Blandburbs and ‘choice’

Continuing my recent theme of pointing to other works that explain my thinking, here’s a quite good explanation of why suburban sprawl isn’t natural; isn’t the result of consumer ‘choice’; and isn’t healthy. Highly recommended. The only thing I’d add is the role of irresponsible inner city neighborhoods in preventing cities from doing responsible things to promote infill.

The idea that suburban sprawl is just a natural ‘choice’ ignores the reality that without the massive subsidies and regulatory restrictions which prevent anything ELSE from being built, a large minority of current suburbanites would actually live in neighborhoods like mine. All you need to do is see how cities developed before WWII, i.e., before the advent of both zoning and automobile subsidies (when there were plenty of cars, just not massive subsidies for their use by suburbanites).

I promise I’ll get to my Pfluger Bridge stuff next week.1.


  1. 2017 Update: I never did 

Free Parking Kills Cities

I’ve known this for a long time, but for most people living in the ‘burbs, this is highly counterintuitive. Here’s the latest article on why, if you want to have a city you actually WANT TO DO THINGS IN, free parking is the worst possible of all land uses.

Unfortunately, most of Austin’s irresponsible inner-city neighborhoods (including the two in which I own property) still push for exactly the opposite – suburban-style off-street parking which end up killing street life and (gradually) the center-city in which we all live.
(An aside – my current neighborhood apparently pushed for increased parking requirements in mixed-use development on Guadalupe. It doesn’t get any more brazen than that.)

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)