“Stick the renters in high-rises”

The past position of essentially all central-Austin neighborhoods (and, impotent stomach unfortunately, current position of many, including my current one and the last one) regarding high-density development was “none, never”.
Now, there appears to be, in some of the more enlightened neighborhoods, a position which they believe to be sufficient which is certainly BETTER than the old “none, never”, but still has some problems. I call it “stick ’em in high-rises downtown”, and it goes something like this:
“Preserve our single-family character by banning all apartments in and near our houses – instead, support more density downtown. Apartment dwellers want to be where the action is, anyway, don’t they?”
Unfortunately, in my response to a thread along these lines in one neighborhood’s yahoo group, I completely forgot the economic argument – namely that condos like my unit in Clarksville are affordable, but neither the high-rise downtown nor the single-family house in Rosedale ever will be.
Here’s what I wrote in that last response to that group. (I’ve paraphrased the quotes I responded to in parenthetical double-quotes below).

(“Central Austin is still desirable because most people want to live central in houses”)
I prefer to live on Congress Avenue in a mansion. There appears to
only be one way to do that, though, and as Tony Sanchez can tell you,
being rich doesn’t necessarily cut it.
There is a lot of unfilled demand to live central. When all other
things are equal, the majority of people would prefer to live in close
proximity to their job or other frequent non-home activity center.
When all other things are equal, the majority of people would prefer
to live in single-family housing on big lots. Where things get
interesting is where we are now, when those two forces come into
conflict (i.e., there is no possible way to satisfy both to their
fullest degree).
(“The multi-family building, not the tenants, being the problem” – part of this discussion centered on renters being bad neighbors, to which I responded with my theory about rental houses being much worse for neighbors than apartments or condos)
With all due respect, I do not think this is a strawman argument at
all, given how many people in this very discussion have complained
about the behavior of renters (usually packed into HOUSES). It’s
fairly obvious to me that if you restrict the development of
multifamily buildings in the central city, you will get more people
living together in rental houses, and that those tenants are more
difficult to control when they are renting from one landlord each
without the oversight of a HOA (as in a condo building). What about
this is difficult to agree with?
(“Center-city neighborhoods restrict multi-family housing; leads to downtown becoming like Vancouver; and I’m OK with that”, implication being that this satisfies the ‘problem’).
This leaves no room for moderate-density housing, which, for most of
US history, was the development style which the market provided for
most people. The fact that, before zoning restrictions and many of the
governmental economic activity that affects housing development today,
the market tended to provide mostly townhouses, rowhouses, etc. shows
to me that this style of moderate-density housing IS the sweet spot
where the demand for central living and the demand for space are best
For instance, the condo unit I lived in for 6 years (and still own) is
one of 14 on Waterston Avenue (Clarksville) which takes up the space
of about 3 single-family houses. I slept with my windows open at
night. Can’t do that in one of those high-rises. On the other hand, I
can’t walk to the grocery store from my single-family house. Frankly,
if we had rowhouses here in Austin in a walkable neighborhood, that’s
where I’d be. We don’t have them, not because there’s no demand, but
because neighborhoods have forcibly kept them out.
To say that there’s no place for anything between (single-family
house) and (high-rise) seems to me to be not much better than saying
that everybody must live single-family.

If I forget, I’m counting on my three devoted readers to please remind me to expand on the rental house vs. apartment/condo issue in the future. OK THANKS BYE.



5 thoughts on ““Stick the renters in high-rises”

  1. I’m with you on this one. Rowhouses are so beautiful, too. They add to the character of a neighborhood and encourage people to be neighborly (through having shared yards, front porches, etc.). High rise condos are people walling themselves up and cutting themselves off from their neighbors and discouraging community.

  2. Well, you know I’m stupid about this subject…but that never stops me from weighing in. I applaud some of the developments downtown. I wish there were more of a mix between the 2 million dollar condos and the 200,000 dollar kind. It would also be nice if the rents weren’t so high. THAT would be my perfect scenario. Instead of tearing down the cute cottages in my neighborhood (Clarksville) and building these McMansions, I’d like to see more of what I see popping up on my street…townhouse like condos…four or five or six units in one somewhat attractive building. Oh well, it’s never going to be perfect. As long as I can afford to live in Central Austin I will, when I cannot..I’ll move to another city because the suburbs are hideous.

  3. omit, thanks for the support on the rowhouse thing.
    Charlie, I agree completely – with one caveat – there are some “cottages” in both Clarksville and NUNA that could stand to be razed and replaced with some of those small-scale apartments. Not everything is historic just because it’s old; some of it is just run-down crap.
    The way I’d go with this if I were czar is that if you want to knock down a house or houses (non-historic) and put up a small-scale apartment or condo building, we start by assuming you’re not going to have the mandatory 8 billion offstreet parking spaces, and you’re going to attempt to attract tenants who would rather walk than drive anyways. Then, we talk about what your contribution to the parks fund is going to be to make up for your additional impervious cover and the projected added demand for greenspace for the tenants and their dogs and whatnot. Finally, we talk about how you’re going to improve the streetscape for pedestrians before we grant you your building permit.
    IE, harness the desire for more development to do some good, rather than standing in its way futilely and ending up with nothing.

  4. I’m all for Row Houses, I think that there should be corridors for Rowhouses like 38th street or speedway between 38th and 31st. The only problem i see is with the zoning. They would be very affordable, developers would get more bang for thier land buck and the densities would support the next level of transit on that corridor. Like i’ve said before, i think Austin needs to have commercial/residential mixed use corridors…but maybe we should be pushing for affordable places like rowhouses on the major residential arterials like 38th and speedway for the pedestrian spoke to a transit station hub.

  5. Amen on the rowhouses!
    An aside about Vancouver – outside of downtown the neighborhoods will often have a half block deep row of apartments to transition from the mixed use commercial street to the detached interior of the neighborhood. However the interior then allows small scale multi-family (four-squares, triplexes, etc.) to create more diversity and density. Yet the “feel” of the interior is still similar to the feel of a lot of Austin neighborhoods. Just a lot more walkable and with more people.
    So it’s really just more Nimbyism – let’s follow the Vancouver model, just not in my neighborhood…

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