More apartments = better transit

I got around to reading a good piece by James Rambin about the twists and turns that led to the current plans for the Huston, an apartment building that will soon sit the on site currently occupied by a CVS, a restaurant and a former bingo parlor.

Available plans for the Huston show a 14-story residential building bringing 366 apartment units to market — 45 studios, 194 one-bedrooms, and 142 two-bedrooms — along with a couple levels of underground parking. No retail space is planned for the project.

It was actually supposed to be significantly larger. From the Statesman in 2016:

Dawlett’s original plans called for two apartment towers, expected to be 15 stories tall, which would have had 472 luxury apartments, expected to be priced between $1,900 and $3,500 a month. He said that he would dedicate one of the two towers to housing retirees and that 17 of the apartments — about 4 percent — would be priced more moderately. He also wanted to build a grocery store at the site.

Of course, the surrounding neighborhoods opposed the proposal. The complaints were the same you expect from any neighborhood: the buildings are out of character, they will generate too much traffic and the height will block cherished views and cast shadows. But since it was East Austin, the gentrification card also came out. See these comments from Council Member Ora Houston (emphasis mine):

“When this project first came to my attention, I explained that I had lived through the horizontal separation of Austin, when I-35 did that to our city,” Houston said. “I saw this height (from the proposed towers) as a vertical representation of a barrier, although with the gentrification we’ve got more Anglos in that immediate area than we do people of color. If you place those two structures there, it will block out any sense of the community to the east. It’s like hitting a brick wall.”

Commenting on #ATXUrbanists, Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny said those who played the gentrification card were largely well-to-do gentrifiers themselves:

The single family homes being “protected from gentrification” from the original project proposal are mostly less than ten years old and sold for at least half a million dollars. The ones going in over the next ten years may sell for over a million. Whatever the intent, the mechanism here was to “protect” mostly recent gentrifiers, and the result was a squatter, bulkier tower with no grocery store. Everyone loses.

Everybody supposedly believes major roads is where the density is supposed to go. Until the density comes for the major road near them. Cases like these show why the “Austin Bargain” the mayor has touted (density on corridors, protect neighborhoods) is a mirage.

Anyway, when I look at this project, I can’t help but think about Cap Metro Route 6, which I used to take downtown everyday.

Lemme tell you a little bit about old 6. The route begins downtown and runs east on E. 12th, past Sam’s BBQ, past Givens Park, past Springdale, all the way out to Webberville Rd. (Sahara Lounge/Country Boyz), where it then makes a very inefficient turn onto Fort Branch Rd to serve  the subdivision where I used to live. It then takes a left up Jackie Robinson Rd and terminates on Tannehill Ln, where people are able to transfer onto the 339 or the 227, which will take people east of 183 and up Johnny Morris Rd.

The 6 was not chosen to be one of Cap Metro’s 14 “frequent” routes in the recent route overhaul, no doubt since there doesn’t appear to be much demand for it. Like many other routes, its ridership has steadily declined in recent years. Its average weekday ridership dropped from 777 in fall of 2012 to 575 in fall of ’16. In contrast, the nearby 2, which travels along 11th Street and Rosewood Ave. also dropped dramatically, but with an average weekday ridership of 823 in fall of ’16, it still had enough demand to get the coveted frequent status.

While the reasons for the decline in ridership are complicated and mysterious, the reason that the 6 has never been a superstar route is apparent to anybody who rides it. In addition to a couple large parks and a massive cemetery, there are huge expanses of land along E. 12th that remain undeveloped and the land that is developed is largely low-density single-family homes, even in the immediate vicinity of Airport Blvd, a major corridor. E. 12th is ripe for new apartments targeting a range of income levels. The new density could help boost ridership on the 6 and justify making it a frequent route.

Here’s a shot of it just a few blocks east of Airport.

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In terms of transit to downtown, I think the ReMap gave East Austin a better deal than any other part of the city. There are five frequent routes (20, 18, 2, 4, 17) traveling along the major corridors going East from downtown: Manor, MLK, 11th St, 7th St, and Cesar Chavez. Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 12.50.32 AM.png

But we should always strive for better. A major mixed-use project on the corner of E. 12th and I-35 is exactly the type of development that might help boost ridership and justify making the 6 frequent. So the 366 units coming to market is welcome. But 474 units and a grocery store that attracts visitors from the surrounding area would have been even better (assuming it wasn’t too overpriced and bougie).

Now, some will point out that if density is the cure-all for transit’s woes, why has Cap Metro experienced declining ridership in recent years as the population has boomed? Again, it’s complicated and impossible to know for sure, but one thing that’s certain is that the population has not grown that much in the urban core, where transit use makes most sense. In fact, the Central Austin population has only marginally increased and has gotten significantly older. Where the population has really exploded is outside of the urban core, where nobody has ever expected there to be good transit.

For population growth to facilitate transit, it will have to take place either in the core or around activity centers, such as the Domain. And yes, even luxury apartments can serve transit because people who are paying big bucks to live in a condo downtown on E. 12th most likely are seeking a reprieve from the car-centric, suburban ethos. They just might be up to take the bus, at least when there’s not a scooter nearby.

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