Where To Go Post Election? Stop Saying Urbanism.

Ignoring the national political shitshow for a bit, the results of the local elections in Austin seem to be basically the status quo.  Delia Garza and Greg Casar have been the two most reliable supporters of better transportation and land use policy in the Austin, and they both won re-election easily.  Natalie Gauldin was defeated soundly, which means that Leslie Pool will continue to be strong voice against increasing housing (both affordable and market rate).  Sheri Gallo will hopefully win her runoff, and we will be left where we were over the past two years.

So the question becomes how best to work with Leslie Pool and the other city council members that are either ambivalent, ignorant, or actively hostile to building more housing and better public transportation.

I think one move to is to drop the label of “urbanist”.  Even for someone in their 20s like myself, the word still has connotations of “new urbanist” white suburb recreations like Celebration, Florida.  “Urbanist” still feels like it advocates master planning an ideal life for middle class families with two kids where Mom stays home and cooks casserole after Dad comes home from his job in middle management downtown.  There’s plenty of parking on both ends of the perfectly planned commute!

But master planning is not really what most of us are about.  The places that most urbanists love (most big American cities) weren’t built with master plans, they were built before modern zoning really existed.  The point is not that we should do away with all housing regulations or zoning, the point is that we don’t need master plans.  We just need to let people live where they want and get around how they want.  People have lots of different ideals and tastes about the places they want to live, and they should have lots of choices!  If people want to live in the suburbs, great, more cheaper housing for me in the central city.  If people want to drive everywhere, great, more room for me on the bus or train.

I feel the same way whenever I hear people called “density advocates”.  I’m not advocating that anyone live a more dense place than they want to, but I am advocating for them to have the choice of doing so.  No one wants to force anyone to live a Manhattanized hellhole if that’s not what they want.  But Manhattan is one of the most expensive places on earth!  Clearly people want to live there or a place like it, and there’s no reason that regulations should prevent that from happening.

One way of living is not inherently “better”, but there is a superiority in the term “urbanist” that I’m not sure it will ever shake.  Yes, living in a multifamily dwelling and riding transit is better for the environment, but technological advances like clean energy and electric cars might shrink that difference significantly in the next 20 years.  If people living in the suburbs isn’t bad for the environment and it’s not subsidized any more than living in the city, then go for it!  Again, more space for me in the city.

That doesn’t mean that one policy is not objectively better than another, however.  I think the policies that most urbanists advocate for are objectively better, and the arguments that we make should illustrate that rather than attempting to sell a lifestyle change to people that don’t want it.  So back to how we work with Leslie Pool and other people that see “urbanism” and “density” as threatening?  Use different terminology.

Say “fair housing” to describe allowing more housing types, because in reality that’s what it is.  Adding housing in the central city is good for equality and good for the Austin economy.  Preventing housing construction is hostile towards renters and non homeowners, which I don’t think is fair policy.

Talk about “parking burdens” placed on businesses and landowners that are forced to provide parking that their customers and tenants don’t want.  Explain over and over and over again that building parking costs a lot of money.  If anyone needs a refresher, Miami recently reduced parking burdens on residential developers, and a developer described his issues with the previous zoning:

Frey was unsure yet about what kind of rents the building would command, he estimated that building structured parking–in this case 12 spaces, under the previous regulations–would have cost $300,000, or $25,000 per space. This, he said, would have added roughly $330 per month to average rents, an uptick that he would have been unlikely to command in the working-class immigrant neighborhood.

$330 per month to the average rent is astonishing.  When anyone wonders why all new housing in Austin is so expensive, show them that quote.  If Pool or any other Council member talks about affordability, show them that quote.

But I do think it’s time to move past the urbanism of the past.  I’m not trying to master plan anyone’s life, and neither should you.  The sane thing is to give developers, businesses, and residents options about how they want to use their properties, and let people live the way they want.

BRT in the Middle Of I-35 is a Terrible Idea

After reading Mike Dahmus’ and Ricky Hennesey’s takeaways from the Project Connect 2.0 meeting they attended, I was so disappointed I decided to write a letter to the Project Connect feedback team.  Posting it below:

(sent to feedback@projectconnect.com, javier.arguello@capmetro.org and joe.clemens@capmetro.org)

I wanted to express my disappointment with what I have read about the Project Connect 2.0 presentation for Friends of Hyde Park on November 15th.  Austin resident Mike Dahmus was at the meeting and wrote extensively on his takeaways.  His perception was the top priorities of Capital Metro do not include investment in high capacity transit on the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor, which is nearly universal preference of transportation advocates in Austin.  I would be very interested to know if Capital Metro acknowledges the strong support of transit advocates for High Capacity Transit on the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.  If your agency does acknowledge that support, you should address why we are being ignored.

The alternative priorities presented were also deeply disappointing.  Among them were Bus Rapid Transit on I-35, which I’m somewhat appalled to hear.  Interstates are not transit friendly, and Austin should not be investing money in high capacity transit on interstates.  End of story.  This is really common sense, but it’s also backed up by plenty of data.  I would urge you to take a look at a map of Austin on walkscore.com and observe the areas of Austin that are most walkable and therefore the most transit friendly.  I’ll also embed an image here:
please don't sue me walkscore
please don’t sue me walkscore

Notice that I-35 is a barrier to walkability.  Walking from Cherrywood to UT is difficult and unpleasant because of I-35.  You are proposing spending transportation dollars on a corridor that people actively dislike.  You are transporting people along a corridor where there is nowhere to go.  Is the expectation honestly that people exit one bus surrounded by 60+mph traffic, and stand nearby the 60mph traffic to wait for a second bus to get to their destination?  That is an absolute fantasy and in the entire country no current highway running BRT systems that serve as successful examples.  Mike Dahmus’ post includes a slide from a proposed BRT line in Minneapolis that does not yet exist.  It is beyond me why Capital Metro would look at fictitious examples of transit in order to guide policy for a major city.

There are plenty of examples of successful transit projects.  Houston’s light rail was built along the city’s busiest corridor, and ridership has been well beyond expectations.  Houston’s light rail is built along the city’s busiest corridors, and those corridors  were busy before there was rail, just like Guadalupe and Lamar are now.  Houston also has a network of frequent buses connecting to that rail system, and their ridership is growing quickly while Capital Metro’s is falling precipitously.

Austin does not need to reinvent the wheel.  Building good transit is simple: build it where people and businesses are.  There are no people and businesses along I-35 that are friendly to transit riders, and there will never be.  You are literally asking people to transit in one of the most unpleasant and least accessible places in Austin: the middle of an interstate.  It will be a disaster.

Pool Opponents Smeared As Developer Front Groups While Pool Receives Money From National Construction PACs

A hilariously terrible site popped up this week to smear Natalie Gauldin, the City Council Candidate challenging Leslie Pool in Austin’s District 7.  One of the quotes on the front page is “The only neighborhood organizations that have expressed support for Natalie are front groups for developers like FAN and AURA”.  This is not true, as anyone who is familiar with those organizations knows.  Both groups mention affordability in the first breath of describing what they are about, and their work so far has shown that.

It’s also worth noting that “developers” are not universally good or bad people.  Lots of people work in the real estate industry, many of them probably care very much about making Austin a better city and more affordable.  There’s plenty of examples on Twitter and elsewhere.

That said, what about Leslie Pool’s association with the real estate industry?  A quick look at the donors in her most recent campaign finance filing shows that there are actually several real estate or construction interests that have given money to her campaign:

HNTB Holdings PAC of Kansas City, Missouri has spent nearly $600k this election cycle, with 60% of that spending going to Republican candidates.  The donors appear to be mostly construction interests with a focus on transportation.

Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam PAC is also a construction interest representing Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam, a company that has built several highways around Texas and the country.  All the data I can find shows them giving to Republican candidates previously.

Perhaps most importantly, her campaign treasurer is a Vice President at a massive commercial real estate company.

There’s more individual donors from the real estate and construction industry, so feel free to browse for yourself.  The point here isn’t that some real estate interests support Pool, but that a narrative has been allowed to develop that Gauldin and her supporters are owned by “developers”, whatever that means.  The Austin Chronicle continued this garbage portrayal of Gauldin being in the pocket of developers by endorsing Pool and accusing Gauldin of supporting “developer plans to a fault”.

Again, working in the real estate industry industry does not make you shady. However, I would argue that local city council candidates receiving money from well funded national PACs does deserve more scrutiny.  There is only one PAC that has disclosed spending on behalf of Gauldin and it’s Equity Austin, a local PAC that advocates for affordability in the city.  Perhaps if the Chronicle did a bit more research into their endorsements they would know what the candidates actually stand for.