Density, M/F and “Character”

Over on Dan Keshets’ “Austin On Your Feet” blog, Dan posted yesterday what I think was a follow-up to a long twitter conversation a number of us had. His post is about the City of Austins’ CodeNext project. Dan is an advocate for greater density in Austin, and as the name of his blog implies and the about page says “has lived and worked in central Austin near downtown without a car since 2005”.

I’ve had the feeling that a lot of those advocating for greater density, and especially the acceptance by the central neighborhoods of much more permissive multi-family zoning, have no real idea what is actually happening, at least on the square mile of Bouldin neighborhood that I live in. It seems pretty representative of Bouldin in general. I have no idea for other neighborhoods.

Dan includes an extract from a CodeNext email “a revised Land Development Code should consider the unique character found in different types of neighborhoods throughout Austin” and then Dan states “I believe the buildings-first perspective is a poor perspective from which to guide policy”. You can read the entry, and all the comments including mine, here. Now, I have not read CodeNext, or participated in any related meetings. Dan and I disagree, I think, on how density should be added, and especially how much is required. Others including Mike Dahmus aka M1EK seem to think mine, and other neighborhoods are being NIMBYS. For my part, I think that people are always afraid of change, when you can’t give clear examples of how much, and what change your are proposing you can’t expect anything but pushback, because things can always be worse.b.

So in a break between lunch and my first conference call this afternoon, I shot around a few streets within about 4-blocks from my house to take pictures of what is actually going happening under existing zoning. One of the reasons I’m not pre-disposed to wholesale changes in zoning, is I struggle to see why anything is needed. When CodeNext mentions character, my reaction is too little, too late. That boat sailed years ago, when houses like mine started going up(2005) if not before.

So, the following gallery are just some examples of what is going on right now, M/F housing within 4-blocks north, west and south of my house. I don’t offer them as evidence of anything; I’m not using them to defend against change; I don’t make any judgement on style; I don’t know about the zoning or even the legality of some of the construction. They are simply examples of the type and style of existing recent, predominantly M/F construction. The first few examples are the style of the traditional homes in the neighborhood, there are hundreds of these in Bouldin, spanning the entire spectrum, from near collapse to pristine condition. On my block, one traditional home disappeared in the past 8-weeks, and another is scheduled to be replaced soon. I don’t know what character CodeNext think they are defending, what ever it is, maybe someone could point to some examples here.

Maintaining the traditional houses simply can’t and won’t happen. We are almost exactly a mile from city hall. The economics will never add up. If CodeNext feels it could mandate a more traditional Bouldin home, then they better be prepared for the inevitable onslaught from property owners, or their descendants, who feel that they are being cheated out of a much higher legacy. Simply put, a small lot is worth much more if you can built a duplex, or faux-condo on it, than it is with an 1100sq ft single family “character” home.

If the urbanists and densificationists want to see a more uniform, reduced or no setback, then something needs to happen to transport, or for parking. Not all the houses have alleyway access in the rear.

All these pictures were taken between 1:45pm, and 2:30pm on January 22, 2014, between W Oltorf, and W Monroe, S 1st St and the railroad tracks to the west. If I’ve made any mistakes in labeling or guessing at the type of construction, leave a comment, I’ll change it.

(click on any picture to launch slideshow; all the “before” house pictures are (c) Google Maps.)

12 thoughts on “Density, M/F and “Character”

  1. The true problem I have with this discussion is that multiple dwelling units on an SF lot is a very suboptimal way to do MF. You end up with the worst of both worlds – SF-centric parking requirements and setbacks; MF-like number of units.

    The character that’s effectively being built here is stilt buildings with parking, if anything. That’s just garbage.

    What this city really needs is an “interior MF” zoning category which has limited compatibility requirements, no on-site parking requirement, but similar height limits – so you get fairly low density compared to the built portion of traditional MF – so you can support a pre-war-style 2-story 4-plex on a single family lot, for instance, while still having some pervious cover that’s not just strips of grass in driveways.

    And for those who say “bbbbbut those people will park their cars on my street!”, the answer is “so what?”

  2. Thanks Mike. I agree, about the on street parking, then I can afford to, I have a driveway, a single car garage aka two strips of grass. I guess rather than getting back to the street parking discussion, what I was hoping was someone would give some example of what the building, housing would look like, what is the “character” going to be?

    Most of Mueller reminds me of Cedar Park in town. While they’ve squashed a lot of homes/units onto the lots, for the most part, unless developers are willing to buy and hold, a majority of the lots in Bouldin are not big enough to take these types of buildings. I included pitcures of the empty lots to give some idea on the available size.

    So, even if we had the “interior MF” zoning, and parking on the street wasn’t an issue, how would you actually get started?,-97.701907,3a,75y,6.07h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sz_eZOXFS4k01NzTCZ0UdMw!2e0

    1. As Chris Bradford mentioned today on twitter, a 3000 square foot box with one unit in it is no different than a 3000 square foot fourplex, unless you have these stupid parking requirements. So I’d start with allowing 4-plex style development in all single-family neighborhoods (Chris has actually written on this in the past; can’t dig up link right now).

      Remove the requirement to put in driveways and see what happens is my recommendation, I guess. (I don’t have one, BTW).

  3. While there are some big one-plex’s being built, the majority are not, they are duplex’s. What you/Chris are saying, is given this construction, rather than having a driveway and garages, build slightly bigger and allow four units rather than the two this has? Essentially thats all the lots would take. Does the zoning explicit forbid this then? I assume these are a condo to get around zoning, the tell tale bar between the units gives it away.

  4. Astonishing is the word that comes to mind.

    This is what neighborhoods without design standards will endure in Austin. The result may be more density, but at a cost – the complete lack of any cohesive style or architectural consistency.

    I particularly like the “castle keep” look. Raise the drawbridge! There be dragons in these parts!

  5. Hi Mark:

    I’m Matt Dugan with the city’s Planning and Development Review dept working on CodeNEXT. Two things – first, your pictures are great, could we add them to our Community Character in a Box? Second, if you have a few minutes I would love to talk with you about the Community Character Analysis. I’m at 512-974-7665.


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