The Buses Aren’t Empty, Part VIII

My neighborhood‘s latest newsletter contains some thrilling sour grapes about VMU:

In June 2007, more about abortion at the request of the City without any help the City staff, NUNA and the rest of the Neighborhood Planning area (CANPAC, the official planning team for the whole area) which includes Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest Caswell Heights, and UAP (University Area Partners) submitted the mandated application for VMU (Vertical Mixed Use). Vertical Mixed Use is applied to commercial zoning (CS) only; it must have a commercial and residential component on the ground floor and subsequent floors, respectively. Vertical MIxed Use does NOT affect height or height limits imposed on a neighborhood/area. VMU was based on the UNO overlay in the West Campus area, except it seems to be a watered down version of this overlay. In a sense, our planning area, CANPAC, was ahead of the “curve” here. VMU is something which not all areas of the City had, so this concept/zoning tool was intended to be applied widespread. The VMU ordinance was conceived by Council Member Brewster McCracken.

The determining factor for VMU was the location of properties primarily along major, transportation corridors. VMU is a fine concept which would help eliminate urban sprawl and make neighborhoods more “user friendly” with amenities such as restaurants and shops within walking distance of a neighborhood. VMU combines two uses on a property- retail or office usually on the ground floor and a residential component on the other floors. There are other benefits for VMU such as a percentage of affordable housing units, a reduction in parking requirements, setbacks, FAR and site area requirements. In NUNA, Guadalupe Street was the only major transportation corridor (determined by bus routes).

The NUNA Planning Team, which is separate from the officially recognized planning team for our area, CANPAC, carefully reviewed the maps and properties foisted on us by the City for VMU consideration. Then, the CANPAC Planning Team held many subcommittee meetings and submitted a completed application for the whole planning area to the City by the mandatory, designated deadline in June 2007.

Fortunately, NUNA has an NCCD (Neighborhood Conservation Combining District) which is a zoning ordinance that has more flexible tools for redevelopment and is more compatible to this older (unofficially historic) area of town. The other benefit of the NCCD, in the particular case concerning VMU, is that the zoning tools in an NCCD (which are more detailed than an regular neighborhood plan) trump any VMU. NUNA’s NCCD will protect the careful planning we did during the neighborhood planning process in 2004. Nonetheless, we were required by the City to submit a VMU application.

The question arose within our planning area (CANPAC) and also with Hyde Park, our adjoining neighbor, which also has an NCCD, how does one determine fairly what might constitute VMU? The NUNA Planning Team along with the Heritage Neighborhood, our neighbor across Guadalupe, figured out that no property which abuts a residential use (single family or multifamily) would be considered from VMU. Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU. We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application.

NUNA already had on the ground ( already built) some VMU projects. For example, the “controversial” Villas of Guadalupe have a commercial component- Blockbuster Video on the ground floor, and then have a residential component on the other floors. The Venue at 2815 Guadalupe has a similar makeup with commercial uses on the bottom floor and residential suites/condos above. The best part about the Venue is the underground parking arrangement which includes a parking spot per bed- more parking than the City requirement!

NUNA was requested by the City to file an application to opt in or out properties primarily along Guadalupe Street for VMU status which could also grant additional dimensional standards, reduction in parking requirements, and additional ground floor uses in office districts. NUNA opted in properties from 27th to the north side of 30th Street along the east side of Guadalupe since these properties for the most part were built as “VMU” – a commercial use on the ground floor and a residential component on the upper floors, but we did not opt for the additional bonuses such as reduction in parking requirements, etc. for any properties. Our application will be considered in a public hearing in front of the Planning Commission February 12 along with the other neighborhoods in CANPAC (Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest, Caswell Heights, and UAP-University Area Partners). There will be no staff recommendation for this application.

In accordance with Hyde Park, another NCCD, we decided that we would prefer to consider individual, commercial project proposals on a case by case basis. In short, NUNA has given nothing away to the City in our application for VMU; we would like first to evaluate each project to see if it is compliant and compatible with our NCCD regulations.

Here’s the response I sent to the neighborhood list; which is currently stuck in moderation:

I see in the most recent newsletter a fair amount of sour grapes about VMU which may lead people to become misinformed. For instance:

“Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU.”

The entire point of VMU is to put density where the highest frequency transit service already exists, so that it might attract residents without cars; households with fewer cars than typical; shoppers who take the bus; etc.

“We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application.”

The purpose of “opt-out” and “opt-in” is being misrepresented here as well. The operating assumption was that because you folks got McMansion, which will result in less density on the interior (fewer housing units, since it so severely penalizes duplexes and garage apartments), that you would support more density on the transit corridors. This wasn’t you being FORCED to accept this density – it was part of the bargain you accepted in return for lowering density on the interior, and now you (and Hyde Park) are trying to back out of your end of the deal.

There is no transit corridor in the city more heavily used than Guadalupe on the edge of our neighborhood. There is no place in the city better suited for VMU than this one. It’s irresponsible to continue to pretend that the city’s asking for something unreasonable here, since you got what you wanted on McMansion.

And, by the way, there was a guy here on this list telling you that the VMU application you were submitting was a big mistake quite some time ago. Ahem.

– MD

And my follow-up:

Argh. As is often the case, I see when reading my own post that I left out something important; I said that the point of opt-in and opt-out was either missed or misrepresented, but I never said what the point was supposed to be.
Opt-out was supposed to be for extraordinary circumstances that the neighborhood was aware of that the city might not be – not generalized “opt out everywhere because we think we’ve already done enough”. For one instance, a difficult alley access (like behind Chango’s) might be something that would justify an opt-out.
If you opt out more than a few properties, you’re doing it wrong.
Opt-in was supposed to be for additional properties outside the main corridor – NOT for “here’s the only places we’ll let you do VMU”. IE, my old neighborhood of OWANA might decide to opt-in for VMU on West Lynn at 12th, even though it’s not a major transit corridor (the bus only runs once an hour there).
If you think “opt-in” is for the few places you pick to allow VMU on the major transit corridor, you’re doing it wrong.

Dear libertarian ideologues: If you mainly see buses on the ends of their routes in the godforsaken burbs, stomach and they’re NOT empty, sildenafil Capital Metro would be doing something wrong. Morons.
The right place to measure ridership is along the whole route – but if you have to pick just one spot, order pick somewhere in the middle and you will invariably find a very different story than the typical suburban idiot narrative of “the buses are always empty”. Try standing-room-only, at least in the morning rush. (I took the 2-bus trip to my awful new office twice in a row in late March and on both mornings, I had to stand on the #5; I never wrote up the TFT because I was too busy, but maybe I ought to).
And, dear disabled friends, media coverage of our very low FRR ratio thanks in large part to your gold-plated taxi-limo service is eventually going to kill the rest of the system – which will also kill your golden goose. Think long and hard about what you do next.
Also, dear bus-riding friends, if you keep opposing modest, long-overdue fare increases, sooner or later the majority of voters (who, sad to say, don’t ride the bus) will cut the sales tax support, one way or another. You may think people like you are the majority – but there’s 5 people who drive and never take the bus, not even once a year, for every one of you. Seriously.

9 Replies to “The Buses Aren’t Empty, Part VIII”

  1. Dear Capital Metro, if you continue to ignore the fact that the Austin area’s expansion is not all to the north, and if you continue to put all of your efforts into a boondoggle of a commuter rail program rather than to expand bus lines out to people who would like to use them (like, for example, me), you will squander what little public support you have left. Try and get a fare increase passed after that happens.

  2. I think I’ve said this before, but if not, please listen: if Capital Metro runs buses out past a certain level of density, the buses actually WILL be empty (like the libertarian wankers always accuse them of being). That’s an incredible cost to bear for those who chose a life of low-density sprawl; and many of those areas they’d be driving by aren’t even in the service area (i.e. aren’t paying taxes).

  3. Absolutely, Mike, you have said that before. That doesn’t change the fact that Capital Metro is putting all its eggs in the commuter rail basket, and they seem not to care about making even little changes to facilitate riding.
    For example: you know I’m just out of range of reasonability of riding the #3 (because I’ve said that before as well). The #3 begins near a mostly empty parking lot (former Albertsons). Why couldn’t Capital Metro make some sort of arrangement to use part of that lot as a mini-Park-n-Ride? This is not asked rhetorically, so if there’s a good reason why this is not feasible, I’d love to know, since that’s more feedback than Cap Metro gives me.
    (Given your previous comment, I won’t even ask why they don’t develop a Slaughter Lane crosstown route…)

  4. They have deals with lots of parking lots for use as park-and-rides; I would actually recommend you call them and try to get through to them on this one. They can’t do this overnight; there’s substantial negotiations required; but they’ve done it before. (They even got a semi-permanent park-and-ride at the Triangle, for instance).
    Of course, the owner of the strip mall can just say “no”, and many apparently do. There’s not a lot of upside for them if you think about it (unless Cap Metro pays them rent, at which point it’s probably a non-starter).
    As for Slaughter, yep, you guessed it. There’s no future in running a bus which might have one person on it, on average (not the one person at the very very end of a downtown-centered route most suburbanites complain about which actually averages a load of 10-15 people, but one person on _average_).

  5. As for rail, BTW, the problem isn’t too many eggs in that basket; it’s actually too few eggs (or too small a basket). For instance, the 2000 light rail plan would have provided service with capacity and performance that would justify redirecting some bus routes to train stations out northwest and eliminating some others, allowing those buses to be used elsewhere in the city.
    Commuter rail is so awful that it’s requiring additional buses to service, and the existing semi-parallel service must continue. The performance is bad enough, but the capacity is even worse (2000 per day, maximum).
    LRT in 2000 projected 46,000 riders per day, for comparison’s sake.
    So rail isn’t the problem. Shitty serve-the-suburbs-but-not-the-urbs-commuter-rail is the problem.

  6. Well, yeah, that’s what I meant. (hence my saying “commuter rail”)
    And I know they’re estimating only 1000 riders per day when they start, but my instinct tells me they’ll get a lot of curious riders the first week (along with Ben Wear, Bettie Cross, Kate Weidaw, and Quita Culpepper), and then ridership will plummet to about 400 a day, tops.
    And the calls to remove the ¼-cent sales tax they get will start four months after the commuter rail begins its operation.

  7. I was sent this link simply because it references my organization, the Bus Riders Union of Austin, Texas. I haven’t read all of the post and comments, but I’d like to talk about our recent proposal for free and faster buses vis-a-vis your post.
    The common fallacy is that higher fares = better service. That’s not the case since at least half (if not all) of the money collected in fares goes to just pay people and maintain fareboxes that count the money. In addition, other departments, like marketing, could be easily cut since their goal is to increase ridership. However, fare-free policy is proven to be the most effective policy to increase ridership, bar none.
    If you read our plan at, you’ll see that the plan provides for a net *gain* in hard money, and it could also provide such other huge benefits like avoiding non-attainment status (meaning cleaner air) and increased productivity.
    It’s a pretty solid plan that we spent several months on. I have one gigantic favor to ask: before any bile is spewed at us, JUST READ THE PROPOSAL. More often than not, we’ve had responses from baseless assumptions about fares and ridership, etc. Just read it, then say whatever you want.

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