A very small percentage of Austinites are homeless. During the January 2015 count of homeless individuals in Austin, a total of 1,877 homeless residents of Austin were found, or roughly 0.2% — 1 in every 450 Austinites. Yet, homelessness is a problem with an extremely wide reach. The knock-on problems that come from our inability to end homelessness emanate out in so many ways it can be hard to even be aware of all them. These are just a small sample:
I like to pick out videos from city proceedings which people explain the philosophies behind their actions. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar took the occasion of an appeal of a Conditional Use Permit denial for the use of Springdale Farms as an event space to discuss what he sees as the broader causes and cures for gentrification in Austin. The video is from ATXN, clipped by friend-of-the-blog Tyler Markham. The transcript is from the City of Austin. I have added formatting and light editing for readability.
Mayor, briefly, I think that you lay out very well the conditional use permit issue. Let me take a step back. In my mind there’s two very glaring facts about this situation in this case. The first is what you described very well: there is the issue at hand about one specific property, one specific conditional use permit and parking requirements needed, the noise mitigation, what is a compatible use on this piece of commercial property in this one narrowly tailored case. If it was just about that, then I think it would very simply be just another one of the many cases we see in a rapidly urbanizing city where uses start knocking against one another as we grow both residentially and as our businesses grow.
But what’s also glaring to me is that there’s a second obvious fact that clearly many people in the community, whether they’re nearby neighbors or people concerned about what’s happening in our city. This case is about something much more than that to many in this room for many different reasons, but especially some of the folks that came and spoke today in opposition. It means something about the racial and class divides in our city, about displacement occurring in our city, the change that is bringing some benefits to our city, but causing other detrimental effects as well. And that is a serious part of this conversation and the feeling that some folks think this would not be approved were it in another part of town.
My vote will be based on the first obvious fact, will be based on the merits of the conditional use permit, which is why I will vote for this. But I feel like it’s incumbent on us to acknowledge the second piece of this and to understand. I believe a lot of the folks that came and spoke before us have very legitimate concerns about whether or not this is a space that they feel is truly for that community. I’ve spoken with lots of people on both sides of the issue that live in the nearby neighborhood but I think it’s important for supporters of the farm and the owners to acknowledge and take seriously the concern that folks have brought up about whether they really feel like this space is for them and a community asset. I recognize that there have been attempts to do so but it seems clear to me that there’s still work on that front to be done.
People have brought this up as a cause of gentrification. I don’t see it as much of a cause compared to the ruthless global real estate market and our failed urban planning principles and racist institutions that we still deal with every single day, but I think the folks that have brought this up as a symbol or as a symptom of that kind of gentrification do need to be listened to and should be listened to. I ask every single one of you whether you’re on one side of this issue or another to participate in the broader policy debate about investing in affordable housing, even if it’s going to cost all of us a little bit of money. About rewriting and redoing the way we do our planning so that it’s not just up to some neighborhoods to absorb change, that there should be no such thing as a gated community that does not change. To talk about smaller living spaces because whether you like it or not and whether you agree with me on this or not, I see a city with rising land prices and I say the only way we can get people to be able to stick around in the central city is to find ways for us to live smaller and to use more transit and to invest in different kinds of housing
Stick around for the budget session right after this because we have temporary employees here at the city that don’t have healthcare and aren’t protected by our living wage standards and it’s that kind of a conversation that we need to engage in and it is the kind of conversation that when we’re talking about mixes of uses and different kinds of spaces in other parts of town that you hold us accountable to being able to support those when the noise is contained and when the parking is required and all of the sorts of things that I think was hammered out in the hard-fought compromise that makes probably no one happy. So I call on my colleagues to take that issue seriously and I appreciate the conversation this has begun but it’s got to be about way more than one small zoning case.
Earlier this week, I brought to you a debate between Council Member Don Zimmerman and Council Member Delia Garza on whether downtown density or suburban sprawl causes more congestion. At the same meeting, CM Zimmerman also found himself in a debate between two sides of himself: his belief in limiting government spending and his belief in subsidizing suburban sprawl.
To set this clip up, Austin Transportation Department is presenting their work to date on implementing “rough proportionality” in transportation impact fees, fees developers pay toward street improvements near their developments.
ATD notes that there are two factors affecting how much a new development will have to pay in transportation impact fees:
- How much extra transportation infrastructure will be needed in this area. Places where streets don’t need or can’t handle expensive upgrades have fewer fees to pass on to developers.
- How much new development will happen in that area. Places where more development is happening, the costs of the streets can be shared across more people so each person pays less.
The example that the ATD officials give of a development that would have had to pay smaller impact fees per vehicle-mile generated was the Austonian. 1) It’s downtown, which already has a very mature transportation network; 2) there’s a lot of new development coming downtown, so all those new developments can split the costs for any street upgrades that have to be made.
The formula deciding the costs for the developers isn’t random; it represents the real costs to the city of fielding that type of development at that location. This is where CM Zimmerman begins going off the rails. He realizes that, if forced to bear the true costs of building out lots of new infrastructure, sparse new suburban sprawl may not “pencil out”–that is, may no longer be profitable enough to get built. That is, if we made suburban sprawl pay its own costs, there might be a lot less of it.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that the least NIMBY Council Member, the one most eager to see new private development in his own district, is also a fiscal conservative in the district where development requires the biggest infrastructure subsidy to pencil out. Until CM Zimmerman reconciles his belief in small government with suburban sprawl’s need for subsidies, I’m going to have call another argument against him.
EDIT: Scott Gross, the ATD engineer sends this in:
· Rough Proportionality is currently being implemented
· Rough Proportionality currently applies to existing authorities under Code – Border/Boundary Street Policy and Traffic Mitigation Policy
o Border Street authority applies to ROW and street construction adjoining property
o Traffic Mitigation authority applies to nearby street/intersection improvements to mitigate traffic
· Rough Proportionality currently applies to localized/nearby improvements and are not impact fees
· Impact Fees has not been implemented and will take 1-1/2 to 2 years if Council approves budget for it
· Impact Fees would apply to system improvements within a 6 mile service area and are focused more on capacity, rather than mitigation
· Impact Fees is subject to the RP test and, as implemented by Ft Worth, incorporates RP authorized requirements as credits against the actual fee.
In this video, Council Member Delia Garza argues that downtown density is better for congestion than suburban sprawl, and Council Member Don Zimmerman argues the opposite. I call the argument for Council Member Garza. Here’s why:
Downtown, destinations are closer, reducing travel distance
CM Zimmerman is right that one reason suburban development causes more congestion than downtown development is that suburban residents tend to drive into downtown. Austin is a downtown-centered city. More people from the suburbs come into downtown for work, business, and entertainment than vice-versa. Placing them near these destinations reduces travel distance.
But even if downtown residents stay downtown and people on the fringes stay on the fringes, the dense development pattern downtown results in less distance spent on the roads. I spent the last weekend up on the edge of Austin, in CM Zimmerman’s district. When I stay at home downtown, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of restaurants within two miles of where I live. When I stay in District 6, traveling 10 miles for a simple night out seems normal and 2.5 miles is super close. This isn’t only about coming into downtown; even staying within the suburbs, trips are longer.
Downtown, destinations are closer, allowing more people to walk, bike, and bus
Reducing average trip distance from 20 miles to 10 miles halves the distance that somebody needs to drive. But reducing it from 10 miles to 5 miles doesn’t just halve the distance; it makes it possible for many people to bike instead of drive, using less space on the road. Reducing trips from 5 miles to 1 mile allows even more to bike and some to walk, using even less space. Bus trips are manageable where they’re short and well-served by transit. Downtown, people can choose to do without a car altogether, using very little transportation infrastructure; in the suburbs, this is practically impossible. Even for those who continue to drive cars downtown, some trips can be made on bike, on foot, or on the bus.
Downtown, uses are mixed, reducing travel distance
Downtown is denser: more buildings, more residents, more offices, more storefronts. But it isn’t only denser, it’s also more mixed. Whereas in some places in District 6, one would literally have to walk miles to get outside of a residential zone; in downtown, picking up the things you need is often as simple as going downstairs or around the block.
Downtown, uses are mixed, which mixes travel times
If you don’t live downtown and merely drive in and out at peak times, it’s easy to believe that streets downtown are hopelessly gridlocked. The truth is, though, that this is more of a function of people entering and exiting the area at peak hours. The Congress Ave bridge is congested northbound in the morning. South Lamar leaving downtown is congested southbound at night. But even the most congested downtown streets are often lightly traveled at other times of the day and many streets internal to downtown are almost never congested. While adding new residents in the Austonian is likely to add more people to the streets, it’s unlikely they’ll be driving into downtown at 8:30 on weekday mornings or out of it at 5. Instead, they may use their cars for errands or entertainment at times of light traffic.
This argument was framed as dowtown vs. fringe development but those aren’t the only two options
In this discussion, CM Garza and CM Zimmerman were only comparing dense downtown development to greenfield development on the fringes of the city. But those aren’t the only options. Moderately dense central city infill development poses many of the same benefits that high density downtown development does.
On June 18, City Council took its first look at an ordinance to make it easier to build granny flats, also known as ADUs or backhouses. A granny flat is a small home on the same lot as a single-family home. They have traditionally been used to keep multi-generational families together or as an affordable option for rental housing. Very few new ones have been built in Austin lately, in part because rules make it hard. But this column isn’t about granny flats. It’s about one comment Council Member Leslie Pool made, about the requirement that each new granny flat be paired with an off-street parking space:
I want to acknowledge that while we’re moving in other transit-oriented directions, which I support, the reality is that people in Austin still drive cars, which is why we have the requirement for at least one [off-street] spot for a car to park.
In the past, CM Pool has showed vision toward what she calls “other transit-oriented directions” by signing AURA’s pledge to make a transit-oriented Austin. So I’d like to challenge her and any others thinking along these lines to think bigger about how they as Councilmembers can shape our city.
Off-Street Parking Doesn’t Just Reflect Our Driving Reality, it Drives Our Reality
Not every new household in Austin must bring or buy a car. I get around without a car and it’s getting easier all the time. But many people will weigh whether to own a car and decide that, as things stand, they’d be better off with one. Some of the people who decide to own a car are actually close to choosing not to have one, but are ultimately swayed by the particulars of their situation.
Our parking requirements are one of the prime reasons driving the decision to own a car:
- Some potential ADUs in older, central neighborhoods, won’t get built because a legal parking space can’t fit on the lot or the homeowner doesn’t want to pave their little paradise to provide a parking space. Potential residents who would’ve chosen to live in an affordable, small, central home are forced to live further on the periphery and drive in.
- Instead of some ADUs being built with a nice garden and no car parking, and others with a small or non-existent garden but a parking space, all will have the parking space. Deprived of the potential benefits of doing without parking, residents may as well make use of the space.
Requiring parking drives the reality of people choosing to own cars. It’s important for policymakers to not just react to life as it is now, but to be move us towards a future where people have the practical freedom to live with whatever transportation mode they choose.
How it works downtown
The city council ended parking requirements downtown a few years ago. The result has not been a parkingpocalypse of car-drivers unable to move downtown because they can’t find parking. Most new projects that have gotten built since then have included parking. This shouldn’t be surprising: downtown is mostly a high-end market and people who can afford to spend a lot of money on housing can afford cars as well. New apartment and condo complexes like Fifth and West, the Seven, or the Bowie include parking as an amenity.
But some projects are getting built with less or no parking. A new office building on Guadalupe was built completely without parking to lower rents; it advertises availability at a garage a couple blocks over. The JW Marriott hotel was built with limited parking. Some employees take public transit in; others park at a leased parking lot a few blocks away. Conference guests are encouraged to take public transit or use spaces at the convention center garage. The Aloft hotel is going to be built using a valet-only model that shifts cars to existing underutilized garages. There’s even rumors of new apartments planned for downtown without parking for a much lower price point than typical downtown living. Even though downtown is the most accessible place to live in the city without a car, the transition has been slow and gentle.
From here to there
If Council Members fear the consequences of allowing ADUS without parking, there are half-measures they could take that would get most of the benefit. One example would be to allow no-parking ADUs only near high-frequency bus lines that can support carless mobility. This would let the city continue to dip its toes into accommodating folks like me who get around without a car, while maintaining the vast majority of the city for guaranteed parking.
ADU parking requirements are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how policy makes it impractical for most people to live in Austin without a car. Off the top of my head, some other ideas:
- Dedicated transit lanes. About half of those who travel down the Drag do so in buses, packed efficiently into only 6% of the vehicles. If one street lane were allocated for buses to zoom by, like the transit priority lanes downtown, this could benefit half of the street’s users in a stroke.
- Mixing uses. The city maintains a fairly rigid separation of residential space from commercial space. This has some advantages, but the disadvantages for people getting around without a car are obvious: they have to go further from their homes to reach convenient places to work, shop, and dine.
- Allow more residents in transit-accessible places. There’s a limited number of places in the city that are already convenient to live without a car: downtown, West Campus, and other inner-city neighborhoods. Building new transit-accessible places is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. The simplest way to allow more people the freedom to live without a car is to allow more people to live in the places that are already transit-accessible.
The reality is, Austin can’t wait until an imagined transit-oriented future before we give more people the practical freedom to choose whether to own a car. We must forge that future for ourselves. Every day that we delay, the hole we’ve dug for ourselves gets bigger. As I write, there are construction crews building subdivisions in District 6 that will be pretty much impossible to live in without a car for decades to come. Other construction crews are spending tax dollars widening MoPac so that the residents of the new subdivisions can drive into downtown. Shouldn’t we also be building places where people who choose to live a transit-oriented life can do so without paying for parking?
I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Jarrett Walker, a highly-regarded transportation consultant who has worked on, most recently, Houston’s reimagined bus network. Walker makes the good point that ultimately, transit is in the business not just of laying X miles of rail tracks, or even moving Y people Z miles, but of providing people freedom to access the places they need and want to go: work, school, church, restaurants, stores, parks, etc.
Access here is the stuff of life. Can I get to that job interview on time? Can I get home from work in time to see a movie? Can I meet my friends for dinner? Does this okcupid match live close enough to make dating possible? When my daughter asks to play on the traveling soccer team, can she get to practice?
The context of Walker’s talk is public transportation network design. But access is just as much an issue in land use–what buildings, parks, roads, etc get built where. Whether you’re driving, riding, walking, biking, ubering, or whatever, the basic fact is that you can reach more destinations in the same amount of time when those destinations are close together. And more destinations means more opportunities–whether that’s opportunities to work, to learn, to shop, or to meet people. This was the basic lesson I took from living my own life in different parts of Boston.
This shouldn’t be a complicated or counterintuitive concept. Even with a car, traveling from one end of Austin to another is already quite a daunting trip to make more than occasionally. The more people Austin gets, the more destinations there will be–economic, cultural, or otherwise. But the more we spread out, the less access new and old residents will have to each other and to the destinations we create. We are foreclosing options by where we build.
This isn’t to say that density is the only ingredient necessary for access. There’s plenty of ways to build density that doesn’t afford much access. You can arrange your streets so that, even though two places are near each other, the path you must take to get between them is far. You can enforce a strong separation of complementary uses (homes here, shopping there, offices over there), so that, even though there are a lot of people near you, you have to go far in order to go to work or get Indian takeout. You can place density mostly on corridors, rather than in a grid, so that people must traverse the whole length to have access. This is why you often see the same people who argue for more homes in central Austin also fighting for removing gates from streets or allowing restaurants on 45th St. The connection is about removing barriers to access.
I don’t blame anybody for watching city debates and thinking that they’re mostly about abstract concepts they don’t identify with–sidewall articulations, dwelling units per acre, floor area ratio, headways, lane allocation. These are important parts of implementation. But at the heart of the matter is whether we as a city can make room so that everybody has a chance to participate in meeting new people, building a career, finding love, getting an education, seeing great music, and whatever else we want to do. The more distance we put between ourselves, the fewer opportunities we have.
The Burnet Road rezoning case I’ve been following (1, 2) is over. City Council voted not only to approve the apartments, but passed Greg Casar’s proposal to increase the number of allowed apartments from 225 to 300. The developer correspondingly upped his pledge to 45 rent-reduced units and committed to a certain number of those having 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms.
This is great, because 300 households will soon have the option of living in nice, new homes right along one of the city’s prime bus lines (the 3/803). But 300 might not be enough to handle the people moving here in a week, let alone a month or a year or burning off the backlog of people who already live in Austin, but want to live more central. In his state of the city, Mayor Adler set a target of 100,000 new units over 10 years. I don’t know if that’s enough! In the end, we as a city should set our goals based on vacancy rates, rents, and home prices, not arbitrary round-number targets. But we already know that we have to build a lot of new homes in central Austin. I’ll use the notional “100,000” though to mean “enough units to reach price stability.”
So, how do we get to 100,000? No one idea is going to be enough. Brennan Griffin has kicked off the discussion with a list of things already getting built in Austin’s core: downtown, Mueller, VMU, ADUs. I’d throw in UNO as well. But today, I’ll focus on one option to get us further: making transit-oriented development normal.
Transit Oriented Development
Transit-oriented development is just a name for homes and offices and other places designed for people to get to without cars. Of course, it should be near good transit (whether buses or trains or streetcars or whatever). It should also have fewer amenities oriented around cars, like parking spots, and instead have amenities oriented around walking, like a front door you can take onto the sidewalk without traipsing through parked cars.
Austin has three plans for TOD, centered around the Crestview, MLK, and Plaza Saltillo MetroRail stations. These TOD districts are a kind of small-batch, artisanal zoning district, crafted painstakingly over the course of years, for small groups of customers to truly love. As it says on Page 97 of the Plaza Saltillo Station Area Plan:
Planning for the TOD Districts has been a lengthy and complex process. It has involved numerous stakeholder groups, including the City, private developers, and affordable housing advocates. DMA’s recommendations are the result of careful consideration of all interested parties with an eye toward the creation of a vibrant, diverse, and affordable community.
However well you think these plans have accomplished their goals within their borders, they just don’t add up to much. Austin as a whole is getting less affordable, less diverse, and in many ways less vibrant. Most of Austin’s growth is in traffic-oriented subdivisions along the edge. We are a city with more than 800,000 residents, gaining more new residents than almost any city in the United States, convening stakeholder processes with dozens of people planning a couple hundred homes for years. It just doesn’t scale up.
Meanwhile, in many areas that are pretty good for living without a car (far better than MLK station), we have to fight tooth and nail for every new transit-friendly home! Build a side house in West Campus? Not without car parking, you don’t! We need to pull some of the simplest elements for TOD out of the realm of the exotic, craft-zoned district and into the realm of the ordinary. People who want transit-oriented development shouldn’t be limited to tiny patches of the city, each with their own special rules. Ordinary home-builders should be able to follow standard, city-wide design documents and end up with transit-friendly homes in transit-friendly places all over.
I have no issue if the city wants to keep experimenting with extensive transit-oriented regulations in small places, but in order to see real, sizable effects, we need to update the code in general to be more transit-friendly. I’m not going to get deep into the weeds, but the basic ideas aren’t complicated and could be implemented immediately: anywhere within a 10-minute walk of a good transit line is “transit-friendly.” In a transit-friendly area, you should be allowed to build transit-friendly homes without expensive car amenities. You should tweak our density-limiting code in these areas so that you can build more homes close to the transit stops–distance matters a lot when you’re walking to your bus stop. Perhaps also make these areas more mixed-use, whether in the same building (vertical) or on the same street (horizontal), to provide more destinations for people to walk to. We must not worry so much about making each new transit-oriented area have the perfect feature set if it means years of delays on the most important feature: existence.
Because these transit-friendly buildings will be built spread out around the city, wherever there’s decent transit, rather than clustered in a single area, they may go pretty much unremarked. They won’t fix all the problems of a city code built up for decades around the paradigm of a-chicken-in-every-pot, a-car-in-every-garage. But to build a more affordable city with more transit-friendly options we need to make “affordable” and “transit-friendly” simple, ordinary, and widespread, and iterate from there.