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┬áseem 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┬áCodeNext 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.)