AURA continues to call for the decriminalization of homelessness and supports the efforts of the Homes not Handcuffs coalition. In light of the newly released 2019 Point in Time count, it’s more important than ever that Austin provide housing for people experiencing homelessness – not a date with a judge. Eric Goff, an AURA board member, says “The people’s strong endorsement of a historic $250 million housing bond speaks to the community’s strong desire to aid people experiencing homelessness, not put them in handcuffs for merely resting on a sidewalk or in a public place.”
Police Oversight, Transit Justice, and Vision Zero
AURA believes in an Austin for Everyone, and one of the main ways our city can do that is by finally desegregating our neighborhoods. That will mean that everyone can afford to live in the neighborhood they want to live in, and that the place is designed so that they can. A big part of a place being “your” neighborhood is that it feels like home. That’s why we’re in favor of implementing an Office of Police Oversight in Austin as quickly as possible. The Office should ensure that information about critical incidents or policy violations be released to the public so that public confidence in the police and police safety can be improved.
There are many good reasons to support effective police oversight. But AURA, as an organization focused on safer streets and better transit, can speak directly to traffic enforcement. One of the major points of stress in police and community relations is traffic enforcement. Racial bias in police traffic stops has been evident in Austin for years, if not decades. In 2017, 66% of searches resulting from traffic stops were for Hispanic or black drivers, despite making up a relatively smaller proportion of the city overall. AURA also calls for Council to try to reduce the number of traffic stops in Austin by designing our streets to be safe. Narrower lanes, multimodal uses, and streets designed for low speeds means that the police will need to spend less time enforcing traffic violations that can lead to critical incidents.
When streets are designed for safety and for people, rather than automobile convenience, traffic enforcement can be reduced, and police can focus on violent crimes. Stronger police and community relations achieved through a truly independent Office of Police Oversight will allow the city to focus on safety for people, and reduce and eventually eliminate implicit bias in traffic enforcement, among other police issues. Regular, consistent oversight with randomized checks of police activity will build confidence, improve policing, and hopefully be a tool to reduce the impact of implicit bias.
We also support the work of the Untokening, and their Principles of Mobility Justice. In particular, “Mobility Justice demands that ‘safety’ and equitable mobility address not only the construction of our streets but the socioeconomic, cultural, and discriminatory barriers to access and comfort different communities experience within public spaces. We must shift focus from the modes of transit people use to the bodies and identities of the people using those modes by centering the experiences of marginalized individuals and the most vulnerable communities. It acknowledges that safety is different for different people, and should be defined by those most economically and legally vulnerable.” We also particularly agree that “Until many past wrongs and inequities are addressed, pursuit of mobility justice for marginalized communities may involve looking beyond individual choices about transportation modes to deeply related issues like housing instability, job options and over policing.” To tie it all together, “Mobility Justice demands an understanding of the relationship between policing and public space, and rejects law enforcement – increased ticketing, beat cops on bikes, etc – as a solution for street safety.”
Austin must reduce vehicle violence and reduce the number of interactions with police that can potentially lead to escalated incidents with the police. We should plan for and pay for streets designed for safety and equity using tools provided by NACTO and Vision Zero, and the Principles of Mobility Justice. Creating an independent Office of Police Oversight is a critical step in making sure that Austin is for Everyone.
It’s time to legalize backyard cottages citywide
AURA—an all-volunteer, member-driven grassroots organization—responded to the fundraising report for the pro-Proposition 1 PAC ‘Let’s Go Austin’.
“I’m not surprised they think it’s a good idea to spend half a million dollars on mailers that are going straight to the trash can. After all, they are supporting an inefficient plan that will waste limited transportation dollars and reduce system ridership”, said Brad Absalom, chair of AURA’s transit working group.
“It’s simple: light rail should save money, not waste it. By following a route through low-density areas, the Proposition 1 rail line will siphon money away from Capital Metro’s bread-and-butter bus service. This will reduce ridership and make congestion worse,” argued AURA member Kevin Miller.
Miller is the author and maintainer of WorseThanNothing.org, a website that details the pro-transit argument against the road and rail package on this November’s ballot.
Members of AURA — just named ”Best Grassroots Group” for 2014 by Austin Chronicle readers— were highly involved in promoting a better transit system for the past two years as part of the Project Connect process. Due to the proposed project’s harmful effects on transit, AURA members are overwhelmingly opposed to the urban rail proposal.
AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.
- Brad Absalom, AURA Project Connect Central Corridor Working Group Chair: firstname.lastname@example.org, 214-236-3293
- Kevin Miller, AURA Project Connect Central Corridor Working Group: email@example.com, 512-560-5208
Re: AURA Views on Subchapter F Carport Exemption
On Tuesday, the Planning Commission will consider changes to the carport exemption for McMansion. We encourage the Planning Commission to not think small, and instead make serious reforms to the regulations.
Subchapter F, better known as the McMansion Ordinance, has placed limitations on the floor to area ratio (FAR) of new homes built in Austin. According to the McMansion Ordinance, the allowable FAR for a home is calculated using lengthy and complicated sets of exemptions. While these FAR requirements were originally devised to regulate massing and scale, they have failed to result in meaningful design improvements, and in fact have substantially harmed design, aesthetics, and the development process.
Years after Subchapter F was enacted, the city found itself in litigation over the ordinance’s complicated “attic exemption” and had to issue memos clarifying the requirements. A decade after being enacted, other exemptions continue to cause problems—specifically, the carport exemption and its confusing distinction between what constitutes a carport and what constitutes a garage.
AURA does not support perpetuating this confusion with layers of fixes to Subchapter F’s inherently flawed concept of space. Rather than further complicate matters, AURA asks that the City scrap the whole concept we’ve tried for the last ten years without success, and do away with FAR restrictions entirely.
Having FAR limitations, in addition to building coverage, limited building height, large setbacks,excessive parking, and additional residential design requirements is unnecessarily duplicative. Practically, only so much FAR is mathematically possible within the constraints of the McMansion tent, building height, and setback requirements. Therefore, Austin should simplify its land development code.
Austin has very burdensome zoning requirements for single-family lots. Austin zoning maps show huge swaths of yellow lots where only detached single family construction is allowed. A multitude of “yellow lot laws” serve to perpetuate the economic segregation of Austin. Given the large minimum lot size required in single-family zones, an increasing number of our citizens can’t afford to move into “yellow lot” areas—that is, the majority of the land in the city! Not only do we require large lots, we limit these large lots to very low density. By limiting the amount of habitable space even further via FAR requirements we have effectively put a very high premium on housing and we are manufacturing scarcity. AURA believes it is time to scrap this approach and embrace all types of housing attainable by all types of people in all areas of the city.
Furthermore, as the carport exemption is centered on the issue of off-street parking and because FAR makes parking compete with habitable space, AURA also calls for the abolition of off-street parking minimums. Removing off-street parking minimums does not prohibit the market from providing off-street parking where there is perceived demand. But it will allow the market to stop eating away at housing space for people where the market may choose people over parking. Homes with fewer parking spots can result in less impervious cover, healthier citizens, better affordability, and more feasible mass transit options.
We’d also like to show a couple of blog posts on an alternative to McMansion that is mostly illegal in the city—row houses. See Part One and Part Two. Finally, last year, AURA also called for significant reform to Subchapter F, in light of the huge cost of compliance for the city. With that said, we are also in favor of incremental reform, such as eliminating FAR.
There are other major problems with the McMansion Ordinance. The ordinance is single-family home centric and does not accommodate duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, row homes, and other missing middle housing options. The McMansion Ordinance will not apply correctly to a compact and connected development pattern moving forward. The ordinance is ridiculously complicated for the city to manage at the staff review level as well as the code enforcement level. It adds precious time to the process, when we should be working to provide housing more quickly. The ultimate result is a slower supply line for housing, and increased costs for the housing that does come to market. With all this in mind, AURA calls for Austin to move away from a housing policy regulated via Subchapter F.
Imagine Austin priority program 4: Use green infrastructure to protect environmentally sensitive areas and integrate nature into the city
This post is part of a series on Imagine Austin’s priority programs, in light of Austin’s current CodeNEXT rewrite process. View the entire series here.
Imagine Austin discusses the importance of integrating nature into the city as the benefits of open space and nature are well-documented and widespread. Austin has always been a bit more “green” than the rest of Texas and many Austinites treasure the numerous parks and greenspaces throughout the city. As such, Imagine Austin called for a focus to preserve and protect this critical part of who we are. Green infrastructure throughout the city is one important way we can do that.
A great approach to green infrastructure planning is to think about it at the city-level, not just the site level. By investing in our city and growing our tax base, we can afford municipal infrastructure improvements like the Waller Creek Flood Tunnel, which will open up more of the former flood plain to development by redirecting floodwaters under ground. Waller Creek itself is a great example of green infrastructure. By connecting parks to each other via trails and great creek-facing experiences, the Waller Creek Conservancywill develop amazing infrastructure that will improve the city for decades to come.
meanwhile, approaching green infrastructure on a site specific basis can lead to problems. For example, in most parts of the city (except the Lake Austin overlay), the city has a standard impervious cover limitation. However, it may be appropriate to consider topology of the surrounding area as part of impervious cover limitations. For example, a steeper slope might allow less impervious cover than the standard, and a relatively flat area may allow more. Investing in drainage in areas where we want to encourage density may be a better approach than restricting site area on a site-specific basis. Finally, the easiest solution is to to allow more height on the same “footprint” of land. Instead of only allowing a 2 story building, a 4 story building doubles the density while maintaining the footprint and impervious cover. A four-story building remains “human scale” and can even provide shade to the sidewalk for those hot summer days.
Parkland is another critical issue for the city that should be reconsidered as we develop CodeNEXT, another critical part of Imagine Austin. The Council recently instituted a 15% cap on the amount of land that can be required to be dedicated as parkland when a site is developed. This balanced approach allows for more housing, offices, and other uses that can then create new users of that park. Parks are a critical feature of our city – and we should allow more people to live near them to increase their accessibility.
Green infrastructure is just as important on our streets. Shade trees, benches, and landscaping can improve the pedestrian experience and even narrow lanes. Narrower lanes increase safety for all road users (drivers, pedestrians and cyclists) by slowing cars down. It also improves the experience of walking or cycling when cars aren’t flying by you at 45 miles per hour. A great milestone for all of Austin is the adoption of a “Complete Streets” policy in 2014. It calls for making all of our streets more inviting to users and includes many green infrastructure elements.
In a city known for its rapid growth and for its tendency to flood, Austin needs to acknowledge that we have to solve for both problems – and a growing tax base to pay for more infrastructure is a better alternative than pushing growth out into undeveloped land outside the city limits. Tragically, some of the worst flooding in recent memory has happened in *less* developed areas like Wimberly, with horrific loss of life and property. By encouraging sustainable growth based on data from the latest in ecological research, we can make a city that is greener and safer for all.Imagine Austin priority programs series
Convention Center Follies; Austin Edition
The Austin Convention Center has recommended a long range master plan laying out their case for expansion west, taking the blocks bounded by 2nd on the South, 4th on the North, Trinity on the East, and San Jacinto on the West. AURA opposes this on a variety of grounds, ranging from the tax revenue for the city to the viability of convention center-driven economic development to impacts on the downtown streetscape. The economic development case against convention center expansion:
- The convention center industry nationally has been shrinking since the ’90s. Meanwhile, city after city has been chasing this business, building ever more elaborate, newer, and larger convention center spaces. Competing for convention center business is not a smart use of resources – its going after a shrinking pool just as many peer cities have entered the competition.
- Jobs created by conventions are by their nature transitory, part-time, and generally low-wage. This is a business of peaks – generally weekends when a large convention is booked. The caterers, Uber/Lyft/cab drivers, extra hotel staff, and contractors working booths see spikes in business, but it is not enough to sustain week-in, week-out full employment. While there is a place in the economy for these kinds of jobs, spending limited city resources to subsidize them seems unwise given better alternatives.
The city revenue case against convention center expansion:
- Convention Center expansion is often sold as a free lunch. The cost of construction could be financed by the increased hotel taxes brought in by hotel goers. But this turns out to be an almost circular argument. Hotel taxes have extremely limited uses by state law – they can be used for tourist-related public improvements and for historic preservation. Currently much of our hotel tax revenue already goes to support the Convention Center. By investing in a bigger convention center, we may indeed be able to capture more hotel tax revenue, but their limited nature makes them much less useful to the city as a whole. Bringing in more hotel taxes does little for the general welfare of most Austinites. Meanwhile, the city should consider whether it is making the best uses of its hotel taxes – instead of subsidizing an otherwise mediocre convention center, could they be used to support the live music or arts scene? Could there be a role for hotel taxes in subsidizing the downtown “Drunk Tank” under consideration?
- Meanwhile, the expansion would take a valuable piece of downtown property off the tax rolls. Property taxes, unlike hotel taxes, go to the general fund, and are much more useful to the city budget. There is no fiscal impact analysis taking this into account in the current Convention Center Master Plan. Hotel tax revenue are estimated, but these kinds of large impacts are not projected.
Finally, the urbanist and streetlife argument against convention center expansion.
- Convention centers are seldom well activated on the street level. Austin has invested, with much success, in a Great Streets program, and we are beginning to reap the dividends of a vibrant downtown. Several aspects of the proposed design of the Convention Center Expansion run contrary to the tenets of the Great Streets concept, especially the elevated pedestrian walkways to connect the old and the new Convention Center areas. These kinds of walkways hurt the street life below, and take pedestrians out of contact with each other.
- The preferred scenario in the Master Plan would also take a chunk of 2nd and 3rd Streets between Trinity and San Jacinto, degrading the downtown grid and taking streetscapes out of play.
In short, the Austin Convention Center Master Plan as currently envisioned should not be endorsed by city council. The business and economic development case has not been made for such a large capital investment, the opportunity costs in terms of property tax revenue are high, and it be a step back from for Austin’s steadily improving downtown experience. AURA calls on city council to vote this down.
Travis County Courthouse Endorsement
Following a vote of our members, AURA is proud to announce our support of the Travis County Courthouse Bond Proposition. The new Courthouse will replace aging infrastructure; the Courthouse will be centrally-located and transit accessible.
AURA member and co-founder Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says “This is a great deal. For a few bucks a month, we solve our Courtroom space needs for a century. If you want to save money, this is the time to build the basics – loan rates are unlikely to stay low forever. Building now is the fiscally sensible choice.”
AURA board member Susan Somers adds ““Everyone agrees on the need. We can either build modern, compact, and near transit…or we can build a facility that contributes to sprawl. AURA chose the former.”
The Courthouse is necessary. The current facility is old, aging, and doesn’t provide the necessary physical resources to operate a modern courthouse. It lacks the space to separate opponents in lawsuits or civil matters – including victims of domestic violence from their abusers. It has been planned for years, and last-minute attacks haven’t shown any reason to delay the inevitable building of additional court capacity.
The Courthouse will be transit-accessible. Located just south of Republic Square on Guadalupe – one of the best transit corridors in Austin, the site will make it easy for Austinites to arrive on public transit.
Travis County’s Courthouse needs to be downtown. In Texas, County Courthouses are downtown, and Travis County should be no different. Being downtown allows visitors to be part of a vibrant downtown – with all the benefits of a compact and connected space. It allows nearby access for County workers, and eliminates a significantly underutilized parking lot. In addition, a dense private development on the parcel will benefit the project and the future of Austin.
Some opponents have suggested moving the courthouse out of downtown. Others express concern about using a parcel that is unencumbered by Capitol View Corridors. Capitol View Corridors limit the height in some parts of the city so that the State Capitol can be seen from a number of angles. There are ways to mitigate this problem. One approach is state legislative action. A second approach is for the Austin City Council to expand the number of blocks in downtown or near downtown entitled for central business district-style development.
AURA encourages Travis County to make the courthouse an integrated, and integral, addition to the fabric of Downtown Austin. This includes sticking with the commitment to have ground floor retail that keeps the block active and vibrant and committing the new private development being built with downtown in mind – not just the needs of the Courthouse. “The County is going tall with the building to get the best of both worlds on their parcel: much-needed new Courtroom space near transit on one half and dense private development on the other,” adds says AURA member and co-founder Julio Gonzalez Altamirano.
Travis County shouldn’t wait to move forward on the Courthouse, though. “To win games, you can’t just punt. At some point, you’ve got to get into the end zone,” says Julio Gonzalez Altamirano.
Susan Somers adds “We’ve heard much about the costs but we can’t forget about the value created by the project. Low borrowing costs make this a great time to build basic court infrastructure that even opponents acknowledge we need. And highrise in the central business district next to a transit hub is the best approach to meet the need.”
Travis County voters should vote to approve our new Courthouse on November 3rd.
Guadalupe Corridor Is For People
AURA’s Guadalupe Corridor Working Group has been following the corridor study process and has released the following report. We call on Austin City Council and the Transportation Department to take bold steps. We specifically encourage extending the transit priority lanes from downtown to the Drag, removing the wall on the east side of Guadalupe, and removing the on-street parking from the west side.
At AURA, we’re focused on building an Austin for Everyone through abundant housing and better public transportation. Part of our platform calls for better utilizing our public parks by locating more housing near them – and make better child-friendly urban spaces. With that in mind, we have some concerns about agenda item 58 on this week’s Council agenda.
The item calls for increasing the cost of parkland dedication fees for new housing, based on a “parks per person” metric. This metric seems to turns good park policy on its head. The best parks in the world are ones that people go to, are well-maintained, and are accessible. The Trust for Public Land’s 2015 City Park report rates cities on a number of metrics, including the number of parks per person (the metric used in the parkland dedication fee proposal) and accessibility to parks. Austin has an excellent ratio of parks per person – 30.6 acres per 1,000 people. However, only 48% of our population can get to a park in a ten minute walk. Fees like the parkland dedication fee can be a useful tool, but we need to think about what we’re trying to get out of it.
In fact, the parkland dedication fee has several restrictions on its use. PARD must spend the money in the area that the fee was collected from, the fee can’t be used for ongoing operations and maintenance of parks, and can’t be used to implement the city’s Park Master Plan. For citations to prove these points, see the budget RFI’s from prior Councilmembers Martinez, Morrison, and Spelmanon this very topic. The Parkland dedication fee can only be used for new parkland acquisition and new infrastructure at parks. When we are already having a difficult time keeping pools open in the summer and funding our existing parks, and are making budget tradeoffs to keep them funded, building up a warchest that must be spent on new parkland without a mechanism to fund ongoing operations and maintenance will create a future unfunded mandate for Council – and more hard choices about whether we can maintain our pools. In a prior budget discussion, Mayor Pro Tem Cole said “I think the primary problem we have with our parks now is maintenance. We’re just not able to keep them up.”
There is another choice: by allowing more multifamily housing near underutilized parks (and schools), we can increase the tax base of the city to help fund the ongoing operations of existing parks while making sure that our parks become great ones – where families take their kids because it’s a short walk from home. More multifamily housing has a higher tax base benefit and could be a tool to help deal with our housing crisis in Austin.
Unfortunately, the proposed park land dedication fee actually creates an opposite incentive. Although the fee is lower for higher density, it doesn’t account for the fact that higher density means more people per acre, so the cost for a higher density project is much higher than single family homes. This creates a disincentive for the kinds of development that we need to keep our existing parks funded – the exact opposite of what we need.
The park land dedication fee, park policy, and the way to fund our parks and make them more useful for more people is something that takes careful effort and thought. We encourage the city council to take it’s time and consider the full range of related issues before passing a policy that could have some unintended consequences.
Should we Have a Customer-Focused CapMetro?
At the beginning of July, Capital Metro released two sets of data: one showing huge growth in revenue, and the other showing that ridership is declining in spite of that increased revenue.
The first data set was the CapMetro budget for fiscal year 2015, released with big fanfare and a presentation. CapMetro says their finances are excellent: Austin’s booming economy has generated increasing amounts of sales tax revenue for the transit agency. The agency expects to have operating revenues of $279 million, a 39% increase over 2010. Of that $279 million, the operating budget will increase to roughly $245 million from $220 million this year; $7 million will go to a specific reserve fund, and CapMetro will keep an extra $30 million on hand. The capital budget is also flush, with nearly $80 million in capital improvements planned for 2016. Capital Metro proposes to spend this money at about 2:1 ratio in favor of rail to bus. Bus improvements principally include replacing old buses; the rail improvements include additional rail cars, double track in some places, and expanding the downtown train stop. Finally, CapMetro has already refilled its coffers and expects to have $143 million in reserve.
Public information requests reveal a loss in CapMetro bus ridership
The second set of numbers is ridership numbers for Spring 2015, reflected in the chart above. This data was not trumpeted by a press release, but was instead revealed by a citizen public information request. (Indeed, they didn’t even make it into Statesman’s article on the budget presentation.) The new ridership numbers show a significant decline across the entire system from Spring 2014. 11 of 16 local routes lost 10% or more of their ridership; every crosstown route declined in ridership, including 4 by more than 10%. The MetroRapid routes, which increased in hours and prominence, gained some of that lost ridership back, but overall the bus system carried 117,000 riders per weekday in Spring 2014, and 106,000 riders per weekday in Spring 2015.
Capital Metro’s ridership numbers and their budget are intimately connected. The budget decides both the cost and the level of service, which determine who can ride the bus. On the first count, CapMetro raised fares again, from $2.00 to $2.50 for a day pass, which is probably the immediate cause of the decline in ridership. The fare hike is motivated by arbitrary goals rather than financial sense: a state audit recommended that the agency increase fare box recovery ratio—the percentage of operating revenue raised from passenger fares—to .18 from about .10. However, the hike is not necessary from a financial standpoint. The raise in fares is projected to generate only $1,000,000 more in fiscal year 2015 than in fiscal year 2014. One million dollars is a lot, but it’s less than one half of one percent of CapMetro’s total operating budget and just the money left over in 2016’s budget could replace the fare increase for 30 years.
Capital Metro is expanding bus service, mostly by introducing new, better frequencies on the 7, 20, 300, 325, and 331. Together with MetroRapid, there will be 1.1 million bus hours of service in fiscal year 2016. This is a record high, but only 8% more than the number of hours provided in 2010 at the depth of the recession. Revenue since then has expanded by 39% in the same time.
In the past 5 years, while the train system has tripled its hours, and revenue has increased nearly 50%, bus hours and ridership have remained flat.
Moreover, while there is a crisis in bus ridership, the budget is prioritizing improvements to the Red Line rather than upgrading the bus system. MetroRail provides less than 2% of Capital Metro’s daily ridership, but is getting almost twice as much for capital improvements as the bus system, which provides 80% of the ridership. New track is good, but not when buses are hurting. The fiscal year 2015 budget only allocated $125,000 to bus shelters. Other bus capital improvements that could be funded and that other cities have used, such as a transit smart card, and other off-board fare collections, have not been discussed.
It’s understandable why the transit agency wants to maintain a strong reserve: sales tax revenue has been very volatile over the last ten years. But that shouldn’t stop CapMetro from focusing on its core mission: being the best transit agency it can for as many Austinites and other central Texans as possible.
Therefore: CapMetro should prioritize ridership and mobility over fare box recovery. Reorienting priorities in this way can help collect more fares as more people ride, and focus CapMetro on the most productive ways to use its revenue to increase mobility within its budget constraints. The simplest way to do that is to focus improvement spending where the demand for service is. Lately, that’s not the Red Line, it’s our bus network.