The housing debate that isn’t happening

IMG_20190227_113247
How many units should be allowed on these lots on 38th 1/2 Street? 

Yesterday City Council had its first substantial conversation about the new land development code. Right out of the gate a couple of the key swing votes, notably Mayor Steve Adler, expressed reluctance to embrace some of the most ambitious reforms proposed: eliminating minimum parking requirements, allowing three units on every residential lot and allowing much more “missing middle” housing (house-scale multifamily) in neighborhoods that have traditionally been exclusively single-family.

What’s a little frustrating is how quickly self-proclaimed housing proponents are to close the door on mechanisms to create more housing. Adler said he wasn’t comfortable supporting triplexes on every lot, as Minneapolis recently did. He worried it would make things complicated and divisive. He also signaled that he thought the “missing middle” transition zones proposed by Greg Casar & Delia Garza went too far into single-family neighborhoods.

Nobody on Council, certainly nobody outside of the three-member preservationist bloc (Tovo, Pool, Alter), has said that preserving the architectural character of single-family neighborhoods is a top priority in the new LDC. Rather, they have all repeatedly stated that housing, affordability, and environmental sustainability are the top objectives. But what other justification besides neighborhood character is there for opposing these proposed policies to create more housing density?

What the housing advocates should do is ask staff to bring back an analysis of the housing capacity that the city needs to meet Council’s stated housing goals (135,000 units by 2027). The housing capacity refers to the maximum amount of housing that could be built based on the zoning. The actual housing produced will always be far less than the capacity. Wonky types say we need a housing capacity that is about 3-4x the total number of units we want to create.

(Now, I think it’s very likely that our housing goal itself is woefully insufficient to meet our needs, but that’s another conversation)

In addition to asking staff for a housing capacity calculation, Council can attach the additional constraint that two-thirds of the new capacity should be in the urban core, because otherwise staff might come back and just tell Council the city will meet its housing goal simply by continuing to build single-family sprawl in the outer reaches of town.

Staff could present several different scenarios for the capacity needed to meet the housing goals. One scenario might rely more on building up the corridors, while another might rely more on integrating more missing middle housing types throughout single-family neighborhoods. Or one might allow more intense missing-middle on the edges of neighborhoods (eight-unit buildings), while another might focus on allowing smaller scale missing middle (triplexes, fourplexes) everywhere.

Whatever staff comes back with, the burden would be on Council members to explain why they are opposing a plan that would provide the housing we so desperately need. Yes, the most fervent preservationists will oppose no matter what and simply say they don’t buy staff’s analysis. But it would be much harder for the moderates on the dais, notably Adler and Kitchen, to oppose what they’re being told is an empirically-crafted code to address our housing crisis.

Right now, we have the process backwards. CMs are proposing allowing more housing here or there, and others are saying they don’t want that; we need to create housing some other way. That type of debate often leads to no new housing.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. Delivered to your inbox every weekday morning! 

An urbanist code

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-10,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve
CodeNEXT offered very little compared to what the proposal from Jimmy Flannigan, Pio Renteria & Natasha Harper-Madison

For the first time in recent memory, City Council members are actually proposing an urbanist land development code. While at least seven (and then eight) Council members have signaled support for pushing our land use regs in a more urbanist direction (greater density, reduced parking), a proposal put forth by CMs Jimmy Flannigan, Pio Renteria and Natasha Harper-Madison seeks MAJOR change to urban planning in Austin.

In a post on the Council message board on Friday, the trio took a red pen to the code vision that Mayor Steve Adler submitted the previous week, transforming the document from a series of tepid reforms into a transformative code overhaul. This is the kind of stuff that urbanist activists have long talked about but that didn’t even enter the conversation during last year’s CodeNEXT debate.

Here are some of the most important points:

Eliminate minimum parking requirements. Whereas Adler suggested eliminating parking minimums in some areas, this trio said we should get rid of them citywide. Furthermore, they said the city should explore policies to discourage developers from adding excessive parking, such as parking maximums or counting parking spots against a project’s maximum Floor-to-Area Ratio (FAR).

(Potentially) Eliminate minimum lot sizes: Specifically, they said the city manager should present options for “eliminating minimum lot size and lot width.”

Triplexes on every lot: “The new code and map should allow at a minimum three units for all residential zoning categories.”

This is exactly what Minneapolis’ recently-approved comprehensive plan calls for. Currently, most of the single-family lots in Austin can be used for duplexes, while some only allow one unit. Developers have told me that the current code discourages the construction of duplexes over a large single-family home by requiring two parking spots for each unit and tens of thousands of dollars worth of fees for each unit. It’s key that the new code make it more attractive to build a triplex or duplex instead of a large, expensive SFH.

Much more missing middle housing: Whereas Adler’s directive on “missing middle housing” only specified legalizing accessory dwelling units (granny flats) throughout the city, this proposal says the new code should make a variety of “residential house-scale buildings, including single family, duplex, triplex, fourplex, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs)… to be permitted and more easily developed in all residential zones.”

3-4x housing capacity: The housing capacity is the maximum amount of housing that could be built under the zoning. The amount of housing that is built never meets the total capacity, which is why it’s critical that the capacity be much greater than the total number of units you hope to create. Adler said the housing capacity should be two or three times greater than the 135,000 new units that the Strategic Housing Blueprint says the city will need to add in the next decade. The Flannigan proposal says it should 3-4x at a minimum.

New housing should be prioritized in urban core: The proposal says 2/3 of new housing should be in the urban core, defined as the area bound by MoPac to the west, U.S. 183 to the north and east, and SH 71 to the south. Over the past 20 years the great majority of new housing in Austin has occurred outside of the core.

(Potentially) Eliminate Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts: “Unique zoning districts (e.g., NCCDs) should be reevaluated in the current context of Austin’s housing and transportation needs, and any tools that are beneficial to said needs should be codified Citywide. Unique zoning districts should be mapped using the same planning principles as the rest of the City.”

NCCDs are special zoning districts that the city has implemented aimed at preventing new development in a handful of central neighborhoods: Hyde Park, North University, parts of Travis Heights, East 11th Street and East 12th Street. In some cases, the NCCD amounted to significant downzoning, rezoning multifamily properties in Hyde Park to single-family. That means that the existing apartment complex, if ever redeveloped, would have to become a single-family home.

So, is it going to happen? Is all of this going to pass? I’ll bet there are at least two other members of Council (Casar & Garza) who would endorse almost all of this. Next you need one of the following three: Adler, Kitchen or Ellis.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. Delivered to your inbox every weekday morning! 

What could have been

Screen Shot 2019-04-18 at 12.40.31 PM.png

The other day the State Senate passed a bill to limit annual property tax growth for local governments to 3.5%, down from the current limit of 8%. There’s still hope that the House will not agree to such a sharp limit and that whatever ultimately gets to Greg Abbott’s desk will be less draconian, but right now things aren’t looking pretty for cities and counties.

The Senate bill puts an even harder cap on school districts (2.5%), but that is at least somewhat mitigated by the billions of dollars the state has agreed to give back to districts after years of recapturing and hoarding our tax dollars.

Remember, this isn’t about the actual tax rate, which in Austin has often declined year-to-year, but rather the amount of new revenue generated due to property value increases.

In his State of the City address last night, Mayor Steve Adler denounced the legislature, calling its actions a “war” on the state’s engines of economic growth. He rightly pointed out that the revenue caps will have almost no impact on people’s property tax bills, most of which are paid to school districts. In Austin and other property-rich districts, the entity that receives the greatest portion of our property tax bill is actually state government due to the Robin Hood school finance scheme.

A 2.5% cap would cause an annual budget deficit of $51.7 million in three years and at 3.5% it would be over $35 million. Again, $51.7 million and over $35 million. People are not telling you the truth when they tell you that these bills would not require budget cuts to existing budgets.

….

How and where are we going to cut over $50 million, or $35 million, out of our budget?

The reality is, because we spend about two-thirds of our general fund budget on public safety, it will be impossible to make the cuts required of HB2 and SB2 without impacting public safety. All parts of our budget are going to have to suffer cuts.

…The Manager committed to increasing our police force by 30 new officers a year to
enable us to staff more community policing but that’s a new program and would cost us about $13 million per year. If these caps get passed, we won’t be focusing on new programs, we’ll be struggling with cutting existing ones.

All of this is true, but much of this could have been avoided if Adler and others on City Council had not irresponsibly given away tens of millions of dollars in revenue by thrice increasing the homestead exemption over the past four years.

The homestead exemption is a regressive tax benefit, since it is only conferred on the 45% of Austin households that own their homes.

It provides no relief for the renter-majority, which accounts for the great majority of those who are truly struggling. By providing a special exemption to homeowners, the city is shifting the property tax burden to commercial properties and therefore landlords, who pass the cost of property taxes down to their tenants.

Adler has said in the past that it’s unlikely that the homestead exemption increases have been too small to actually change what landlords’ are charging in rents. But the inequality builds over time and regardless, it’s the principle of the matter that counts.

The city’s top economic justice priority should be helping those experiencing the greatest need. The homestead exemption helps out some people who are in great need, but the majority of the tax revenue we forfeit flows to affluent homeowners who are hardly in need of a helping hand from city government.

A much more effective way to deliver savings to low-income people would be to invest more aggressively in the extremely successful low-income weatherization programs that help low-income tenants and homeowners substantially reduce their utility bills.

City Council missed another opportunity to put the city in a stronger financial position during the last budget cycle, when it only raised the property tax rate by 5.4%. In anticipation of the revenue caps, Council could have gone all the way up to 8% and put some of that money in reserve. Not only would that several million dollars have come in handy, but since revenue caps are based on the previous year’s levy, raising it to 8% would create a higher base for them to work off this year, making the 3.5% limit less painful.

Worst of all, these aren’t mistakes that can be easily undone. The Lege passed a law in 2015 prohibiting local governments from repealing a homestead exemption once it is approved. The silver lining is that that provision expires at the end of this year. Fingers crossed that the Lege doesn’t extend the expiration date.

Whatever tax policy the Lege ends up approving this year, City Council should vote next year to repeal the 10% homestead exemption, assuming it is able to. There are four CMs –– Casar, Tovo, Garza, Flannigan –– who have consistently opposed the homestead exemption, and my guess is that the renter-oriented Natasha Harper-Madison will oppose it as well. Renteria has a mixed record on it, but now that he’s not running for reelection I could see him peeling off to repeal it, particularly if the city is facing a state-created budget crisis.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. Delivered to your inbox every weekday morning! 

The housing filibuster

While City Council now has a comfortable majority that is usually in favor of new housing and not instinctively hostile to density, an 8-3 majority is in many cases not a big enough majority to overcome opposition to new projects, including really, really good ones.

Why? Because the state of Texas, despite its supposed commitment to property rights, requires any zoning change to be supported by 3/4 of the governing body if the rezoning is protested by those who own at least 20% of the property within a 200-ft radius of the parcel. In Austin that means you need 9 of 11 votes on Council to get the zoning change passed.

To be clear, the petition’s validity is based not on the number of people who sign, but on the amount of land they own. In some circumstances it only takes one or two large property owners to satisfy the 20% requirement. That’s some medieval logic. 

For instance, last week neighbors opposed to a rezoning to allow five rowhouse on Alamo St. (including one unit at 60% AMI) filed a valid petition and very nearly doomed a project that was supported by the neighborhood association, the neighborhood plan contact team and included a unit permanently dedicated to a low-income household. The rezoning ultimately passed 10-1, with only Kathie Tovo opposed, but the developer’s team was no doubt sweating bullets waiting to see how the two other density-averse CMs (Alison Alter and Leslie Pool) would vote.

Here’s a list of the properties whose owners were eligible to sign the petition, according to a staff report. You can see on the right how the impact of their signature is determined by the size of their lot.

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 12.44.07 PM

Meanwhile, over on Rutherford Rd, a 228-unit affordable housing project is similarly threatened by a valid petition organized by neighbors who say the new housing will bring additional traffic and threaten their property values. Fortunately I think that project, because it’s 100% affordable, will also be approved by Council.

I’m less optimistic, however, about the prospects of another petition-threatened project on E. MLK, where a developer is seeking to upzone a lot to add six units. It’s exactly the kind of place where we could use some new density, but it’s not hard to imagine three Council members being swayed to oppose the project just based on the neighborhood opposition.

Many in Austin politics, particularly the anti-density crowd, like to blame state government for our affordability woes, highlighting the state prohibition on inclusionary zoning and rent control. Well, valid petitions are a barrier to affordability whose elimination might actually receive bipartisan support. While plenty of Republicans are land use hypocrites who believe that exclusionary zoning is one of the essential powers of government, there are others who actually believe all of that property rights stuff and don’t like the idea of a couple pesky neighbors preventing you from doing what you want with your land.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. Delivered to your inbox every weekday morning! 

Seven votes for land use reform

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 3.56.16 PM.png

Things are looking very good for supporters of land use reform in Austin. A joint statement posted on the Council message board this morning by Jimmy Flannigan, Pio Renteria, Natasha Harper-Madison and Ann Kitchen indicates that there are now seven Council members in support of changes to the land development code aimed at creating more housing and enabling public transit and walkable neighborhoods. Remember, you only need six.

The most recent message from those four comes a week-and-a-half after Greg Casar and Delia Garza laid out their vision for a new LDC, emphasizing the need for a code that allows more housing options and reduces sprawl. A few days later, Mayor Steve Adler posted his own message, largely endorsing Casar and Garza’s statement.

In contrast to the statements from Casar, Garza and Alder, the statement this morning did not provide direct answers to the five questions that City Manager Spencer Cronk said Council must provide direction to city staff on before it begins crafting a new code. Instead this message focused on a bunch of more specific issues that Cronk didn’t ask about.

Here are some of the most significant conclusions:

Triplexes on every lot: Or at least I think that’s what it’s endorsing…

The smallest form of residential development (residential housescale) should allow for single family, duplex, triplex, or ADU development depending on site conditions.

Triplexes on every lot is what Minneapolis recently approved in its new comprehensive plan. That was a compromise, after the original draft called for quadplexes on every lot.

(Potentially) Eliminating parking requirements: 

One option could be to eliminate parking minimums city-wide and adopt parking maximums or minimum unit-yield in areas necessary to ensure sufficient transit supportive development. Another option could be to eliminate parking minimums except in areas that require a more context-sensitive approach.

I’d be surprised if we end up eliminating minimum parking requirements entirely. If we don’t go all the way, what might be those “areas that require a more context-sensitive approach”? Again, we’re not talking about eliminating parking –– the question is whether it will continue to be mandated as part of residential and commercial development.

(Potentially) Eliminating minimum lot size: 

We should explore eliminating minimum lot size and lot width in exchange for minimum outcomes (like number of units).

This would be huge. The current minimum lot size for much of the single-family stock in central neighborhoods is 5,750 square feet, preventing developers from splitting them up to provide smaller, cheaper homes.

Shift flood mitigation focus: 

Impervious cover is a tool that lacks nuance, does too little in critical flooding areas, and is too restrictive where infrastructure exists. More flexibility in impervious cover can be a benefit if it comes with additional drainage infrastructure. This could address key flooding issues and allow increased density (housing, commercial, retail, etc.) especially when near shared community assets. It is not our intent to change regulations governed through the Save Our Springs Ordinance (SOS).

Flooding is one of the most common concerns that neighbors cite when trying to block new development, particularly multifamily developments. Because multifamily zoning allows for more impervious cover, the fear of flooding  is often a justification that elected officials or land use commissioners can use to vote against an upzoning. I’m really not an expert on this issue, but relying on drainage infrastructure instead of impervious cover limits will allow greater density and less sprawl, which will benefit the environment, both by preserving more greenfield land and reducing car trips.

Are Kitchen & Adler really supportive of an ambitious code rewrite? 

As I’ve said before, I think there are five votes for an ambitious rewrite: Casar, Garza, Renteria, Flannigan and Harper-Madison. There are three solid votes against: Tovo, Alter and Pool.

In the middle are Adler, Kitchen and Ellis. Surprisingly, both Adler and Kitchen have endorsed what appear to be pretty aggressive rewrites. We still haven’t heard from Ellis.

Kitchen began her Council tenure generally aligned with the “neighborhood” bloc. She generally joined Tovo, Pool and Ora Houston in votes against controversial developments that were opposed by neighborhood associations. She voted against a 2015 ordinance that legalized accessory dwelling units (garage apartments) on most single-family lots.

By the time CodeNEXT came around, Kitchen appeared to have shifted to the middle. She and Adler positioned themselves as consensus-seekers. For fear of drawing an opponent for reelection, Kitchen sought to drag out the CodeNEXT process as long as possible and avoid taking tough votes. Adler helped her do that.

Whereas Kitchen leaned preservationist and has since moved to the center, Adler generally favored developments but sought as much as possible to broker compromises and avoid anything that was too controversial. On CodeNEXT he advocated for the “Austin Bargain,” which he said would increase density on corridors but generally “protect” the interior of single-family neighborhoods.

However, the political winds have shifted since the 2018 election. Adler squashed Laura Morrison, who ran an old school neighborhood preservationist campaign and got a whopping 19% of the vote.  Prop J, the referendum backed by neighborhood groups that aimed to restrict Council’s ability to rewrite the land development code, went down in flames. In only one of the four competitive Council races did a density skeptic triumph (Kathie Tovo).

As a result, Kitchen and Adler have become more comfortable embracing reform. They probably know it’s better policy and they aren’t as worried about backlash from the community. I would guess the same is probably true of Ellis, who generally sends urbanist signals (she even lives in an apartment building!!) but has called herself a moderate.

However, I would be wary of predicting a slam-dunk for a big reform. While these statements appear ambitious, they remain vague and could be subject to different interpretations. There are repeated references to the need for “context-sensitive” policy … that could open the door to big reforms being significantly watered down due to neighborhood opposition.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. 

You can keep driving & have a single-family home

For some reason a lot of people I know and meet, including plenty of smart ones, feel the need to tell me something resembling the following:

Some of us need to drive! How else can I get to my job on one side of town and transport my quintuplets to daycare on the other side of town! Plus, I need to drive all over the place during the workday. 

A close cousin of that statement comes in the housing debate: 

Not everyone wants to live in a tiny condo. Maybe I want to have a big yard for my kids to play in! Did you ever stop to consider that?? 

Consider this statement recently shared on the Austin Police Association FB page (APA leadership later said whoever posted it didn’t have authorization to do so):

Screen Shot 2019-04-03 at 11.48.39 AM.png

I hear you dude. Nobody’s talking about confiscating your ride. Our goal is not to eliminate your option to drive, but simply to provide others with the option to walk, bike or take transit. It’s true that facilitating those other options may in some cases reduce the amount of space reserved for cars, but not to the point where it will significantly impact your ability to continue driving. Even the most ambitious multi-modal proposals only envision reallocating a minuscule portion of the overall right-of-way in this city from cars to bike lanes or transit lanes. Basically, we just want more of stuff like this bike lane in Crestview:

IMG_20181125_161435.jpg
See? Room for cars and bikes.

Local political operative/funder Fred Lewis is a master of similar straw man arguments. Here are a few he shared with a reporter from Strong Towns amidst the CodeNEXT debate last year:

“Bottom line is there is absolutely no trust,” said Fred Lewis of Community Not Commodity, an advocacy organization in opposition to CodeNEXT.  “They have utter contempt for single family neighborhoods.”

“You can say everyone is going to ride bikes or walk but nobody believes it,” said Fred Lewis of Community Not Commodity.

CodeNEXT opponent Lewis, says he isn’t opposed to walkability, but he is skeptical that it’s what people actually want. “The idea that people are going to walk to the store is ludicrous. It’s 100 degrees here in the summer.”

Land use reform does not envision abolishing single-family homes. If you desire and can afford a big house and a big yard, there’s no city law that is going to infringe upon that right. Land use reform almost never entails mandating anything; it’s really about reducing regulations to allow more types of housing. Finally, it’s also about allowing (not mandating) a greater mix of residential and commercial uses, so that more families can live close to work, childcare, grocery stores and other amenities.

The key for supporters or transit and density is not to take the bait and get into a lifestyle debate. The emphasis has to remain on enabling options, rather than arguing about the merits of a suburban or car-dependent lifestyle. Describing single-family homeowners or drivers as a basket of deplorables will work about as well for urbanists as it did for Hillary Clinton.

The good news is that I think the vast majority or urbanists understand this. After all, many of them happily live in single-family homes and the great majority of them drive at least part of the time, either due to preference or because they lack alternatives.

While some people present these straw man arguments in bad faith, many others are genuinely confused about what we are proposing when we talk about enabling greater density and diversifying transportation options. Once they understand that we are simply advocating for greater options, not attacking their lifestyle, they will become much more open to our arguments.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. 

The Code debate begins

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 9.26.02 AM
Adler’s unsuccessful attempt to create a “team” mentality around CodeNEXT

On Wednesday evening, Greg Casar and Delia Garza kicked off the debate over the future of Austin’s land development code with a joint post on the City Council message board. In it, they provided responses to the five questions City Manager Spencer Cronk said he wants feedback on before city staff can begin drafting a new code.

You may recall, Cronk made his questions multi-choice, each with three potential answers. The first question was whether Council wanted to (a) adopt a new code but delay implementation of a new zoning map, (b) adopt a new code & zoning map or (c) just make a few changes to the existing code.

On the other four questions –– housing capacity, parking, compatibility, missing middle housing –– Cronk presented the following options:

A. Maintain the status quo

B. Whatever was proposed in version 3 of CodeNEXT

C. Something even more ambitious

In response to four out of the five questions, Casar & Garza picked the most ambitious option. There’s no point in sharing the response to each question, because each one pretty much said the same thing: we need to reduce regulations that inhibit housing in the urban core and encourage sprawl. This response pretty much sums up their argument:

The land development code should be rewritten and remapped as soon as possible. We need a code that allows us to be flexible and creative when addressing the diverse needs of our growing population. Concrete code and map changes should be made in 2019 to make the city more affordable, transit-friendly, and environmentally sustainable. We recognize that all the work that needs to be completed on our code cannot all be done and perfected in a single year. Therefore, for major changes to be made in 2019, the Manager and Council should prioritize “all types of homes for all kinds of people in all parts of town” (our Strategic Housing Blueprint goals) and a development pattern that supports 50/50 Transportation Mode Share by 2039.

The one issue that the two did not pick Option C on was compatibility standards. They restated their focus on putting in place whatever regulations will allow the city to meet its housing goals, but suggested they were open to debate on whether the result should be closer to Option B or Option C. 

I think the caution on compatibility makes sense. Whereas minimum parking requirements and single-family zoning are inherently regressive, reasonable compatibility standards could be a part of a code that facilitates multi-family housing and transit-supportive density. The problem with the current standards is that it’s one-size-fits-all: if there’s a single-family home within 200 ft of your project, you can’t go higher than 50 ft, period.

What’s interesting is that so far Casar & Garza are the only two to provide answers to Cronk’s questions. I expected the anti-density CMs to be reluctant to answer the questions, given that it somewhat forces them to admit they prefer that they support the status quo. But I’m a little surprised that we still haven’t from the three other density-friendly CMs: Renteria, Harper-Madison and Flannigan.

Eventually, however, the others are going to have to take a position. It will be interesting to see what happens…

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. 

Center for Austin’s Future gets a makeover

The Center for Austin’s Future has made some long overdue changes to its website. This is what the issues section says now:

Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 2.55.16 PM.png

It’s still very short on details, but it sends key cues to pro-density/transit folks. You kind of have to read between the lines. It mentions the need for greater housing supply, public transit and elected leaders who think in terms of what’s best for the whole city, rather than simply advocate for the narrow interests of certain neighborhoods.

This is a definite improvement over the last iteration of CAF’s issues section, which looked like it’d been written by a Heritage Foundation intern:

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 1.34.36 PM.png

The CAF, you may recall, is an independent political group formed last year. It is run by Ward Tisdale, former president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, and it has a large board of directors consisting of a variety of political veterans and business bigwigs, including former mayors Lee Leffingwell and Bruce Todd. 

The group runs an annual training program, #ATXelerator, which aims to educate and train talented, civic-minded individuals in the ways of local government and local political campaigns in the hopes that they will one day run for office or otherwise get engaged (board/commission etc).

The group has never articulated a clear political ideology, and it has accepted trainees from across the political spectrum. Some members of its board of directors have said that it is a “centrist” organization aimed at pushing politics to the center, while its president, Ward Tisdale, has frequently invoked urbanist principles, saying the group wants to support candidates who will work for a compact/connected city and against sprawl and economic segregation.

Last year the group supported a number of urbanist-leaning center-left candidates:  Danielle Skidmore, Natasha Harper-Madison, and Pio Renteria. However, in District 8 it backed Frank Ward, a conservative running the standard “lower taxes/build roads” message. Ward was running against Paige Ellis, a center-left candidate with urbanist leanings. At the time Tisdale told me that the group supported greater political diversity on Council, including conservatives. However, the group didn’t even spend any money on behalf of Ward, suggesting it didn’t have strong feelings about the race.

I never really got a convincing answer about why the website’s tone was so out of line with the things said by many of the organization’s boosters, such as Chris Riley, Randi Shade and Tisdale himself.

The organization also drew a lot of complaints from urbanists for a mailer it sent in support of Danielle Skidmore, in which it attacked Kathie Tovo for voting against increasing the homestead exemption. Skidmore herself was opposed to the homestead exemption, a regressive policy that only benefits the homeowner minority and shifts the tax burden onto commercial properties, and therefore, onto renters. Skidmore, an alum of #ATXcelerator, publicly criticized the mailers. Shortly thereafter Chris Riley cut ties with the group.

Anyway, it’s not clear yet how CAF will define itself going forward. Will it just be another standard pro-growth/business group or will it embrace a more liberal, urbanist agenda? We’ll see.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. 

Waltons fund big push for bike infrastructure

In my inbox this morning:

MoveATX, a new community organization, will launch their advocacy efforts for
more multi-modal mobility infrastructure on Thursday, March 28. MoveATX
recently conducted a community survey on mobility and will release results at the
press conference.

MoveATX is getting $2 million from PeopleForBikes, a group based in Boulder, CO that is supporting a number of similar campaigns in other cities: Denver, New Orleans and Providence so far. PFB is getting much of its money for this effort from members of the Walton family (Walmart), two of whom live in Austin and are apparently big supporters of multi-modal transportation.

Screen Shot 2019-03-27 at 5.02.54 PM
Cars have been so good to the Waltons. And this is how they repay them?

In Austin, the group’s near-term focus will be to push the city to spend money that has already been authorized in the 2016 and 2018 bonds. The goal is to build out a bunch of the bike infrastructure in two years, rather than in four or five years. That is part of a long-term goal of showing the public how much of a difference the (relatively) small investment can make and generating enthusiasm for even more aggressive steps to reduce car dependence.

The effort, which is being run by Jim Wick, Adler’s former strategist, coincides with a resolution that Council will vote on tomorrow that instructs city staff to accelerate the completion of bike projects.

The campaign has already done polling on transportation issues and plans to invest in a variety of paid media and canvassing, says Wick. That could potentially include: billboards, pedicab, BCycle advertising, digital ads, direct mail, social media.

I’m excited to see how this plays out. While most elected officials in Austin have professed support for pedestrian and bike infrastructure in recent years, there simply hasn’t been enough pressure on them to commit to the goals they have set –– with the Bicycle Master Plan, the Urban Trails Master Plan and the Sidewalk Master Plan.

Back in 2014, the authors of the Bicycle Master Plan estimated that about 40-45% of this city has absolutely no interest in ever riding a bike. Meanwhile, about 17% said they felt comfortable riding bikes around town, whether or not they did so regularly. The report estimated that if we built a true “All Ages & Abilities Bicycle Network,” that allows bikers to get around the city via quiet streets, protected bike lanes and urban trails, the percentage of people willing to bike would increase to 55-60%.

Of course, the master plan was done long before electric scooters came to town. Which raises the question: what percentage of Austinites would be willing to bike or scooter if there was adequate infrastructure in place?

The estimated $150 million price tag for the bike network would be a bargain even without the scooters, but their existence makes such an investment even more compelling. The benefits in terms of reduced congestion, air pollution, affordability, safety and overall quality of life would be enormous.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media. 

Making Shoal Creek a bike highway

Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 6.44.08 PM.png
Shoal Creek Blvd, with car parked in bike lane.

This week there’s going to be three public meetings regarding the future of Shoal Creek Blvd from 38th Street to U.S. 183.

Right now, 38th is where the beautiful Shoal Creek trail ends, forcing bikers onto Shoal Creek Blvd. At first glance, you might think that Shoal Creek Blvd has two very wide bike lanes. But then you notice there are cars parked there. Indeed, cars are allowed to park in the bike lane on both sides of the street. As a result, bikers are threatened by drivers coming into the bike lane to park as well as parked cars driving off. It’s an extremely dangerous situation.

The good news is that, despite bellyaching from some residents of Shoal Creek Blvd, parking on at least one side of the street is most likely going to disappear to make way for a game-changing piece of bike infrastructure.

ATD won’t provide specifics yet, but the word is they’re going to offer a few different alternatives. The one that has been tossed around for a while is a two-way protected bike lane on one side of the street, which would allow parking to remain on the other side. The other option, favored by bike advocates, is to get rid of parking on both sides and put one-way bike lanes on both sides of the street.  There’s also been some talk of putting in place a two-way protected bike lane in the center of the street.

Anyway, I don’t have strong feelings about which option they go with, as long as the result is protected bike lanes.

It’s hard to understate the importance of this 5.3 mile stretch.  Getting protected bike lanes here will allow the city to complete a 30-mile loop of continuous bike paths: from the Shoal Creek Trail at the Central Library, past US-183 to connect with the future Northern Walnut Creek Trail, the Southern Walnut Creek Trail and ultimately the Town Lake Trail. I don’t know all the details but you get the idea –– this will be a continuous infrastructure providing safe, pleasurable bike travel through a huge part of the northern half of the city.

Essentially, this is the beginning of an attempt to build a coherent, connected bike network, much in the same way we’ve built a continuous system of highways for cars. Shoal Creek is to bikes as Mopac is to cars. The best part is that it only costs a fraction as much.

Here are two big questions:

First, is the decision going to be made by transportation staff or City Council? Staff has the authority to reallocate the right-of-way on its own, but that’s not always an authority it enjoys exercising in the face of political resistance. Second, Council can always interfere and block staff plans if it chooses. There are likely some on Council who would be happy to leave the decision to staff and not deal with the issue, others who may want to take the issue out of staff’s hands to block it and there may even be some multi-modal advocates who really want to force the tough debate and deliver a big win for bike infrastructure.

Second, if Council takes up the issue, how will it vote? If this Council can’t get this bike lane approved, its members really can’t pretend to care about reducing car dependence or climate change. The fruit doesn’t hang any lower than this.

Subscribe to the APN newsletter for DAILY insider analysis of local politics & policy that you won’t find on this blog or elsewhere in Austin media.