Project Connect: Road warriors ready their rhetoric

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Light rail in Budapest.

When I get back to town at the end of the month, I plan to start updating the blog several times a day. But right now I’m traveling around Central Europe and so I’m going to limit myself to a few blog posts over the next week. 

Anyway, I see that Jim Skaggs, Austin’s longtime anti-transit activist, isn’t a fan of Project Connect. His argument, predictably, isn’t focused on the particulars of Cap Metro’s vision, but the very notion of dedicating public right-of-way to public transportation.

I would highly recommend that transit advocates read Skaggs to get a sense of the arguments that will invariably be marshaled against the Project Connect bond and/or other public transportation investments in the coming years. While those familiar with urban transportation policy have a hard time taking his points seriously, the general population, including many Austin liberals, will likely find them convincing if they aren’t effectively countered. Here are the two main points.

  1. People don’t want public transit

“…perhaps the greatest cause of transit ridership decline is increasing car ownership. This is clearly the preferred transportation mode by the vast majority of travelers…”

Skaggs argues that the increase in car ownership necessarily means that preference for cars has increased. In fact, a comprehensive look at all relevant data shows that the increase is driven not by preference but by necessity.

For instance, a survey conducted last year by the National Association of Realtors, hardly a radical transit advocacy lobby, found that an increasing proportion of Americans prioritize living in walkable communities and having access to public transit. In fact, public opinion was largely split, with younger people more inclined to entertain smaller yards and attached housing in exchange for walkable communities, public transit and shorter commutes. The problem is that public investment in most cities does not reflect that split … the half of the population that wants transit gets a pittance of the investment.

Skaggs should know. He lives in Austin. Single family zoning and a growing population has led to sprawl, pushing more people into the burbs, which public transit agencies struggle to effectively serve. Plus, politicians backed by the likes of Skaggs have made sure to keep public transit as shitty as possible, making cars the only option available. Skaggs is attributing a choice to people that they don’t have.

In cities that have made the necessary investments and given people options, people are choosing transit! Driving to work has plummeted in Seattle. Transit ridership is way up in Minneapolis.

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Mode share in Seattle.

And those are just the recent successes … what about the legacy transit havens? New York? Chicago? Vancouver? Montreal? Toronto? The entire rest of the world? But that’s not a fair comparison! Driving in New York sucks! Yep, kind of like taking public transit in Austin. We could have good transit in Austin and people would take it. We just haven’t offered it yet.

2. Better quality of life

“…it provides greater quality-of-life with convenient, versatile, time saving transportation to go where you want to go, when you wish to go…”

A car provides a higher quality of life to shitty public transit. It definitely doesn’t provide a higher quality of life to good public transit. Instead it offers a dramatic increase in the likelihood of debilitating injury or death, extraordinary expense, and last but not least, the soul-crushing experience of sitting in traffic with nothing to (safely) do except stare at the bumper in front of you. Wouldn’t people rather read a book or, more likely, stare at their smartphones? That’s probably what the increasing number of teens forgoing drivers licenses would prefer.

Would Austin voters approve an MLS stadium deal?

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I really can’t make sense of what’s going on with the Columbus Crew. Apparently somebody else might buy them and keep them in Columbus. And then we’ll get an expansion team. Someway, somehow, though, Austin will get a third-rate professional sports team.

IndyAustin, with the help of some donors who have a financial interest in halting the construction of a new soccer stadium, is gathering signatures to try to annul the stadium deal approved by Council in August. The petition calls for voter approval and a super-majority support on Council before the city can give away public land to a for-profit business.

I assume that valued AustinPolitics.NET reader Linda Curtis will succeed in gathering the necessary signatures because a) she has the time and money to do it and b) 30,000 signatures is nuthin. People will sign anything to get you out of their face.

So assuming the proposed ordinance went into effect, the stadium deal would have to clear two bars. It would need support from nine of 11 Council members and then be approved via referendum by voters.

It didn’t get super-majority support from the current Council, but two of the four CMs who voted against are retiring, and I think they’re relatively likely to be replaced by people who would either support the deal or could be convinced to support it. Furthermore, I think if a CM is on the fence they would be inclined to vote yes and “let the people decide” then be the deciding vote that stops the deal in its tracks.

The next question: Would Austin voters approve the deal? I really have no idea. It really depends how both sides run the campaign. A few thoughts though:

A) Most people don’t care whether an MLS team comes to town. It’s the MLS. It’s not even the most popular soccer league in the U.S. (that honor goes to Liga MX).

B) Thankfully, people are increasingly wary of subsidies to professional sports teams, but the Austin deal is nowhere near as bad as many other recent stadium deals. The city isn’t putting down any money, but rather forgoing future property tax revenue, some of which the MLS team will offset by investments in transit, on-site affordable housing etc.

C) It is misleading when deal opponents argue that we are forfeiting hundreds of millions in property tax revenue … that revenue would have only materialized if the city had allowed the land to be developed into exactly the type of development that those opposing the stadium tend to fight against tooth-and-nail.

D) I think the referendum vote would depend largely on how well the pro-MLS side argues that the stadium deal does not constitute a large corporate giveaway.

Adler running TV ads, none for Morrison yet

The mayor just posted this:

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Laura Morrison has also made campaign videos, some of which have racked up a respectable number of views online. Her 1-minute campaign intro, for instance, has apparently been viewed 15,000 times.

So far, however, it doesn’t look like she’s bought any airtime on TV yet. I don’t see any ad buys from her campaign on any of the four networks. In contrast, Mayor Steve Adler has already purchased about $60,000 for 193 spots:

KXAN (NBC): $14,865 (28 spots)

KVUE (ABC): $16,070 (46)

KEYE (CBS): $21,885 (75)

KTBC (FOX): $7,025 (44)

The most expensive spot was $1,125 on KXAN’s 10 o’clock news, followed closely by $1,015 for the 6 o’clock news and Wheel of Fortune. In contrast, the 10 o’clock news on only cost $800 on KEYE (the Sinclair-owned station) and $785 on KVUE. Interestingly, the 10 o’clock news on Fox 7 is dirt cheap ($275) but it has a 9 o’clock newscast that costs $720 per spot.

Anyway…it’s not as if Morrison isn’t advertising. Just not on TV. So far this year she has spent about $4,200 on Facebook ads and about $600 on Twitter ads. She paid $825 to advertise in the Austin Chronicle and $115 to advertise in TODO Austin. She also shelled out $5,700 over the last three months on yard signs, buttons, bumper stickers and the like  (note: I didn’t check what she has spent for the whole year…I don’t have time/patience now).

Most interestingly, Morrison paid $7.6k to local firm Steve Mims Films on Sept. 13 for video production. Was that for services already rendered or for another ad that might yet appear on TV? I don’t know.

I really don’t know how important TV ads are in an age when a growing segment of the electorate doesn’t watch live television anymore. It’s not whether or not they have a role to play, but how big that role is compared to other forms of media, notably online ads and social media. The same is true of direct mail. Even if half the people I know don’t know how to send a letter, direct mail still may be a cost-effective way to gain name recognition or even sway swing voters.

If Morrison had more money, she’d already have her TV ads lined up, like Adler. We’ll see if she gets on the air in the next few weeks.

The shifting environmental narrative on development

Recently, urbanists and others in support of density have mostly focused on the affordability case for increased housing in the urban core. In addition to highlighting pretty board consensus among economists that, yes, supply and demand is relevant to housing costs, urbanists point out that zoning that only allows for relatively large single-family homes will inherently be off-limits to certain economic groups. Finally, they argue that denser development facilitates public transit, which liberates people from the expense of owning and operating a car.

Now that I think of it, I’m really surprised that there hasn’t been a greater emphasis on the environmental case for density. After all, this is a city who’s political establishment and political image was built on environmentalism. Also, there’s that whole climate change thing. It’s hard to predict how the average liberal voter in Austin will feel about what the city should do to address housing costs, but you can bet that they’ll say that global warming is a problem and that policies aimed at reducing car use are probably part of the solution.

Obviously, one reason that the environmental narrative for density hasn’t been strong is that many of the official voices of environmentalism in Austin have spent the last 30 years fighting developers, often in alignment with neighborhood associations. This is what Mose Buchele’s excellent article in KUT/Austin Monitor recently displayed.

Bunch, the executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance, says he was opposed to CodeNEXT in part because he didn’t like the added density it would have brought to Central Austin.

“The place to do that is on green fields development,” he says. “Do it right at the front end rather than scrape our existing city neighborhoods and try to force it on top of existing communities.”

This isn’t the first time Bunch has said something to this effect, but this apparent endorsement of sprawl was even more explicit. He’s getting raked over the coals for it, and not just by the usual suspects. The Austin Chronicle, for instance: Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 5.37.39 PM.png

Buchele’s reporting, citing experts and research, presented density as clearly superior environmentally to sprawl. So did a similar article by ThinkProgress, which parachuted into town to explore the environmentalist division over Prop J. Edgar Walters, a reporter for the Texas Tribune, didn’t hesitate to declare Bunch’s views as insane:

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Linda Curtis calls me a punk

This has been a recurring theme throughout my career in journalism: Political groups don’t like you reporting on who gives them money. And the simple act of reporting on it often establishes you, in their eyes, as an adversary.

Exhibit A came in the response elicited by my blog post yesterday about Linda Curtis’ IndyAustin, whose newest project is trying to overturn via referendum the stadium deal at McKalla Place that City Council approved in August. My post revealed that at least $20k of the $30k the group raised in the most recent reporting period came from an out-of-town donor with links to Circuit of the Americas. My Austin Monitor colleague Jo Clifton reported on the subject further, and discovered that another $5k was linked to COTA. This is relevant because COTA has an interest in preventing the construction of a new soccer stadium that will rival its own, not just in soccer but as a concert and event venue.

My post immediately prompted this response from Bill Aleshire, one of a number of longtime attorney/operators (Fred Lewis, Bill Bunch, Ed English) aligned with the neighborhood association set. (Aleshire also represented the previous corporate funders of IndyAustin, billboard companies, to challenge Austin sign regulations)

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Recently-retired Statesman reporter Ben Wear came to my defense:

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The best response came from Curtis herself, who left a comment on the blog.

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I didn’t really have a chance to accept the dare, since the comment was automatically published. But hopefully by not deleting the comment and by republishing it here I can prove to Linda that I’m not a yeller-belly.

To answer the questions:

Is that a cup in front of my face? Yes.

Am I trying to look cool? Always.

Have I joined the dark negotiations going on at City Hall for a few hundred mill in property tax exemptions on public land? No.

Developers, realtors spend big for affordable housing bond

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Bluebonnet Studios, an income-restricted apartment building by Foundation Communities on South Lamar. It offers efficiency apartments for $412-$712.

Keep Austin Affordable, a group organized to support the affordable housing bond on the ballot this November, has posted some impressive fundraising figures. Over the past three months, the group raised $200,000. That’s on top of the $87,000 that it raised during the first half of the year.

More than half of the money has come from developers that specialize in affordable housing. The biggest chunk is $125,000 from nonprofit developer Foundation Communities, a beloved local institution that has built a considerable amount of housing aimed at people making 60% or 80% of the median family income.

Then there’s $25,000 from LDG Development, a national for-profit developer that specializes in affordable housing. Habitat for Humanity also forked over $15,000, as did the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, a local nonprofit developer. O-SDA Industries, a local firm that guides affordable housing developers through the regulatory process, gave $5,000.

Then there were a bunch of other general real estate folks:

Austin Board of Realtors: $15,000

The Drenner Group, Steve Drenner’s eponymous lobbying firm, known for representing deep-pocketed developers at City Hall: $10,000

Realty Austin: $15,000

RedLeaf Properties: $2,500

UrbanSpace Real Estate: $2,100

RR Property Management: $10,500

Ledic Realty Company, an Alabama-based property management firm: $5,000

Capstone Title: $2,600

John Burnham of Cypress Real Estate Advisors: $5,200

Blazer Building of Texas: $1,500

DMA Development: $5,000

Finally, there were some nonprofits that work on general housing or anti-poverty issues, such as Meals on Wheels, which gave $7,500, Caritas of Austin, which gave $1,500, Affordable Central Texas ($1,000) and the Austin Housing Coalition ($1,000).

I obviously understand why affordable housing developers or anybody involved in development and construction would have an interest in a bond. That’s money that will likely find its way into their coffers. It’s harder for me to understand why realtors or property managers would have much of an interest in the bond. In the case of ABoR, however, its leaders have made a point of pushing the organization in a more progressive direction, including by supporting paid sick leave etc.

Two mysterious donors give $25k to Linda Curtis’ group

IndyAustin, if you’ll recall, is the independent expenditure group that was formed to force a vote on CodeNEXT. It was set up by Linda Curtis, the perennial signature-gatherer based in Bastrop. Most of the money, however, did not come from earnest CodeNEXT opponents, but a few billboard companies, who were angling to use the code fight to settle long-time grievances about sign regulations.

Now, CodeNEXT is no more but Proposition J, which was aimed at killing it, is still on the ballot and, if approved, it could have a major impact on the city’s ability to revise its land development code in the future.

In the most recent campaign finance report, IndyAustin reports that it has broadened its mission. In addition to supporting Prop J, it is opposing Mayor Steve Adler, Council Member Pio Renteria and District 9 candidate Danielle Skidmore (who is challenging Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo for the seat). Finally, it discloses that it will be supporting an “ordinance w/r/t City land & sports facilities/entertainment stadiums.”

IndyAustin reported raising just a whisker under $30,000 over the last three months. Almost all of it came from three major donors. The smallest one –– $3,000 –– came from local real estate investor Brian Rodgers, a regular donor to causes aligned with Fred Lewis and neighborhood preservationists.

Then there was $5,000 from Joel Hechler, who describes himself as a “former investor” who lives in Tenafly, NJ. What I gather from Google is that this is Cory Joel Hechler. A rather sparse LinkedIn under that name identifies him as an “executive director” at JP Morgan. An online database of securities brokers lists him as having worked at Bear Sterns from 1987-2006 and JP Morgan from 2006-13. There’s no obvious reason that I can identify for why he’d be involved in Austin politics.

Finally, IndyAustin got $20,000 from Irving Kessler, who lists his address in Paradise Valley, Arizona and describes himself as a “former investment manager.” It looks like his first name is misspelled on the campaign report, and that this is actually a check from Irvin or Irv Kessler, a hedge fund manager who serves as the principal or chairman of Provident Real Estate Advisors, which is based in Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Star Tribune described Kessler as a “publicity-shy hedge-fund manager” in 2011 when it discovered that he was providing much of the capital behind a proposed casino.

So what is Kessler’s link to Austin politics? It very likely has to do with his link to the Circuit of the Americas race track. In 2012, the Statesman identified him as one of the investors:

A racing enthusiast, Kessler popped up prominently on the Internet after a 2009 incident in which his $3 million McLaren F1 road car caught fire while he was driving it in California.

Kessler did not return a call from the American-Statesman on Wednesday, and Circuit of the Americas officials did not disclose whether the Minnesota hedge fund manager was the Kessler listed in the SEC filing for the track.

COTA, of course, is unhappy with the Columbus Crew coming to Austin. It is host to a lesser soccer team that it doesn’t want overshadowed by an MLS team. It is therefore friendly to the efforts of activists to get the stadium deal proposed for the Crew overturned by voters.