A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Tag: Austin

Cities Start to Roll Back Dumb Parking Regs, Neighbors Freak Out

by drewnilsen

We’re starting to see a paradigm shift with parking policy, but that change – which isn’t really about parking, it’s about the entire fabric of our urban landscape – will face a lot of pushback from forces averse to change.

More cities are considering rolling back their minimum parking requirements (MPRs), and this bodes well for the future of public transit, walkability, affordable housing, and less sprawl.

Cities and suburbs alike regulate a minimum amount of parking required of a business or development. There’s usually a complicated calculus based on the type of business or residence, part of the city, etc. And that sounds reasonable, right?

Not necessarily. First of all, it can be prohibitive for rezoned or historic properties to meet MPRs, thereby resulting in the property not being utilized. A proposal by the Austin City Council aims to target this problem by doubling the minimum size a building must be before it has to offer parking, in part so that more historic buildings can be used.

Moreover, many MPRs are predicated on an antiquated notion of car ownership that exceeds current conditions. The increased popularity of Washington, DC as a place for young urbanists less likely to own a car – coupled with car- and bike-sharing services – means that fewer residents own cars.

“If you were to say, certainly ten years ago, but even five years ago that we would have in this city and 50 percent of folks go to work without a car and that 40 percent of the households do not have a car, they would have had you committed,” said a George Washington urban planning professor.

Yet, many residential developments – even ones in cities clearly targeted to an “urban” demographic – are still subject to MPRs that demand one parking space per bedroom. Many MPRs for businesses are calculated based on as much as 85% of peak capacity, resulting in an excess of parking that sits empty most of the time.

The implications of MPRs on architecture are spelled out well in this Atlantic Cities article about a novel new approach in Boston. The designer must reduce amenities to residents (common space, balconies, courtyards) or public greenspace, and replace it with parking. Or, s/he can bury the spots underground – at a much steeper cost that’s passed on to residents (whether they drive or not). Or, s/he can provide more land for parking, not only increasing costs, but also perpetuating sprawl and marring the landscape with another parking lot that could be better used as a business, more housing, a park.

The added cost is not negligible, either. DC planners noted that “the regulations have a real cost. A designated parking space can add as much as $50,000 to the price of a residential unit.” That added cost is folded into renters’ housing costs, as well, whether they drive or not.

MPRs have a ripple effect on everyone. They mean that development sprawls out farther, and the environment is covered by unsightly and impervious cover that absorbs heat and adds to polluted runoff.

It’s worth noting that the absence of MPRs doesn’t mean that developers won’t build parking; it just removes the regulation that requires them to. For many residences and businesses – especially in more car-dependent cities – the market will demand the provision of parking.

Unfortunately, developers who propose less parking often face pushback from neighbors who fear that their residential streets will be overrun by cars (this is especially curious in neighborhoods that have garages and driveways). A new mixed-use project in Tenleytown, a leafy enclave in far northwest DC, has faced opposition from neighbors – despite the fact that DC is an increasingly urban, non-car-dependent city and the likely residents of the new complex will own far fewer cars than they would have even a few years ago.

While I think that Tenleytown residents’ NIMBYism is unwarranted and anachronistic, that response is pretty standard across the country. The Boston developer cited above has proposed a creative solution. He’s trying to assuage Allston neighbors’ concerns and get zoning approval to build a parking-free complex – provide that residents sign away their rights to own a car. It’s an interesting idea, and if it works, it could circumvent NIMBY opposition and clear the path to more dense, smart development nationwide.

The next Brooklyn/Boulder/Austin/Portland …

by drewnilsen

“I’m not from here/
but people tell me/
it’s not like it used to be.
They say I should have been here/
back about ten years/
before it got ruined by folks like me”

— “I’m Not From Here,” Austin, Texas musician James McMurtry

By the time everyone knows a place is cool, it’s already well on its way to yuppification and losing the spirit that made it cool in the first place. Asking “What’s the next Austin?” (or Portland, or Prague, or wherever) has become a cliche — one I’m happy to perpetuate.

Pondering The Next Big Place is certainly a fun exercise, but beyond that, it has practical applications. It can be helpful in figuring out where to move if you’re a recent college graduate or planning a life change. It can identify what cities are thriving and reviving, in contrast to those withering and dying. It can identify fun, off-the-radar places to visit. (Yesterday, the New York Times had a nice profile of a local benefactor single-handedly revitalizing downtown in the small Appalachian city of Roanoke, Virginia. It’s nice to see these things happening in places that aren’t preciously hip. I’ll have to add this to my East Coast road trip list, maybe on my 39th trip to Asheville.)

Obviously, merely considering job growth and overall pay ignores a multitude of factors. Matt Yglesias — an insightful urbanist as well as political commentator — recently posted a chart of Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing the metro areas with the highest-paying jobs. On its own, though, these figures are pretty meaningless, as the entire graph consists of some of America’s highest-cost-of-living counties (NY, Boston, DC, SF, etc.). This information would be more useful if translated into a “best bang for your buck” metric.

Joel Kotkin did just that, and Houston comes out tops. [Side note: Although “Houston” is almost a pejorative to most coastal/Yankee city dwellers, it’s a surprisingly diverse and fun city, with great arts and walkable inner-core neighborhoods. Yeah, the metro is a sprawly mess, but Houston — with its re-elected lesbian mayor — is a fairly progressive, nice city with good museums, great food and drinking establishments ranging from nouveau cocktails (The Anvil) to old school, outdoor walk-up bars (Alabama Ice House).] Other good value cities: Austin, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth.*

Moreover, the Web has no shortage of slideshows with the top 10 places where people are moving. Many of these, however, are often the product of the growth of a particular industry, not the character of the town.

As I discussed last week regarding the personality traits of cities, we’re all looking not for raw data, but rather the je ne sais quoi of what makes a place great. Kotkin extrapolates his “bang for your buck” data into predicting the next big cities, but its too objective and not subjective enough. San Antonio is a lovely place with a thriving economy (and seriously great tacos), but its too undereducated and unintellectual to comport of to Richard Florida’s idea of a “creative class” city any time soon. It may boom, but SAT will not be a PDX or an AUS or even an MSY anytime soon.

Earlier this year, an Austinite postulated on what the next Austins might be.  I was surprised to hear Chattanooga, though a friend of mine has played up Richmond to me (both: road trip list). I’ve been a decade-long champion of Pittsburgh, Detroit is a perennial favorite of journalists to lament or, simultaneously, exalt. I adore Asheville, but I’m not sure it can ever grow enough economically to be The Place (though it might have the best weather in the South). Burlington has been a hippie haven since Phish was playing Nectar’s, but I doubt it will ever blow up.

This is a curious list that has added some new spots for me to check out. I’m curious to hear feedback about the list (tell me more about Chattanooga!), but also readers’ own picks. What off-the-cultural-radar places are fixing to bust out big?

My picks: Milwaukee, Portland (Maine), Missoula or Bozeman, and Orlando.

*You can do your own cost-of-living conversions between metros using this calculator http://www.bestplaces.net/col/; $1,600 per week in DC is the equivalent of only $1,100 in Kansas City, for example.

Parking Lots, Coffee and Taco Bell: When Big Business Opposed Less Regulation

by drewnilsen

Despite the gutting and eventual pulldown of my native California’s Minimum Parking Requirement reform bill, the fact that this issue has become a legitimate part of the policy discussion is encouraging. Minimum Parking Requirements (MPRs) are a long-standing zoning requirement for new development and businesses that exist in cities and suburbs. While the genesis of them aren’t insidious — sure, people do need to park, sometimes — they often suffer from sloppy or outmoded calculations, or they inadvertently deter users of the development from walking or using public transit. Or, MPRs end up creating unnecessary expanses of hot, ugly asphalt that adds to environmentally-damaging impervious cover and sprawl, makes it harder for non-drivers to access, and adds unnecessary costs that get passed on to the consumer, whether they use the parking lot or not.

Reducing or eliminating MPRs in urban areas near transit nodes wouldn’t prohibit developers from building as much parking as they want, it would just relax the regulations they generally face. Many MPRs in America still mandate one car per bedroom, even in residences that are attractive because they are in walkable, transit-friendly areas. In cities and suburbs, parking lot sizes are determined by a metric of 85% of peak capacity — meaning that the vast majority of the time, a parking lot will be mostly empty. Or there are situations like this “green” library in Austin with a huge, underutilized parking lot that ignores its location in a residential neighborhood with ample free street parking during the daytime.

Old habits die hard, and many developers will continue to build more parking spaces than are necessary. But relaxing MPRs, especially in urban areas where other transportation options exist, is a good way to free up more progressive developers to create more efficient, urban places.

In the meantime, it would be nice to see neighboring businesses voluntarily enter into mutually-beneficial parking-sharing arrangements like this, whereby a coffee shop (peak hour: morning) uses a Taco Bell parking lot, and the home of the Doritos Loco Taco (peak hour: whenever teenagers are awake and stoned, e.g. not morning) can use the coffeehouse lot the rest of the day (and late night. Fourth Meal, bro!). Cities could spur such arrangements by offering to waive MPRs when contiguous parking options are available.

The “Capitol” of Capital Misspellings

by drewnilsen

I lived in Austin on-and-off for about nine years, and my heart still resides in the land of great live music, cheap rent (compared to DC, anyway), cheap beer (ditto), liberal politics, flip-flops, Longhorn football, and breakfast tacos (the world’s greatest morning food).

I suspect, though, that every single resident was getting high on the Barton Springs Greenbelt on the day in middle school English when they taught the difference between “capital” and “capitol.” It’s certainly an easy error to make, but every other city seems to grasp the distinction — “capital” (with an “a”) is the city, “capitol” (with an “o”) is the building. For example, Washington, DC, is our nation’s capital, but the neighborhood where underpaid congressional staffers hit free happy buffets is called “Capitol Hill.”
Today, a writer at the excellent Texas Monthly referred to “the capitol city” in an article about Robert Plant living in Austin with singer Patty Griffin. I loved the steak frites at the now-closed Capitol Brasserie, which was downtown and not within view of place where the bidness of Texas — notably, slashing $28 billion from the budget and legalizing the shooting of feral hogs from helicopters — is done. A budget car dealer out in the suburbs — with no apparent fondness for Italian Renaissance Revival-style government buildings — is also named “capitol.” (I’ll cut Capitol Kia some slack, though, because it finally stopped erroneously referring to its location as “Interstate” 183, which does not exist.)

I’ve lived in a few English-speaking capitals — Providence, Cape Town, Austin, and now DC — but I’ve only noticed this issue in wide practice in Austin. What gives?

Nobody’s Ever Happy in Texas

by evanmcmurry

“All yesterday’s rain did was piss the ground off.”