Cars are Light, Books are Heavy

With all the new towers going up downtown, building nerds like myself have enjoyed a rather unique opportunity to closely observe current construction practices and building materials in action.

One of the things that has impressed me is how light the structures can be, especially structured parking. It’s fairly hard to find one that doesn’t have the floor ends screened, or otherwise difficult to photograph, but the Spring condos provides one example:

Spring Tower Parking Structure

Since I’ve kinda gotten used to see multi-ton vehicles sitting on 6″ concrete decks with wide spans between the beams and columns, I’ve also become quite accustomed to seeing similarly sized structural elements in office buildings and residential towers 30+ floors up. As such, I was quite surprised when, while walking the dog on the lake trail, I noticed a huge hulking frame holding up a low-rise building under construction on Cesar Chavez. Of course it made perfect sense as soon as I realized where I was any my brain clicked into gear: That’s the new Central Library!New Central Library

And what a structure it is. Look how thick the beams are and how tightly they’re spaced. And most impressive to this non-engineer is that despite those huge floor loads, the columns are still quite slim. The compressive strength of concrete is quite something to behold.

The real fun though is to compare it to the Seaholm condos in the background. The floors of the residences might as well be made out of wrapping paper by comparison. The lower level parking decks are a bit heavier. They might qualify as construction paper, but certainly don’t rise to the level of corrugated cardboard.

I know it’s fashionable for my fellow travelers to drop clichés about cars being two-ton death machines, but it would appear they’re much easier to build housing for than two-pound enlightment engines.


Don’t Fear the Incompatibility

A few weeks ago Opticos Design released their diagnosis of the city’s current land development code. As part of the process related to that document’s release, city staff has scheduled a number of “CodeTALKS,” which are envisioned as “a series of community conversations on the key issues identified in the Land Development Code Diagnosis.” While the topic of the first CodeTALK, “compatibility,” isn’t mentioned anywhere in the diagnosis document, it should have been, so the decision to address compatibility is a welcome one.

Needless to say, “compatibility” is a loaded term, and many others have tackled the subject. Chris Bradford has covered how Austin’s version of “compatibility” severely limits the height of buildings across the city. Ben Ross has argued that the very term “compatibility” is little more than a euphemism for status, and Daniel Kay Hertz has shown the (incompatible) buildings of Chicago’s Hyde Park and facetiously noted that “modern zoning saves us from this sort of hellscape.”

I’d like to extend that last point with some examples from Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I stayed in an Airbnb on Clinton Ave for three weeks in the winter, and while it was immediately apparent how special the built environment was, it was hardly an appropriate time to take pictures as there was no sun, denuded trees, and grimy black snow everywhere. Thankfully, I was back in NYC this past weekend for my brother’s birthday, and rode a citibike down to Fort Greene to take pictures.


Make it Easier to Build Accessory Dwellings

The following is my letter to city council in support of the resolution sponsored by Council Members Martinez & Riley to lessen the impediments to the construction of “accessory dwelling units,” commonly known as granny flats, garage apartments, carriage houses, and in-law apartments, among others. For additional background on the current code and the resolution, Chris Bradford has provided an excellent overview.

While the adjustment is a fairly minor one, it is an extremely important step in the right direction, and I urge all Austinites to write to council in support of this resolution. Accessory dwellings are the lowest of low-hanging fruit on the path toward abundant housing in our vibrant and growing city. We should make their construction as easy as it possibly can be. Please contact the city council members to express your support.


Why Austin Shouldn’t Build Rail to the Airport

Last Friday Project Connect presented the final “Locally Preferred Alternative” to the mayor’s Central Corridor Advisory Group. As expected for months, it connects East Riverside to Highland Mall along the east side of downtown.

Project Connect Urban Rail Locally Preferred Alternative
Project Connect Urban Rail Locally Preferred Alternative

While I believe this is a bad plan, and have been heartened to hear new voices espouse similar sentiments, I have been somewhat perplexed by the calls for rail to connect to the airport by both pundits and apparently the general public as well.

Although the entire Project Connect urban rail process has generally been a train wreck, one thing they’ve gotten right is not connecting to the airport. Airport rail connections are a bad investment generally, and would be a terrible use of funds here in Austin. Let me take a moment to explain.


Lazy Michael Hsu

Pike Power Lab, Mueller, 2013


Elan East Apartments, Manor Rd, 2014


These two projects are less than half a mile apart, and given the longer lead time on the larger apartment project, there’s a chance they were in design at the same time. I hope the owners pooled their order and got a discount on the materials!


Lying with Maps

As readers are likely aware, Project Connect made their recommendation for the first phase of urban rail Austin’s next transit investment last Friday. Many others have written about the selection.

One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned among the numerous failings of this “data driven” process is the way the map of the recommended subcorridors subtly changed in the six hours between the CCAG presentation and the official map currently posted on the Project Connect website. For your viewing pleasure, here’s the first map:


Affordable Housing Rent-Seeking

M-Station, one of the projects developed with funds from the 2006 bond. Image via Foundation Communities
M-Station, one of the projects developed with funds from the 2006 bond. Image via Foundation Communities
Last night Austinites approved $65M in new bonds for affordable housing. This was a huge reversal from just one year ago, when a similar proposition was narrowly defeated.

It’s now clear that affordable housing advocates were quite shocked by the defeat last year, and they campaigned hard to win this time. The branding was better–”Keep Austin Affordable” vs. “Yes for Homes,” the outreach was better–we received at least a half-dozen direct mail pieces, and the ground game was way better. I don’t recall a single canvasser last year. This year we had campaign volunteers knock on our door at least four times. So, kudos to the campaign. They won at the ballot box, and that’s all that matters in that game.

And yet, even putting aside the policy questions around the bond, the entire thing strikes me as extremely troublesome. Here we have a group of organizations that got together to fund a campaign that will issue public debt, the proceeds of which will be distributed to those very organizations! As I commented last night on twitter, that is substantively no different from any interested party using political influence to secure some kind of preferential treatment or, in this case, direct disbursements from the public treasury. We have a word for that kind of behavior: rent-seeking.

I don’t dispute that many of the recipients of these bond funds do good work. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for many of them. I just don’t think you can draw lines between “good” corruption and “bad” corruption.


Cities & Families

The other night I posted a set of tweets questioning the conventional wisdom that cities should prioritize the interests of families and children in policy. Brad called it a “mini blog post,” so I decided to repost it here in its entirety.

I received a couple replies making the political case (largely that parents are over represented at the ballot box), but that’s not really the issue I was trying to get at. That any given group which wields disproportionate political clout tends to get their way is hardly a novel idea. The most incisive response (which I am unfortunately unable to embed) was this:

because it helps support their suburban ideals since 50 years of history tell us kids = suburbs!

I think there might be something to this.

The “but what about the children?” argument is evergreen (and ever specious), and it serves an anti-urban agenda as well as any other. In this case the thought process of the anti-urbanites would go something like this:

  1. Cities should be good for kids.
  2. Urbanism is bad (for kids).
  3. Suburbanism is good (for kids).
  4. Therefore, our cities should attempt to mimic the suburban form.

That is, of course, ridiculous on its face, but if you’re an anti-urbanite trying to justify your agenda, I can see how you might dupe yourself into believing it.


“Green” Sprawl

There’s an interesting piece in The Atlantic Cities this week on a proposed “green” greenfield development in Southern California. The piece focuses on a proposed “I-15 sustainable community,” and the author’s central point is that it’s impossible for this low-density suburban-style housing to be “green” given the proposed location. Since I have some familiarity with the area (my grandparents used to live just across I-15 from the proposed site), I think he’s absolutely right. You really cannot get to anything in the area without driving at least 20 minutes, and that’s with I-15 traffic cruising at 80 mph. Each one of these 1,700 homes is certain to have at least 2 cars, and the increase in VMT will more than offset all the “green” features of the development.

That said, the most important part comes after most readers’ tl;dr line:

It seems to me that the planning office should be encouraging green revitalization and redevelopment within cities and towns, and encouraging the addition of new green features to existing suburbs.

Herein lies the problem. Why are developers proposing “green” sprawl? Because building anything “within cities and towns,” especially in-fill housing in existing neighborhoods, has become effectively illegal in so many jurisdictions. The demand for new housing is still there, and if it can’t be built it in the urban core, it’ll have to be built as sprawl. Once you’re on that path, it makes sense to go “green” since green sells, especially in present-day California.

I doubt the Valley Center Planning Group really needs to do anything at all to “encourage” development in already urbanized areas, they just need to tear down the current barriers. I’m not sure that building the same housing in Escondido would really be “green” either – it’s always struck me as something of a bedroom community for San Diego (30 miles to the south) – but it’s almost certainly better than even more sprawl.


Sunrise in Barton Creek

I got up and went for an early hike in the greenbelt this morning. As usual for this time of year, the creek was bone dry.


I wanted to take advantage of the cooler weather to break in my new boots, and while it certainly beat hiking in the 90s (or 100s!), my feet were still extremely toasty. I’ll take that as a good indicator that I won’t have issues with cold feet up in the mountains.

Here’s the GPS data: