9 things people always say at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats

If you watch enough zoning hearings, the testimony begins to sound pretty repetitive. That novel argument you’re making? The Council members have heard it a million times before. Here are 9 of the things we hear most often at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats.

1. I’m not opposed to all development.  Just this development.

Those 1,000 times you sat on your couch to support developments far away from you surely counterbalance that one time you came out to oppose your neighbor’s development.

If you’re opposed, just tell us why; don’t go on about how you’re not a person that opposes things.

2. Nobody Talked to me!

The city notifies neighbors and registered civic organizations about upcoming permits. Developers seek out people they think might be affected. But it’s hard to know who is going to care and notifications are often thrown out. Don’t feel left out! If you’re at the hearing, you’re being heard. Just say what’s on your mind.

3. Reality is, Everybody Drives A Car.

Usually said while proposing somebody build more parking. If you want that reality to ever change, you have to accept building less car infrastructure.

4. These greedy Developers only think about profits

Land development is a business. Like all businesses, sometimes you make money and sometimes you lose money. You just try to make sure that you make enough money on the winners to cancel out the losers. Focusing in on the fact that the developer is hoping to make money makes your testimony sound more like you oppose out of spite than a particular reason.

5. Let me tell you MY Theory of Economics

If council members haven’t learned economics by now, they’re not going to learn it from your three minute testimony.

6.what this neighborhood really needs is a coffee shop, not more apartments

For all the mean things people sometimes say about developers, a lot of folks seem to fashion themselves amateur land developers, with a keen eye on exactly what types of businesses will succeed or fail. As it turns out, those things coincide perfectly with the things they personally enjoy.

7. I’m 5th Generation! My Great Great Grandfather moved here before This was even on the Map!

That entitles you to one vote, just like everybody else. Now tell us what you came up here to say.

8. We need to respect the hundreds of hours spent crafting this neighborhood plan

Respecting people for volunteering time making plans doesn’t mean those plans should never change. Now tell us your reasons for or against this particular change.

9. This housing Is Too Small for me!

Different people have different needs and desires! Just because you don’t like a particular thing doesn’t mean nobody would like it.

9 things people always say at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats

5 Things We Learned From City Council’s Vote on Granny Flats

Yesterday, City Council voted to make it easier to build a backyard cottage (aka ADU, granny flat, garage apt, etc). Read the details at the Monitor. Here’s the lessons I took from the debate:

1. Party Labels Don’t help Understanding Land Use Politics

Kathleen Hunker from the conservative think thank Texas Public Policy Foundation spoke in favor of the ordinance from liberal Democrat Gregorio Casar.

The granny flat resolution was introduced by Greg Casar, whose main claim to fame before City Council was as a labor rights activist. It was supported by the Republicans on City Council: Zimmerman and Troxclair, as well as Sheri Gallo (who has previously run as a Republican) [edit: I previously listed CM Gallo as a Republican, but now I’m not so sure] and three other Democrats: Adler, Rentería, and Garza. The four democrats who supported are definitely not “conservative” democrats in any meaningful sense. To understand land use politics, it’s best to set aside party labels.

2. The new breed of Urbanist at City Council is the social Justice Urbanist

District 4 CM Greg Casar

This granny flat resolution was backed by urbanist organization AURA. It was originally introduced by urbanist Council Member Chris Riley. And it was seen past the finish line by CM Greg Casar.

But CM Casar didn’t come to the Council on a land use campaign with platform planks about zoning or parking restrictions; he was elected to Council on a platform of social justice and equity. Increasingly, though, he and other Council Members have seen many urbanist policies as boons for social justice.

3. There’s a majority for More transit-accessible Housing

This Council has not always been easy to predict. But this granny flat resolution was the second highly-contested land use case that took a long time to negotiate, but ended up in the same 7-4 vote. The interesting question to come is whether this group of 7 will start to see itself as a bloc and introduce more pro-housing ordinances, knowing that they probably have the votes to pass them.

4. Neighborhood Plan Politics Didn’t Work

Neighborhood Plans with and without the secondary apartment infill tool.
Neighborhood Plans with and without the secondary apartment infill tool.

One of the major objections to this plan from CM Kitchen was that, by passing new ordinances, City Council was usurping the role of neighborhood planning teams. This was frequently an effective tact in the previous Council, where all 7 Council Members were elected at large and all feared alienating the politically active planning team members.

But while neighborhood plans were of clear importance to CM Kitchen and MPT Tovo, many of the Council Members in the new council pushed back, seeing neighborhood plans as an exclusive tool of the central city, not available to many areas further from downtown or to those who have busy lives and can’t participate.

5. Parking Requirements can be changed near Transit

The Imagine Austin plan includes activity corridors.
The Imagine Austin plan includes activity corridors.

Minimum parking regulations are one of the hardest, most expensive pieces of building homes, especially smaller, more affordable homes. Yet, they are also politically hard to change, in part because most adults in the city drive.

To solve this chicken-and-egg problem, the Imagine Austin plan envisioned activity corridors, along which there would be better transit service. In this resolution, Council made use of those planning corridors by reducing parking requirements along them. This may point the way toward more parking requirement reductions for other types of housing near these corridors.

5 Things We Learned From City Council’s Vote on Granny Flats

6 reasons to be skeptical of pouring more money into the convention center

The Austin Convention Center is considering expanding to another 3 blocks downtown. Here’s 6 reasons to be skeptical:

1. The Convention Center Loses An amazing Amount of Money

Convention Center lost $15.3m in 2013Even though the convention center doesn’t pay rent like a normal business, it loses stacks and stacks of money: $15.3m in 2013. It takes skills to run a business well enough to pay downtown rents. It takes special skills to run a rent-free business downtown  and lose twice as much money as you make!

2. The Convention Center Taxes Every Visitor to Austin To Subsidize Their Customers

The only way the Convention Center can balance its budget is to take the lion’s share of the city’s $9 tax on every $100 that every single tourist spends on hotels in Austin–whether they’re in the very small minority here for a convention or the vast majority here to listen to music, visit family, do business, go to Lake Austin, watch a UT game, or any other reason! A case can certainly be made that we should tax visitors to pay for things many visitors want but don’t make much money–parks, music, arts, museums. But we spend the vast majority of our tourist taxes on just one thing–the convention center.

3. The Convention Center Is a Giant Tax Dodge

Unlike the Convention Center, most downtown buildings pay huge sums on property taxes:The Frost Tower Paid $5.8m in property taxes in 2015.

  • 100 Congress: $3.69m
  • JW Marriott convention facilities/hotel: $5.24m
  • Frost Tower: $5.77m
  • Austonian: A lot! But harder to calculate.
  • 6-block convention center: $0.

Convention Center pays no taxesIf the Convention Center takes even more blocks off of the tax rolls, that could pull millions more dollars in potential taxes away from the city, the county, and Austin schools. That’s a property tax break EVERY SINGLE YEAR that we will be using to subsidize the convention industry.

4. The Convention Center Economic Analysis is Really weak

When people come to conventions, they spend money at hotels, bars, and restaurants. That’s good–it puts people to work and generates tax dollars. But downtown condo dwellers and office workers not only spend money on lunch and cocktails, they also spend money on legal services and dentists and furniture and everything else, not to mention taxes that pay for schools and streets and parks. Is the economic activity generated by conventions more than that generated by other uses? Enough more to justify giving tax incentives? Do we lose any non-convention tourism business because of the costs of our hotel taxes? Are there better uses for our tourist taxes than more convention center? The analysis doesn’t even ask these questions, let alone try to answer them. C’mon guys! You’re asking City Council and taxpayers to invest $400m in a money-losing business and your business case doesn’t answer the most basic questions.

5. The Convention Center Screws up traffic

Lack of alternative E-W routes on 2nd and 3rd channelizes all traffic onto heavily-trafficked streets on either side.
Lack of alternative E-W routes on 2nd and 3rd channelizes all traffic onto heavily-trafficked streets on either side.

Most buildings downtown are pretty small and reserve their disruptive traffic (trash collection, loading/unloading) for alleys. Some buildings, like the W or the JW Marriott, take up a full city block, which forces disruptive traffic into the street itself. The Convention Center one-ups even these buildings by shutting down 7 combined blocks of 2nd St, 3rd St, and Neches, forcing all nearby traffic onto crowded streets like Cesar Chavez, 4th, 5th, Trinity, and Red River. Like channelized water with nowhere else to go, traffic on Cesar Chavez regularly floods. The new plan mostly envisions keeping Trinity open; it needs to go much further to keep all existing streets open.

6. The Convention Center is a bad neighbor

Welcome to beautiful downtown Austin! Enjoy the view on your walk!
Welcome to beautiful downtown Austin! Enjoy the view on your walk!

Most developers downtown don’t just make a nice new building, they spruce up the area around them a bit too. The Independent condo tower is extending out the Shoal Creek Trail and building a pedestrian bridge. The 70 Rainey apartments are fixing up a park on the lot next door to them and building a wall covered in plants so neighbors have something pleasant to look at. The Convention Center has built one of the ugliest walls in all of downtown, helping to make Palm Park one of the most unloved and forgotten parks in the city. They say they’ve learned their lesson and they want to make the expanded section better. It would be a lot easier to believe them if they cleaned up their act first and put some real money toward fixing up Waller Creek and Palm Park and maybe trying to figure out some way to undo the ugliness of their current building. (Full disclosure: I’m affiliated with the awesome Generation Waller, but I’m speaking for myself.)

So, basically, you hate this expansion plan?

Character with dollar sign eyes
Artist rendition of convention officials seeing the pot of gold available for them to spend in hotel and venue taxes.

Really, not as much as this article makes it seem. But if the convention center authority wants us to believe their goal is improving the city, not securing their budget, they need to seriously step it up:

  1. ACVB says demand for conventions is so high, they’re turning conventions away. If so, they should be able to raise prices and stop bleeding so much money. If they can’t even raise prices on a money-losing enterprise, we should really question the whole idea of expansion.
  2. ACVB says they’ve learned design lessons from the terrible mauseoleum approach to building a dead building and destroying downtown street life. Prove it! Put real design sense and money into fixing the existing building first to show you now know what you’re doing. Improvements on the south side are a great start; now address the gaping holes on the east side.
  3. ACVB should be a good neighbor! Put more money into fixing up Waller Creek and Palm Park, following the Waller Creek Conservancy vision. Put more money back into the music community, one of the major selling points of Austin as a tourism and convention destination. Promoting Austin as a city should be about more than exhibit spaces and hotel room counts. It should be about keeping Austin a place that people want to be!

When the convention center was expanded in 2002, the world was a very different place. Downtown was filled with many low-value, low-intensity uses like surface parking lots and auto lots. One more low-slung ugly building fit in just fine. But now, the city is not approaching the convention center hat in hand desperately looking for jobs and downtown activity. The alternative to a convention center expansion isn’t a dead downtown; it’s a downtown Austin that continues to be one of the most prosperous, livable, desirable places to be in the entire state of Texas, radiating tax dollars out to fund the city. The Convention Center needs to understand this and improve their offer.

In addition, the days when the public was happy to give tax incentives to big businesses to get new jobs are over. Unemployment is scraping bottom in the city of Austin and City Council is rejecting hotel jobs (like the East Cesar Chavez hotel) even when they aren’t subsidized. Multiple bonds for 9-figure public projects like this one have been rejected by the public, for better or worse. An expansion plan that looks like a solid business plan for a money-making business will look an awful lot better to the incentives-wary Council members and public than red ink forever on an ever-growing budget.

6 reasons to be skeptical of pouring more money into the convention center

8 ways the Texas Capitol is going to radically change…for the better!

The Texas Facilities Commission has produced a radical new document [warning: HUGE], outlining the ways they want to completely overhaul our state capitol. Check out some of their new ideas:

8 ways the Texas Capitol is going to radically change…for the better!

Affordability for the long run

The major theme of the 2014 Austin elections was affordability and a major theme of City Council since then has been defining the word. Long-time readers of this blog are no stranger to tussles over the definition. Michael King took on the subject in the Austin Chronicle, taking aim at the Statesman’s editorial board and their false equation of affordability with “low property taxes”. I agree with King’s take here; the “taxpayer advocate” advice to cut, cut, cut has all the wisdom of a business leader saving money by eliminating the sales or R&D departments. Public spending can obviously sometimes offer public benefit.

But the part of the back-and-forth between the Statesman and the Chronicle I find most interesting is the question of growth. The Statesman states plainly that Austin’s growth “is not paying for itself,” while King offers the case that “growth does pay.” I’m a little irked by the question: we build homes for new people because they need homes, not merely because we can benefit as a city. But I think we can shed more light by changing the question a bit to: “What growth pays for itself?”

All growth isn’t equal

CMs Garza and Zimmerman had a debate I blogged about which kind of development imposes more burdens on the city: downtown towers or suburban sprawl?

In order to answer the question, I’m going to break the costs down into three types: building hard infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, water pipes), staffing soft infrastructure (police, firefighters, parks staff), and costs (externalities) we impose on one another through proximity.

The details of these questions can get pretty complicated, but I think the broad sweep actually isn’t tremendously complicated. For the most part, infill development–putting new buildings in places where there are already a lot of them–imposes lower costs and brings higher benefits to existing residents, while greenfield sprawl–expanding the city outward by putting new buildings in places where there haven’t been many before–imposes higher costs and brings fewer benefits to existing residents.


To the extent that new buildings can make use of existing infrastructure without having to add anything new, this obviously costs the city less in the short and long term. If an old commercial building on Burnet gets replaced with a vertical mixed-use building that holds both a commercial shop and some apartments, the new combined building will benefit more people and pay more in taxes. If that can happen all while the new residents are using existing water and sewer lines, buses, electricity substations, etc., this is essentially free tax money to the city. If some of the new infrastructure needs to be replaced but some of it can be used intact, then we have a partial discount.

But even if all of the infrastructure needs an upgrade, it is still cheaper to provide it in the urban core. Replacing 10 miles of aging water pipes in order to handle new capacity (as happened in West Campus to accommodate the UNO boom) means that you have 10 new miles of water pipes to maintain. Adding 10 new miles of aging pipes to handle new greenfield sprawl means that you have 10 new miles and 10 old miles of water pipes to maintain.

The same is true for many of the city’s resources. Placing new families near existing parks means more kids get to play in the park. Placing new families far from existing parks means that for those kids to have the same opportunities, we will need to build and maintain more parks.

Soft infrastructure

Soft infrastructure is less clear. Until recently, the Austin Police Department based its recommendations on a constant ratio of 2 officers per every 1,000 people in population. This would result in the same costs no matter where growth occurs. If we are to gain (or lose) from growth, we may have to research new policies that change as the profile of our city changes.

Externality Costs

There are certainly costs associated with dense living: more people using the same roads can slow us down; more conflicts over uses of the same park means you may have to reserve the volleyball court in advance. In part, this is the flipside of better resource utilization: a park that only serves a few people will always be available when those people need it, but its costs are spread out over fewer people. The price of having the roads or parks to yourself is paying for more roads and parks.

But there are mitigating factors here. When buildings are close together, people don’t need to drive as far to get to their destinations, reducing the amount of traffic per person. On top of that, destinations that are closer together allow for more travel modes to become practical: walking, bicycling, taking the bus. This can set up a positive spiral: the more people who take the bus, the more frequent the bus can come, making the bus more practical for more people.


Even the analysis above is only cursory: except for those lucky enough to own the last house they’re ever going to buy, the major affordability issues we face are private, not public: mortgage payments or rent, not taxes. A measure to require all new buildings downtown have a pink granite facade to contextually match the Capitol would have enormous private costs but little direct effect on city expenditures.

But focusing in on the public costs, as the Statesman and Chronicle are doing here, we still need better questions than “should we grow?” We will grow as a city if our children want to live here, if friends from Dallas, Victoria, or Round Rock stick around after graduating UT or ACC, and if more folks like me who grew up in the Northeast decide they’re done with winter.

Similarly, the questions we have to ask ourselves about affordability are not simplistic ones about whether taxes go up or down. We can cut taxes and postpone spending for a short period–or redirect taxes in the short term from homeowners to renters and business owners, as this Council has opted for. But ultimately, if we build roads we need to maintain them. If we want a city that doesn’t have potholes, we need to pay for it.

To truly tackle affordability, we need to get beyond the short-term fiscal questions and move into the long-term structural questions about how the shape of the city affects the costs of building and maintaining it.  The question is not: “Should we grow?” The question becomes: “How should we grow?” Should we grow together or should we grow apart?

Affordability for the long run

UberAccess Expands Mobility

I’m honored to have today’s guest post from friend-of-the-blog Boone Blocker. Boone is an active citizen in the transportation field, having served on the city’s Urban Transportation Commission and CapMetro’s Access Advisory Committee. Boone was Rider Zero for UberACCESS; he brings his user’s perspective on the new service that provides mobility for people with mobility challenges:

Around the world and in our own community of Austin, people with mobility challenges have been and continue to be left behind by the current antiquated taxi system. These rides are unreliable at best and exclusionary at worst. Under the model which exists today, drivers frequently break off from trips and paying customers are left stranded with no idea if their driver is actually coming or in what timeframe they might be arriving. As an answer to this very real problem, an innovative alternative to the old tired system recently arrived on the local scene: UberACCESS.

UberACCESS is a first of its kind, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, on-demand, fully wheelchair accessible service. Instantaneously upon successfully requesting the ride, the passenger is alerted with the driver’s name and picture and additionally the type, color and picture of the vehicle. The passenger is also provided with the driver’s contact information if they need to relay any trip information and can carefully monitor the pick-up vehicle’s block-by-block movement and ETA as it approaches the pick-up location.

UberACCESS is empowerment in the face of hopelessness. It provides freedom and independence from the tyranny of transportation on someone else’s terms. It allows everyone to fully participate in all facets of our vibrant culture. We all see the world from different points of view and when a broader cross-section of our community is represented, we are able to forge new ideas together to break through the malignant status quo.

As we travel together in this brave new world of transportation, the inclusion of innovative companies and an engaged citizenry are imperative. This free-thinking environment produces solutions to problems which once seemed impassible. It’s equally as vital to have a flexible regulatory framework provided by the City, which affords companies the space to create and the citizens a clear conduit to provide our feedback for the necessary on-the-ground refinement of the products. We find ourselves on the precipice of a long overdue transportation revolution and we must do our utmost to ensure it benefits us all, not just the entrenched few.

UberAccess Expands Mobility

Homelessness, the problem that affects all of us

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:

Continue reading “Homelessness, the problem that affects all of us”

Homelessness, the problem that affects all of us