Seven Suggestions for CodeNEXT’s Uptown Regulations

The city of Austin is rewriting its zoning code. Staff has prepared a draft with two different groups of zones running in parallel: traditional zones and a new form-based code with tighter rules about what buildings can look like. Each set has zones of different density / intensity of land uses; both include high-intensity downtown-like zones. Staff have indicated that more traditional zones will be used in downtown Austin while the form-based high-activity zones could be used in Austin’s uptowns, like the Domain.

Some friends of mine and I sat down at a party organized by AURA and read through the form-based downtown codes, known as T6. I love how the code description puts a real emphasis on walkability, so I’m going to share some suggestions to make this dream a reality. Many thanks to Tyler Stowell, Seth Goodman, and Mateo Barnstone for most of the ideas below.

  1. This downtown high-rise tower under construction has a comfortable width of about 69′.

    Eliminate or reduce minimum lot widths

Minimum lot widths are a rule sometimes used to limit density; they make little sense downtown. Practical construction considerations mean that many downtown towers will be wide. But tall, narrow buildings do get built; there’s one under construction right now on Congress Avenue that would be 30% narrower than allowed in the draft T6 rules. Narrower buildings can increase walkability by providing more storefronts per city block, increasing the number of walkable destinations.

Suggestion: Eliminate minimum widths as principle and send the message that narrow buildings are preferred. If minimums are kept, dramatically reduce them to where they are no longer a bottleneck. For example, 15’ for a main street building, 30’ for a midrise, and 50’ for a high-rise.

  1. Allow smaller building types
Incremental density in downtown Austin: a one-story building popped up into two stories.

Downtowns and uptowns are great places for tall buildings! But smaller, narrower buildings can complement these tall buildings well, filling gaps between towers or making use of small or oddly-shaped lots. Allowing small building types also allows districts to grow up incrementally without requiring rezoning.

Suggestion Allow Main St, Low Rise, and Rowhouse buildings in T6U and T6C.

  1. Raise or eliminate stepback floors
The North Shore apartment complex with stepbacks on one side from the Waterfront overlay district.

Stepbacks are requirements that buildings must be set back from the street that only kick in above a certain height. Buildings under these rules get narrower as they get higher in a characteristic “wedding cake” style. Stepbacks have pros and cons — without them, you can end up with a sheer wall along the street; with them, you can lose valuable sidewalk shade. But  the particular numbers in the draft T6 section (stepbacks at the 5th and 8th floors) are both too low and too small between floors. Stepback sections of buildings that are only three stories will be awkward to design and unpleasant to look at. Stepback stories starting at the fifth floor compromise the ability to deliver the large floorplates some offices need.

Suggestion: Reduce to a single stepback, starting at the 9th story. Consider raising that height on wider streets.

  1. Allow floorplates to grow or shrink as buildings rise

There is a requirement in the draft code that a building floorplate can not be larger than the floor beneath it. Most buildings already meet this requirement. When buildings don’t, it’s for a good reason: overhangs to provide shade, open-air amenity decks, unique aesthetic designs, corners cut out to create visual interest, etc. This is not addressing a problem, but does cause new problems. Eliminating this requirement will allow for more interesting and creative building designs while simplifying the building code.

Suggestion: Eliminate this rule.

  1. Remove the private open space requirements
Totally inadequate open space that satisfies a tiny fraction of the private open space requirements in my  building.

Private open space is the sine qua non of downtown luxury condos: swimming pools, rooftop decks, amenity levels, meeting space, etc. But not all housing need be luxury housing! I am moving into a downtown condo that nobody but the most snooty Austinites would call inadequate yet it will have only a tiny fraction of the required private open space. In walkable districts, residents have easy access to public open space. Removing this requirement will help improve affordability, walkability, and code simplicity.

Suggestion: Remove private open space requirements.

  1. Recalibrate parking setbacks

Walking right next to parking garages can be unpleasant, between noise, light, and air pollution. So let’s get those parking far from the street, right? Not always! If there isn’t enough space left to allow parkers to pull into spaces right or left, the parking garage may end up taking double as many floors! Alternatively, this encourages property owners to assemble multiple parcels together into large single sites, so the ratio of setback area to total area is reduced. The space around the parking garages isn’t necessarily particularly useful—office buildings work best with large open spaces, and parking garages wrapped by other uses need expensive mechanical ventilation. I’m the last person to encourage buildings build lots of parking. But if buildings do build parking (and downtown’s experience is that yes, most will), they should build them simply and efficiently, without ruining the rest of the building by encouraging overly large buildings or tall garages.

Suggestion: Replace garage setbacks with screening requirements from UNO. If garage setbacks are maintained, reduced them 10’ on upper floors, not 40′, to allow smaller buildings.

  1. Main Street building type
This building reads as a building that intends to be read as multiple buildings.

In the Main Street building type, there is a requirement that buildings wider than 150’ should be made to appear like multiple buildings, each no wider than 100’. One of the reasons this requirement is great is it underscores how important narrow buildings are and why it’s so important to make sure the are allowed everywhere. But the section is so ambiguous that, as written, it would guarantee years and years of contentious zoning board and City Council hearings over whether individual buildings comply.

Suggestion: Spell out how buildings can comply in a way that is clear enough that everybody or almost everybody can agree whether a particular building is in compliance.

Summary

Many of these ideas seem more like tweaks than overhauls. But when prescribing detailed rules, each and every rule must be closely calibrated or else any particular rule can create a cascading effect of complex consequences. Because of these complex consequences, I was very relieved when I heard staff was more interested in using the traditional code downtown. But these tweaks should help improve the T6 code as well.

Seven Suggestions for CodeNEXT’s Uptown Regulations

Time for Some Game Theory: Five ways building market-rate housing helps affordability

How do we handle the growing unaffordability crises in many cities? Most people agree that building more subsidized Affordable Housing can help by providing an opportunity for people who struggle to pay market rates with more options. But that’s not the only type of new housing that can help. Here are five ways that building more housing–even if it’s not subsidized or rent-limited–can help affordability.

1) Fewer folks competing for existing affordable housing

In growing cities, standing still in housing stock means going backward on affordability. As new residents look for housing, they’re looking at the same houses and apartments as everybody else. If folks with money can’t find something in their price range, they often still pay more–but for housing that used to be affordable. Providing them with something new can mean fewer move into existing affordable housing and drive up rents.

2) Residents of New housing pay taxes

Most below-market-rate housing gets government subsidies in one form or another: tax credits, fee waivers, grants, loan guarantees, etc. The ability to provide these subsidies depends on having a large enough tax base to generate funds without making taxes too high. Market-rate housing builds up this tax base. Of course, the new residents will also require other government services that require taxes. In the long-term, infill housing–where new residents make use of existing streets, buses, pipes, schools, etc–can be more affordable for cities than adding miles of pipes, wires, and road networks to maintain.

3) Today’s luxury housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing

Many of the new, fancy buildings of today will eventually become the ordinary, affordable buildings of tomorrow. Some people like paying the extra dollar for brand new appliances, cabinets, floors, etc. Others would rather save some money and move into a place with a little less shine and a little more character. But the existence of twenty-year-old housing twenty years from now depends on us building new housing today!

4) Transportation

Where new housing is built in central cities, it opens up possibilities for more people to live without the expenses of car ownership. This means that, even if rent is higher, your overall place-based costs (rent, utilities, transportation) may be lower. Down the line, when rents for the building are no longer the top of the housing market, this effect can be even greater.

5) Political pressure on Affordable Housing

In growing cities that don’t build much new housing (like San Francisco or many other cities in California), prices skyrocket until a larger and larger percentage of the population struggles to pay rent. Politically, the pressure for politicians to allow middle class people to take advantage of programs originally intended only for poorer people becomes immense. The result is that, for people who struggle the most with housing costs, they have even less of a chance of getting government aid. Building enough housing to keep market costs down reduces the pressure to spread out housing supports away from the population they help most into the broader population.

Time for Some Game Theory: Five ways building market-rate housing helps affordability

Why so many folks are drawn to the urban form

There’s a budding YIMBY movement across the country and across the world. Folks who enjoy cities and say “yes” to development near them. The reaction to this movement from anti-development advocates has frequently been to assume that the folks who want development are somehow a “front group” for developers. Perhaps some folks simply can’t understand why it is people would want development. So here’s five reasons people get drawn to varieties of different (and denser) housing forms, to an intermingling of commercial and residential uses,  to connected street grids. In short, this is why people say yes to urban forms and yes to development in their back yard!

1. Urban forms fight global warming

Everybody knows about substituting solar electricity for coal power, Priuses for pickups, and getting better insulation for your house. Moving from suburban to urban forms, though, can bring about changes that aren’t merely substitutional but transformational. Trading a large house for a smaller townhouse or apartment–even one that hasn’t been specially designed for environmentalism–means using less energy to cool and heat, both because less air needed to be heated and cooled but also because shared walls benefit from their neighbors’ climate control. More people living and working in close proximity to each other means shorter trips. This saves on gas in the car, but more importantly, makes it easier to take some or all trips using less polluting travel modes like walking, bicycling, or taking the bus.

2. Urban forms prevent habitat loss

People can live without green space, but most people don’t want to! Suburban forms answer this need by dedicating more green space to each house. Larger houses on larger lots with larger gaps between the houses provides room for everybody to have their own lawn or garden. You could think of it as borrowing a bit of nature from the countryside to live with you. And if this is what you want or need to be happy, I say more power to you; find that house! But if all of us have a nice big lawn, then as the population grows, we’ll need to pull ever more land out of its natural state to accommodate our houses and offices with their own lawns. Urban living offers the possibility of something different. Apartment dwellers sharing a courtyard or neighborhood park; small lot homeowners foregoing the large lawn; coop dwellers sharing a single big house. All of these folks take a little bit less of the rural into the city with them and leave it there for the critters!.

3. Urban forms give people access to more things to do

I grew up in a suburban environment: large house on a large lot, lots of green space, and strict separation of residential from commercial uses. It was a nice place to be and a nice place to walk but it was very hard for me to find things I needed! Within walking distance, I had zero jobs, one restaurant, and zero grocery stores. When I moved to a more urban form, my world came alive: libraries, universities, jobs, food and culture from all around the world became open to me.

4. Urban forms allow more affordable access

Whether you’re talking houses, townhouses, condos, apartments, or any other form of housing, there are some things that set expensive construction apart from less expensive construction: granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, high-design finishes. In a place with more land than people, this is what sets apart a fancy house from a cheap one. But when you get into the city, the biggest factor in the price of most homes isn’t the construction, but the access. Is this my dream neighborhood? Is it close to schools, jobs, parks, play structures, music, food? In Austin, an empty lot in a great location can sell for twice as much as a fully built house in the suburbs! An empty block downtown can be 100s of times more valuable. Most mere mortals can’t afford to buy a full parcel downtown by themselves, but when folks pool their wealth together and build vertically, the price of that access can be split across hundreds of people, bringing it down to affordable levels.

5. Urban forms Allow variety

If you want excellent food from one culture, you go to the source, where that culture developed. If you want excellent food from many cultures, you go to a city. Cities are places where people of different backgrounds, jobs, and social statuses interact every day. There’s rightfully a lot of soul-searching on ways in which cities fail at this, from exclusive enclaves priced too high for much variety to two-tier public transportation systems. But cities face these questions because we know and expect that a city is a place for people of all stripes to come together and learn from one another.

Why so many folks are drawn to the urban form

Why I requested Leslie Pool recuse herself on deciding the Grove

I was one of twelve community members to write a letter to District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool requesting that she recuse herself from deciding the future of the Grove, a mixed-use neighborhood planned in District 10, extremely close to CM Pool’s residence.

CM Pool has made the case that this decision for her is much more than a disinterested balancing of the interests of the entire city; it has personal implications which weigh heavily on her mind:

“I have a lot invested in this effort and its outcomes … I also happen to live within a 1⁄4 mile of the land. I also played a key role in assembling the neighborhood consensus…”

–email from CM Pool to Mayor Adler

Recusals were invented precisely for cases when a Council Member has “a lot invested.” If CMs do not recuse themselves, we may never know whether she is acting in the best interests of the city or her own best interests. CM Pool has already unsubtly reminded her colleagues exactly how much she has riding on this decision. Her continued presence in the Council debate puts her colleagues in the awkward place of balancing the best interests of the city against the best interests of their colleague. Elected officials should be strong enough to manage this awkwardness, but rules should be strong enough to prevent it.

CM Pool has made ethics a centerpiece of her campaign. But ethics, if the word has any meaning, cannot merely be a weapon you use to attack; it must be a mirror you use to examine yourself. CM Pool, from her own words, should have recused herself from this case long ago.

Continue reading “Why I requested Leslie Pool recuse herself on deciding the Grove”

Why I requested Leslie Pool recuse herself on deciding the Grove

Austin’s Killer App: How Austin Tech Can Compete with Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is the most important center of US technology development. Its cluster of tech workers, financiers, and services are light years ahead. There was no special natural resource that made Silicon Valley the only place for a tech boom, but once it got started, Silicon Valley built a strong First Mover Advantage–any place that wants to compete has to not only duplicate Silicon Valley’s ecosystem, but it has to do it in a world where Silicon Valley is already here. Silicon Valley also has strong network effects–each new techie that moves to Silicon Valley makes it an even more attractive place to build a company, which makes it a more attractive place for techies to move, which…

But in tech, there’s sometimes a Second Mover advantage. New companies can learn to navigate around the market leaders’ failures and steer straight for the successes. Big companies can get sclerotic and bureaucratic, unable to appreciate the problems they have or unable to fix them even if they know. Success breeds complacency–famously, Microsoft struggled after its employees became millionaires by virtue of owning stock options at the right place and the right time. Company culture becomes backward looking, focused on preserving the successes of today, rather than building toward tomorrow.

Silicon Valley’s Achilles Heel is Terrible public policy

To many residents of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, the dangers of being First Mover are very familiar–not from their workplaces, but their local politics.

  • The bureaucratic ordeal in getting a new software development project started at a large company is legendary, but pales in comparison to getting a land development project off the ground in Silicon Valley.
  • Silicon Valley and San Francisco have their own versions of Microsoft Millionaires: Housing Millionaires. Folks who had the good fortune to own a house in San Francisco years ago and became lucky as their asset skyrocketed in value. Many of these folks have, understandably, become less concerned with making San Francisco a place where a new generation can make their fortune and more interested in protecting what they have.
  • Despite (or perhaps because of) its reputation for innovation, San Francisco’s local politics is dominated more by discussions of the past than the future. Like a company that refuses to release new products out of fear of harming their current cash cow, the city has become extraordinarily conservative in its approach to new development. New developments must first prove that they will harm no existing residents in any way, rather than merely proving they will provide a benefit to new residents.

The results are catastrophic: San Francisco and Silicon Valley are failing at one of the core competencies of any city: providing housing. Tech workers spend enormous fractions of their income to live in poorly maintained homes in the Mission, while those outside tech frequently live far outside the city and commute long distances on congested roads. New housing for tech workers is protested as are buses to transport workers from homes in San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley. The city and the region understand that they are in an intractable mess of antagonistic politics, but still cannot do anything to extricate itself. San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are ripe for disruption.

Housing could be Austin’s Killer App

Building the best product isn’t enough to compete with a network effect. If it were, a few more of us might be using Google Plus or Google Wave today. The new product or platform has to be close to comparable in the current feature set and, crucially, it has to have a Killer App that makes people not just like it, but want it and need it. For Austin and our platform of functional public policy, the Killer App can be walkable, bikable, transit-accessible, relatively affordable housing.

While the construction technology for building housing at low-cost is not something new, the political technology of a functioning municipal governance platform that facilitates its creation through times of poverty and times of prosperity is something that the United States as a whole lacks. In addition, improving on current governance and providing housing to meet demand would be a difficult act to match. There are few cities outside Silicon Valley that have the right ingredients of a startup economy as well established as Austin does. All of them have had housing cost problems for far longer than Austin has had, yet none of them have adequately addressed the issue.

Tech needs long-term, Quality Public Policy Engagement

How can the technology community in Austin help with local governance? For starters, the community needs to engage with public policy at a much deeper level than it has to date. Politics is not a company to buy or a video game to win. Sometimes throwing money into politics without understanding things hurts your position more than helps. The companies and communities that have a lasting impact on politics don’t just show up when there’s an issue that directly affects them. They develop deep relationships so that when issues affect them, they understand how their proposals will affect others in the community and vice versa.

Technology companies need a supportive environment around them to succeed–angel and venture for funding, consultants to help navigate situations other companies have seen before, IP lawyers, board members, complementary companies. A good company takes advantage of all the resources they have available to them. The same is true of a smart participant in public policy. The most effective ones don’t go it alone; they have an ecosystem of allies and advocates, consultants and collaborators whose advice they listen to and cherish.

This is important for anybody who wants to participate in politics, but it’s especially important for tech. Tech, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, does not share a background with everybody in the community. The common experiences that bring tech people together can divide us from everybody else. A company that lets its programmers do design will end up with an interface designed for programmers but clunky for everybody else. When the tech community designs its own political messaging, we end up with arguments, imagery, and optics that look good in the board room and clunky–or even offensive–to everybody else.

Learn to Listen and Not Just Lecture

When Uber and Lyft decided on putting their case to the Austin voters, they did not lack for a voice. They brought more money to the campaign than the city has ever seen spent in a race. In a campaign that will be studied for years, voters received dozens of pieces of direct mail, text messages, app alerts, and in-person messaging. Uber and Lyft did not have trouble getting heard. Indeed, many people reported having heard so much from Uber and Lyft that it got in the way of their ordinary life, soured them on Uber and Lyft’s message, and fed into the narrative Uber’s opponents campaigned on (Uber as corporate bully).

While Uber’s money succeeded perhaps too well at getting its voice heard, Uber failed at some of the basics of campaigning. Despite a large number of people and organizations that supported their cause in general, they failed to build a coalition working for them. Many of their allies dropped out of official events and organizations while others failed to rally an effort. For those familiar with the campaign, this wasn’t a surprise; Uber as a company didn’t come to this campaign with any willingness to listen to allies and understand what they wanted and needed out of a campaign.

For those who have been involved in tech, the listening deficit shouldn’t be surprising. The mythos of technology startups says that visionary founders and young startups are a special breed of people able to see what the broader society cannot. But building effective political coalitions is very different from building technology startups. If the technology community wants to participate effectively in local politics, it must bring the skills appropriate to the problem.

Not Every Problem can be solved by tech

Technology can be applied to any problem. Sometimes in the technology world, this gets combined with a frustration about the difficulty of involvement in public policy, and comes out as “every problem can be solved by technology.”

There are numerous housing technologies today being developed to improve construction techniques, from cross-laminated timber to prefabricated apartment blocks. But the technologies to resolve San Francisco’s housing crisis were developed in the early 20th century and before. The reasons that San Francisco and the Bay Area lack the housing supply to accommodate the people who want to work there is definitely not because the area lacks the technical know-how to construct housing. Developing new

technologies can reduce costs, but it cannot create new housing when the purpose of the regulations that prevent new housing is precisely to prevent housing. There is no technology short-circuit to public policy engagement.

How to get involved

Where to? The biggest effort to reform Austin’s public policy right now is CodeNEXT, a rewrite of the extensive set of rules governing everything from the height of buildings to which streets can be used for offices and which streets for homes–a reform with the potential to shape Austin’s competitiveness for decades to come.

The author has worked in technology for 15 years and engaged with Austin politics for a few.

Austin’s Killer App: How Austin Tech Can Compete with Silicon Valley

3 lessons for buses, from Uber, illustrated by presidential candidates

Every form of transportation has some unique considerations. Car drivers worry a great deal about parking near their destination–a consideration bus riders don’t need to think about. But, as transit consultant Jarrett Walker has written about, some considerations are universal. As Uber and Lyft have added carpool services, some people have noted that they can learn from traditional transit:

But what lessons go in the opposite direction? What can transit learn from Uber?  Continue reading “3 lessons for buses, from Uber, illustrated by presidential candidates”

3 lessons for buses, from Uber, illustrated by presidential candidates

8 reasons to End West Campus Minimum Parking Rules

In West Campus, as in all of Austin outside downtown, there are rules that require new homes and shops to build new parking spaces. Minimum parking rules don’t make a lot of sense for the city in general but make even less sense in West Campus. Here’s 8 reasons those rules should be repealed:

1. Most west campus residents walk, bike, or bus to campus

Grad students in 78705 and their primary means of commuting.
Grad students in 78705 and their primary means of commuting.

Austin is car-centric. But in the last 10 years since we have allowed dense, mixed-use buildings in West Campus, it has become the shining exception. Only 9% of grad students living in West Campus use their cars as their primary means of commuting!

 

2. land used for cars is land that can’t be used for homes

Obvious but needs to be said! Tons of students wish they could live in West Campus and walk to school. Many of them end up living much further from campus. If we took the land that’s currently being dedicated to long-term parking and freed it up for more apartments, more students could live in West Campus and walk to school.

 

3. Building Parking increases the costs of building new homes

Building parking is expensive! An on-site, off-street parking space can cost up to $40K to build. If we let new apartments be built without parking, it’s doubtful we would see rents come down immediately. But in the long-term, reducing costs is the only way to keep rents down.

4. students choose whether to bring cars

In much of Austin, living with a car is a necessity for living a functional life. In West Campus, though, living without a car is a viable choice for most students. Students take into account the availability, cost, and convenience of parking when deciding whether to bring a car to school. When we force apartments to overbuild parking, we aren’t responding to the reality of students taking cars to school so much as creating that reality!

5. there’s already a lot of parking in West Campus

The Castilian in West Campus features 5 floors of parking before you reach a floor of student housing.
The Castilian in West Campus features 5 floors of parking before you reach a floor of student housing.

Will there still be students who need or want cars in West Campus? For sure! Fortunately for them, even in the very unlikely event that all new buildings featured no new parking, most existing buildings do have parking lots or garages. Students who value on-site parking can choose to live in a building that has it.

6. On-street spaces are metered.

Sometimes, people fear that if new apartments don’t build parking, residents will still bring cars but park them on the street. In West Campus, though, streets have parking meters, so students would be better off either buying off-street parking or not bringing a car.

7. Parking garages are ugly

One of West Campus' ugliest new structures: a featureless parking garage.
One of West Campus’ ugliest new structures: a featureless parking garage.

This one is subjective, but overwhelmingly true. West Campus since UNO has seen a bloom of street trees, sidewalks, and interesting new buildings. The ugliest of those buildings? Overwhelmingly the parking garages.

8. It sends a message

What starts here changes the world

Do we live in a society that understands the bigger picture in which auto-centric design is driving our planet into catastrophic climate change? Do we care?

College isn’t just a place to learn facts; it’s a place where we teach the next generation the values that we hold as a society. Right now, our code is teaching a “can’t-do” attitude about building better places and fighting for our environment. We can and must do better.

8 reasons to End West Campus Minimum Parking Rules