CodeNEXT was not worth the wait

This is my short and sharp reading of the CodeNEXT ‘draft’ that came out this week.

I’ve been describing it as “activist flypaper” for years – and am sad to state that may have been overly optimistic. My quick reading of the code makes it look¬†even worse than what we have today. I don’t think many, so far, disagree at a high level, too. It basically zones the entire city outside downtown and corridors to a maximum of 2 stories (even the parts where the new transect code applies, much less the huge swaths of the city which still get essentially the old code) and adds additional restrictions on ADUs compared to current code. It adds code obstacles for even downtown redevelopment by promulgating stupid ideas about minimum lot width and floor plates. The plan, folks, is a bad plan. Even if you like planning, it’s a bad plan. For a freedom urbanist, it’s horrible.

This is not a step forward; it’s a step back. My strategic take is going to be to try to support those making individual recommendations for change1 but to also urge everybody to look at the plan as a whole and remember “worse than nothing”, which this thing is. Rather, it’s worse than¬†doing nothing. Current code, as suburban as it is, is still better than this piece of garbage.

If you want a longer reading by a more qualified person with a different strategic outlook on it than I have, you could not do better than to read Chris Bradford’s take.


  1. register on the site linked above, then wade through hundreds of pages of code through a bad internal scroll window to make comments that will doubtlessly be used as evidence of a public input process but not be taken seriously 

De-endorsement of AURA

I had high hopes for the AURA organization as an honest, ethical, freedom-oriented counterbalance to the ANC that could act as a “force-multiplier”, in which I could asynchronously and remotely debate policy and grow the group’s numbers so we could decide what to do together and then take turns showing up in person to do it. The idea was that unlike the ANC, most urbanists have jobs (and some even have families), so we shouldn’t strive to each attend meetings individually over and over again to hope to effect change; we should instead focus on our strengths – honest debate, open transparent communication, and then, as I said, take turns showing up and expressing the will of the group. Didn’t turn out that way, obviously. As my few remaining readers may know, I left the AURA organization quite some time ago due to disagreements about process (namely: they turned into the meetingocracy I had hoped they would be an antidote for1 ).

Ever since then, we have existed in a state of mostly alliance. Mostly. I assisted on several efforts after I was no longer an official member of the group. Some day I’ll tell you about them. But several recent shifts and failures to act by the group are incompatible with my firmly held beliefs about urbanism and ethics and freedom – things like abandoning the lower income riders of Capital Metro’s old local bus routes; or attaching burdensome regulations on landlords that will inevitably inhibit housing supply. Many of these decisions were clearly made to attempt to curry favor with the establishment politicians and hangers-on here in Austin.

As, unfortunately, was a change to the #atxurbanists facebook group, which is currently the only feasible place to talk about urbanism in Austin. At the request of the people who brought you the Project Connect 2014 Lie Festival, the board members of AURA who also serve as moderators of that group instituted a new set of rules which seemed explicitly designed to prevent those establishment folks from being held accountable for their words and their actions.

At the time those rules were changed, I directly warned the moderators what I would do if the rules did what I was fairly certain they were designed to do2.

That day has come. Yesterday, three board members of AURA exercised those powers in a capricious, malicious, and damaging fashion, against yours truly, in a way that was a direct assault on my credibility and integrity; and I thus have no reasonable choice but to follow through with my promises. I did, as I often do, allow them time to reconsider their actions3. They have chosen not to.

But as is often the case with me, I probably should have done this a while ago. The recent entanglements with CNU (a hopelessly corrupt local organization) and failure to even slightly hold Capital Metro accountable (as well as failing to assist in efforts to do rail instead of a highway bond for 2016) should have been the things that made me write this post. However, it usually takes getting angry to motivate me to prioritize what often seems like a pointless exercise. Well, now I’m angry, and I’m doing it.

If you believe as I do – that behavior matters, but also, that policy matters; that freedom matters; that giving people more freedom in cities leads to better outcomes, rather than getting entangled with identity politics and SJW nonsense, then I urge you to reconsider your own membership and/or support of this group. Because they haven’t been the AURA I hoped they would be for a long time now.

Your pal,
M1EK


  1. this is due to a combination of factors: because they started relying more on in-person meetings, with the backup being synchronous (live) online meetings, and because they decided open and robust debate on their e-mail list was no longer welcome. My only realistic ways of participating, in other words, were marginalized over time. 

  2. eliminate any semblance of tough but honest ideological attacks against Austin’s political establishment through pretense of maintaining ‘civility’ 

  3. as I first did to the person who eventually prompted my retaliatory, but completely proportional, comment in reponse to a personal attack 

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.

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.

Yes To Office Towers At Old Whole Foods

My old neighborhood has really gone downhill since I left. Now many of them* are vehemently opposing infill at the Old Whole Foods on the grounds that it’ll create too much automobile traffic.

What a load of garbage. The SAME folks who signed the Move AMD petition with me are apparently ALSO against developing high-density office and retail ON TOP OF A PARKING LOT IN THE URBAN CORE. This is exactly why I can’t hold my nose and vote for Margot Clarke. Hint: SOMETIMES THE NEIGHBORHOODS ARE WRONG.

And too much automobile traffic? Here’s a clue: At some point, you have to accept that TRAFFIC IN THE URBAN CENTER ISN’T GOING TO FLOW SMOOTHLY, PERIOD. If you want to live in OWANA and expect free-flowing traffic on neighboring arterials, you’re insane. The whole POINT of living there is that you don’t HAVE to drive (or not as often). Embrace it and get out of your car like I did when I lived there.

You can’t get any more wrong than this unless you opposed student housing on Guadalupe at 27th. Oops.

Pros for this PUD: A lot of these office workers would otherwise work in the suburbs, which creates more traffic overall, since you mostly can’t carpool, bike, walk, or take the bus to jobs out here (and believe me, I try). It doesn’t use up any more pervious cover. It doesn’t wreck the aquifer. Some of these office workers will no doubt ‘commute’ from nearby high-density residential development already completed or planned; and the presence of more offices downtown will encourage even more residential development.

In short: this project would fuel a virtuous cycle of urban development instead of the vicious circle of suburban sprawl. I don’t see how any responsible Austinite can be against it.

(* – updated to reflect supportive offline and online comments at the OWANA group, and my own lack of surety on whether opposing the PUD is an official position of the neighborhood association or not – although I still suspect it is)

Redevelopment and rapid transit

In today’s Salt Lake Tribune, the most explicit explanation yet of why rail is far superior to buses in urban areas seeking redevelopment:

“Unlike buses, rail transit can have tremendous land-use impacts,” D.J. Baxter, Anderson’s transportation adviser, said Tuesday. “Since a bus can be rerouted at the drop of a hat, no savvy investor is going to make development decisions based on bus routes. But streetcars are fixed, permanent. And a streetcar, combined with the right kind of land-use policies and zoning, can lead to very aggressive private investment in urban development — particularly in terms of housing.”