consider the “right decision” and not only pass this ordinance but expend political capital to reject attempts by Hyde Park and other neighborhood associations to wiggle out of it.

So now that the useful, frequent, service is gone, what happens? Most VMU projects along Lamar/Guadalupe are still very attractvie, of course; developers will pretty much build to the maximum entitlements on these corridors today given the vast demand for rental housing. But when neighborhoods find pretextual objections (and they will; nothing is ever cut and dry), future councils will be more likely to side with the neighborhoods than the urbanists, because, once again, transit service on Lamar and Guadalupe is no longer ‘frequent and useful’.

What are we likely to see instead, assuming the neighbors win more of those battles, and since we’ve decided to destroy local bus service on Lamar/Guadalupe in favor of more expensive but less useful express service? Hello, Steven Zettner’s vision of density ONLY near the major intersections (where the rapid bus stops happen to be located). No longer will we see 4 or 5 story VMU buildings along the entire corridor; instead, we’ll see 4 or 5 story buildings near the Rapid stops, and decaying single-story strip malls in the rest.2 The ‘moderates’ in the future city council will vote the neighborhood association’s way when in doubt, because, again, useful and frequent transit is no longer part of the equation.

Core Transit Corridors map from 2007 Austin Chronicle
Core Transit Corridors map from 2007 Austin Chronicle

To the right is the “Core Transit Corridors” map used to kick off VMU planning back in 2007. Note the complete absence of Highland, by the way. Honestly, only the two Rapid Bus corridors have seen any significant VMU development (East Riverside is starting to show some signs, with major flaws).

Thus, this affects not only Lamar/Guadalupe, but also South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar (which were the other corridors that got nearly completely zoned VMU mostly over neighbors’ objections).

Does that sound important to you yet? Well, we’re getting there. Next up: Urban rail.

  1. I was hoping to have found a map of properties along this corridor eligible for VMU, but they may have aged off, and I’m not particular good with the city’s GIS. If somebody feels like doing some work, let me know. 

  2. Don’t be foolish enough to think we can upzone near the rapid stops to make up for the decline of the whole corridor, in other words; we’re not going to get 20 story buildings around the stops there to make up for 1 story elsewhere; we’ll be lucky if we can get 4 or 5 

Here They Go Again

Best-case time for Rapid Bus, cheap here we are.

The existing service on Burnet Road heading southbound into downtown in the morning rush looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 9.45.16 AM

This basically boils down to a local bus every 22 minutes during the morning peak. Service drops slightly to 26-minute headways during the mid-day, angina and then rises back to 22 minutes during the evening peak. People from other cities may not believe this, but this actually qualifies as frequent by Austin standards. This route makes a lot of stops. Meaning it’s fairly slow, but you don’t have to walk far to pick it up (I used to use this one, occasionally, for a former work commute).

Stops on existing #3

The new Rapid Bus line running on Burnet/Lamar (the second one to be built, but the first one we’re talking about) will run every 10 minutes during the morning peak, and every “12-20 minutes” during the mid-day.

Here’s a diagram of the Rapid Bus route replacing the #3 (look at the purple line). The bus will only stop at the indicated ‘stations’ (bench + sign).

MetroRapid on Burnet/S Lamar

An interesting aside: Capital Metro’s newest MetroRapid presentations now only include the best example of travel time improvement for each route (somewhat OK in the case of the #3 replacement; complete bullshit on the other route). Luckily, your intrepid reporter located the old presentation from which the picture below is taken

And here’s the travel time estimate improvement graphic from Capital Metro:

MetroRapid #3 improvements

So we can see a pretty big travel improvement here – focusing on North Austin, a 20% or so time improvement over the #3. But where does that improvement come from? Traffic lights, or reducing stops?

Unfortunately, there’s no existing express service (limited-stop) on the corridor to compare to, so we can’t answer that question – but the results from the next post may serve illustrative on that metric. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, let’s imagine a couple of users of the current #3 and see how this affects them. Using 600 Congress for the destination here.

Allan Allandale boards the #3 bus today at a stop that will be served by the new MetroRapid service. He gets on the bus at Justin/Burnet today for his job downtown. Currently, this trip takes from 8:11 to 8:43. 32 minutes. In the new service, we’ll be completely credulous and assume the 20% time reduction from the entire “Domain to 10th St” trip applies equally here – and the new trip will take 25 minutes (32 – (20% == 7)). Allan saved 7 minutes.

But that’s not the only case. Scroll back up and notice the high number of #3 stops up there. Most of those are going away; unlike the other Rapid Bus line on Guadalupe/Lamar, the existing local bus is not just being cut; it’s being eliminated. So a person may have to walk quite a bit further to the new stop than the old one.

Suppose Allan’s friend Andy Allandale lives in a slightly different spot in Allandale and currently uses the bus stop at Burnet & Greenlawn. His extra walk from that bus stop down to Justin/Burnet will take about 4 minutes. Doesn’t seem like much, but remember Andy is only going to save 7 minutes on the actual bus ride. So the savings for Andy are actually only 3 minutes.

This pattern gets worse the closer in you get to town (and better the further out you get) – which makes sense. A 20% time savings is going to buy you more savings on the bus part of the trip the further out you are, and if the walk penalty is about the same, the suburbanite will benefit more from the service than will the urbanite. Unfortunately, this ruins the narrative that Rapid Bus is going to be great for Central Austin. In fact, Rapid Bus delivers its travel time benefits on the #3 route disproportionately to people who live very far out; people in Central Austin likely see little benefit even if they live right next to the stop; and zero or even worse conditions if they live next to a #3 stop that’s being eliminated.

Worse case scenario still: Ronald Rosedale currently boards the #3 at 45th and Burnet. The new Rapid Bus that eliminated the #3 actually moves away from Burnet here over to Lamar – the closest new stop will be at Sunshine and Lamar (or 40th and Lamar). 8 minute walk, which totally eliminates the time savings from the Rapid Bus trip.

Once we go further south than that, we’re into the territory where the lines overlap, and the #1 remains a (less frequent than before) option.

Now, what about frequency? On this corridor, all users see a significant increase in peak-hour frequency, roughly doubling the number of available bus trips per hour over current conditions. Mid-day frequency improvement is likely not significant (I’d wager the 12-20 minute citation here means this corridor is getting 20 minute headways and the other one 12; existing conditions are 26-minute headways).

So the conclusion for the #3 corridor? If you live far out of the core, but still close to a stop that will be served by the new service, you are going to be much better off. If, however,

On to Guadalupe/Lamar Rapid Bus next, likely next week.

Short epistle posted by me to a couple of neighborhood lists in response to attempts to rally the usual suspects behind an effort to enact rental registration in order to supposedly stop “stealth dorms”.

I promise I’ll get back to Rapid Bus someday.

Here’s the actual note I sent:




The attempts to tie this rental registration initiative to stealth dorms seems very similar to attempts to justify the McMansion ordinance based on a supposed “drainage emergency” (remember?).

Given that this resolution claims to be a boon for renters, unhealthy has there been any outcry, at all, from renters or people who purport to represent them, for a solution like this? As a landlord who occasionally has to bother my tenants by entering the dwelling they’re paying to inhabit for things like supervising a repair crew, I have a hard time believing they’re enthusiastic about additional mandatory visits (inspections) from people they don’t know and don’t approve.

Or has this been pushed solely by nearby homeowners against certain problematic behaviors they associate with renters, such as noise and trash? If so, why are the existing enforcement mechanisms insufficient, or if they are not, in what ways will these new enforcement mechanisms somehow succeed in discouraging the real problematic behaviors being experienced (noise, trash)?

Has the affordable housing community weighed in, at all, about the sometimes-mentioned reduction in “unrelated tenants” from 6 to 4? And on the registration fee’s impact as well? (I’ve seen a posting on another neighborhood’s list from a homeowner who rents two rooms to people to help pay his mortgage and has indicated he’ll likely have to stop, and sell, if the fees are non-trivial).

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is really about stopping properties from being rented in Central Austin in general. And I cannot support measures like that, nor do I have a lot of respect for those who would.

– MD

A message I just posted to the Hyde Park NA list

In response to this site and calls to support it. Some links added as I find them. The post to which I replied, erectile misbirth paraphrased, this site pilule is something like “We believe in urban density but not these boarding houses / dorm duplexes”. Don’t want to quote without permission, cheap but that was the gist.

My response was:

So I too believe in urban density, and these buildings stink. I’m eager to meet new converts to the cause! Having lived for years on E 35th next to a big duplex and across an alley from a small apartment complex, I can tell you that even with a wonderful, responsive, landlord; the apartments beat the duplex hands-down for being good neighbors.

In the past, both Hyde Park NA and NUNA fought VMU on Guadalupe and then retreated to a position of demanding no parking reductions when the first battle was ‘lost’ (which effectively prevents all but the most high-dollar developments from materializing). The neighborhood plans call for minimal increases in density (in NUNA, it would be impossible to even rebuild some of the older apartment complexes on Speedway, for instance). NUNA fought the Villas on Guadalupe. Apartments and renters are demonized on this list. On and on and on.

So, I’m assuming those against these ‘dorm-style duplexes’, which are catering to an unmet-for-decades demand for student housing close enough to ride bikes to UT are going to be in favor of increased MF development not only on the edges of our neighborhood but on good transit corridors such as Speedway and Duval, right? New morning and all?

VMU: Hyde Park goes reactionary

This is a letter I just sent to most of the City Council. I’ll try to link a few things from here, but no extra analysis – I’m really too busy at the office to be spending time on this, even.

Councilmember McCracken and others,

I wanted to register my opposition to the ludicrous and irresponsible plans submitted by these two neighborhood associations in my area to completely opt out of the VMU ordinance on highly questionable grounds (claiming to have already implemented zoning accomplishing some of the same things while rejecting the rest based on parking and other typical excuses). There is no more critical corridor in our city for VMU than this part of Guadalupe.

My family and I walked up to the Triangle for a restaurant opening a week or two ago, and the streetscape along Guadalupe is just awful. This is the kind of thing that Karen McGraw‘s reactionaries are trying to preserve – oil change lots, gas stations, and barely used falling down storefronts which can’t be made economical when they are forced to adhere to suburban parking requirements. (The only healthy business along this strip was Vino Vino, which as you may recall, she tried to force to build a bunch more parking too).

The claim that this represents the will of the neighborhoods is questionable. If you read the backup material, you’ll see the same exact people who spent months and months building the McMansion Ordinance were the ‘voters’ on this plan – this isn’t the kind of issue you’re going to be able to get the rank and file of the neighborhood interested in, as you might have already figured. (But in the case of Vino Vino, you can argue that the true silent majority in Hyde Park made their feelings well known – the population in general is clearly not as reactionary about density as is their leadership).

You already gave these people way too much with McMansion – and the understood quid pro quo was that they’d have to accept additional housing units along transit corridors – and there’s no better transit corridor in central Austin than this one. Parking is thus no excuse. If you don’t force VMU here, you might as well throw in the towel everywhere.

Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

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.
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.


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.

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.