Five Things to Like and Five to Improve for the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan

Susan Somers is a north Austin resident near the North Shoal Creek area, President of urbanist organization AURA, and the genius gif editor who made this blog’s most famous piece pounce.

The city recently released a draft version of the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan. North Shoal Creek is on the far edge of what you might consider north central Austin – bounded by Anderson Lane to the south, Highway 183 to the north, Mopac Boulevard to the west, and Burnet Road to the east. The plan is set to be the first new neighborhood plan in several years and City planning staff seem to have billed it as a kinder, gentler neighborhood plan: one that would try to fulfill the goals of Imagine Austin and identify new opportunities for growth. As such, the draft plan may give us a decent sense of what small area planning would look like if we continue churning out neighborhood plans in the CodeNEXT era.

How does the draft North Shoal Creek plan stack up?

Outline of North Shoal Creek, via the draft plan.

Five things we like

  • The plan acknowledges the reality that apartments are more affordable and single family homes are not. The plan repeatedly points out that the apartments and multifamily condominiums in the neighborhood are more affordable that the single family homes. What’s more, “Apartments and condominiums in North Shoal Creek provide more affordable options relative to much of Austin, while single-family homes are less affordable than the citywide average.” It also acknowledges that the majority of people in the planning area live not in the single family homes of the “Residential Core,” but in apartments along the edges of the neighborhood. Furthermore, it points out that the neighborhood’s residents are aging, and young families are being priced out.
  • The plan prioritizes walkability. Almost half the “needs” and “values” identified by the community involved walkability in some way. The plan calls for new sidewalks and trails, better access to transit stops, and improved safety for schoolchildren walking to Pillow Elementary. It even contemplates innovative ideas such as opening up a pedestrian trail to access Anderson Lane businesses or allowing the community better access to Shoal Creek.

    Hundreds of people live here, but this is not a place that invites walking. Image via Google Maps.
  • The plan allows homes on the neighborhood corridors. The plan acknowledges that retail, particularly along Burnet Road, is dying. It allows for mixed-use development including apartment homes to be built along Burnet Road and Anderson Lane, the neighborhood’s major corridors. It also acknowledges that transit access is a very important reason to allow these homes to be built, and that apartment density should be clustered near transit. While allowing apartments on transit corridors may seem obvious, North Shoal Creek has fought apartment homes in the past, so this is a promising development.
  • The plan supports granny flats (aka “accessory dwelling units”). The plan seems to support allowing homeowners to build granny flats throughout the single family section of the neighborhood. Adding another home to a lot is an easy, almost invisible way to add more housing!
  • The plan envisions an innovative “Buell District.” Buell Avenue is currently dotted with light industrial development like self-storage facilities and auto-repair shops. The plan envisions change along Buell Avenue, including special zoning opportunities like townhouses, small apartments, and live-work spaces that would allow a greater variety of housing into the neighborhood.

Five things to improve

  • Choose some side streets for rowhouses. Other than on Buell Avenue, the plan does not call for allowing missing middle housing types like rowhouses on any side streets. We’ve previously argued rowhouses are an underappreciated and underused housing form in Austin, and CodeNEXT should allow more of them. But over and over again, our planning processes shy away from this awesome type of home. There are plenty of larger neighborhood streets in North Shoal Creek that would be appropriate for rowhouses. The plan leaves the impression that the only reason townhouses would be allowed on Buell is that the neighborhood likes the current light industrial businesses even less than they like rowhouses.

    Rowhouses are a residential type of building and, as such, they belong every bit as much in residential-only areas as areas of mixed use.
  • Multiplexes or small apartments on corner lots. Similarly, other missing middle housing types like multiplexes, small apartments, or cottage courts, are not placed in the “Residential Core,” even on large corner lots. Large corner lots are the perfect place to allow this kind of missing middle.

    This fourplex is one of the last standing of a formerly common missing middle housing type in residential Austin.
  • Sanctity of the “Residential Core.” Let’s talk more about that “Residential Core” phrase. As we note above, the plan acknowledges that the majority of residents live not in the interior of the neighborhood in single family homes, but in apartments on the edges of the neighborhood. Thus, calling the single family section of the neighborhood residential as compared to the corridors is a kind of double speak. Literally, more residents live outside the area termed “residential” in this plan! Based on the plan’s constraints, that pattern will become even more pronounced! Why does this terminology matter? Many other aspects of the plan focus strictly on the “Residential Core.” Three of the six bullet points regarding the goals of the Neighborhood Transition area focus not on making the zone great for its residents but on how not to encroach on the privacy of single family homes. The poorer majority residents are treated as interlopers on the richer minority. In fact, it’s not even clear that the existing apartments in the Neighborhood Transition lots would fit the constraints of the plan.
  • Vision for connectivity/reconnecting streets. Residents in North Shoal Creek have asked for a more walkable neighborhood and for better access to transit stops. One way to make this area, designed with meandering streets and suburban cul-de-sacs, more walkable would be to designate opportunities to acquire lots and reconnect streets separating people from one another. While the plan considers this for connecting homes to retail via urban trails, there are no such connections proposed in the “Residential Core.”

    Google Maps recommends a 17 minute walk along a freeway to walk between these backyard neighbors.
  • Tying desired neighborhood amenities (sidewalks, parks) to opportunities for density. There are many ambitious, desirable aspects of the plan that are unfunded mandates. These unfunded plans include building out the sidewalk network, adding urban trails, developing more parkland, and creating the Shoal Creek trail. The plan acknowledges the challenges of getting funding to make these a reality. But other neighborhoods where these improvements have actually taken place (like Bizarro Austin) have done more than make a wishlist and hope. They created incentives for redevelopment to happen and required developers to fund improvements to the public sphere as part of that redevelopment.

In some ways, the North Shoal Creek draft plan lives up to its kinder, gentler billing. It recognizes the real problems the neighborhood has: from families being priced out to unwalkability impinging on quality of life. The plan promotes the two main fixes we’ve also seen coming out of the latest draft of CodeNEXT: accessory dwelling units and apartment homes on transit corridors. Let us acknowledge that many of Austin’s older neighborhood plans don’t go even this far. However, to truly confront the problems the plan identifies, broader changes are needed, including in areas where the minority of neighborhood residents live. By opening up to a bit more change, some of the truly visionary elements of the plan could be funded and constructed.

The one little rule that decides where Austin’s towers build parking

Not every tower in downtown Austin looks exactly the same, but there is one defining characteristic that describes almost all of them: parking. Most towers rest on top of what they call in the industry a parking plinth, the tower base where folks store their cars. (Plinth is a Swedish word meaning ugly thing.) Here’s a typical example, the Seaholm Tower in southwest downtown.

On the ground floor, there’s a restaurant. Above that, the area with small and sporadic windows is the parking garage. Above that, the area with balconies is where the condos live. Simple, effective, but not always super sightly, at least to my tastes. Why not build parking underground, freeing up aboveground levels for more homes? For one thing, building underground car parking is very expensive. The exact difference varies by site but I’ve seen estimates that moving a parking space underground can add $10K to the cost of the space — and the further you have to dig, the more expensive it gets. So perhaps underground parking is reserved for the most expensive buildings?

No, even in Austin’s newest luxury towers you see aboveground parking:

The Independent (aka the Jenga Tower) under construction. The open floors are parking, the one with windows above are where the residences start.
The Fifth and West Tower’s parking structure (behind the vet’s office) is much wider than the tower above it, which is constrained by capital view corridors.
The parking plinth at the Seven Apartments is again much wider than the building itself. The larger the footprint of the parking structure, the less expensive it is per space and the fewer stories a car needs to climb to reach its space. This reduces incentives to build a taller, thinner structure on the same footprint as the tower itself.

Parking underground is just too expensive for Austin, or so I thought, until Sid Kapur pointed out to me that there is somewhere in Austin building underground parking:

[tweet 938849429121060865]

Yes, of course, West Campus (aka Bizarro Austin) is building underground parking. See James Rambin’s writeup at sister site Austin Towers of projects like Skyloft and Aspen West Campus with four stories of underground parking. So why do developers building student housing decide to put parking underground? Are students more discerning aesthetic connoisseurs? Sorry, students, but I doubt it. I have an alternate theory.

There are many different ways that zoning codes can limit the amount of space that can be built. In downtown, the binding constraint preventing even larger buildings is something called Floor Area Ratio or FAR: roughly, the square footage of climate-controlled space in a building divided by its footprint. In West Campus, the binding constraint on the size of a building is regulations on maximum height. Crucially, parking counts toward a building’s height but doesn’t count toward its FAR. If a developer in West Campus moved their parking from below-ground to above-ground, they would have to remove apartments in order to fit it in, costing them a lot of money in lost rent. Developers downtown, though, don’t have a height limit so building a parking plinth costs less than putting parking underground, doesn’t use up the building’s FAR, and even makes the residential units more valuable by giving them better views.

If my theory is true, it makes some predictions: portions of northern downtown that are slated to be rezoned with height-constrained zoning categories (CC-40 and CC-60) will likely see underground parking, while the FAR-constrained central business district will continue to see parking plinths. Indeed, the condo building I live in downtown was built pre-CodeNEXT but it had height limits imposed as part of the rezoning process and consequently built most of its parking underground:

Welcome to Bizarro Austin

There’s a neighborhood in central Austin that everybody knows but only its true students really understand. It’s a place where the normal laws of neighborhoods (or zoning ordinances at least) don’t apply. A place where up is down, zig is zag, and 40-minutes cursing at bumper-to-bumper traffic on MoPac is 15 minutes humming with your headphones on the walk home. This magical place is Austin’s secret midrise neighborhood: West Campus, where development never stops. I’ve long been fascinated by this little neighborhood, precisely because it’s so different than the rest of Austin’s neighborhoods. In walking through it, I came to a realization: West Campus is Bizarro Austin. Every thing about Austin’s standard development model is turned on its head. Here are six ways:

1. In Standard Austin, prices go up. In Bizarro Austin, buildings go up.

Austin’s central core has seen an unrelenting tide of changes over the last couple decades. Central core neighborhoods have moved from eclectic refuges of Austin’s storied slacker past, where you could get by on a part-time job and a roommate who never does the dishes, to red-hot real estate extravaganzas, with first-day bids $20K over list price and rents only a landlord could love. For the lucky folks who owned houses before the boom hit, that can be a bonanza and a nest egg. But for renters and first-time buyers, this has caused a lot of consternation. 

In Bizarro Austin, instead of prices rising, buildings have:

With way more than double the number of apartments available in Bizarro Austin than there were just 15 years ago, more students can afford to rent in Bizarro Austin than ever before. While some of the new rentals have brought luxuries never seen before in Austin student living, older apartment complexes compete on price and some of the new ones have had to as well.

2. In Standard Austin, activists decry new buildings with studios and 1-bedrooms. In Bizarro Austin, 3, 4, and 5 bedroom units are commonplace.

You’ve heard the lament. “Yes, the developer is building new apartments, but they’re all studios! You can’t raise a family in those!” You must be living in Standard Austin. Because in Bizarro Austin, multi-bedroom units are not only present, they’re common. Of course, most are rented out by groups of students, not families. But if a large family were to want to rent a large new-construction apartment, they may find no place with more of them than Bizarro Austin.

A colorful complex of multi-bedroom apartments.

3. In Standard Austin, sidewalks are a hopeless tragedy. In Bizarro Austin, sidewalks are a point of pride.

Standard Austin is proud of a lot of things: our live music, our breakfast tacos, our history. But sidewalks aren’t one of them. We have a 99-year backlog of sidewalk projects to get built. Where they exist, they’re often crazy cracked and cramped. They end abruptly and restart on the other side of the street. I have literally had a police officer pick me up off the street because “this didn’t look like a safe place for you to walk” and drive me back to where there were sidewalks.  

In Bizarro Austin, sidewalks are wide, shady, filled with benches and fancy street lamps. They are well-used and safe. They are still a little patchy — fancy in some places and not in others. With each new building that gets built, the sidewalk in front of that building is upgraded to this pedestrian paradise. 

Sidewalks in West Campus have trees, fancy lighting, and well-used bike racks.

4. In Standard Austin, development is seen as a threat to trees. In Bizarro Austin, new development creates new trees. 

When a lot of central Austin neighborhoods were built out, they didn’t have many trees. In a land where temperatures are high and energy bills higher, this is less than ideal. Understandably, neighborhoods have come to cherish the shade-giving trees they do have and fight hard to keep them.  Bizarro Austin has found a different technique. With each new building that goes up, trees go up with it, lining the sidewalk with shade. Soon, Bizarro Austin may have the most tree-lined streets in all of Austin. 

Young trees growing up in Bizarro Austin

5. In Standard Austin, cars are needed for chores. In Bizarro Austin, stores come to you.

I’ve heard this question more than a few times: “Hey Dan, I’m moving to Austin. Do I need a car?” Well, I don’t have one, but unless you’re crazy, chances are you probably need one. Even I now live in a car-lite household, though I myself don’t drive. Life in Standard Austin without a car is possible but certainly difficult.

In Bizarro Austin, not only are the sidewalks pleasant and walkable, but every year, more and more stores are coming to the residents. It started with convenience stores, then neighborhood restaurants, then grocery stores, martial arts dojos, and dessert shops. The neighborhood is rapidly becoming a complete place — somewhere residents can find more and more of their needs a walk or bike ride away.

With enough residents in the area to support it, a Fresh Plus grocery store opened right in the middle of the neighborhood.

6. In Standard Austin, street parking divides visitors and guests. In Bizarro Austin, street parking pays dividends to residents.

“We’re not against this bar, we just want them to have enough parking so none of their customers park on our streets!” Street parking is a divisive issue in Standard Austin. Residential-only parking areas force customers of nearby shops to wander deep into side streets before they can park their car.

Bizarro Austin, situated as it is next to one of the biggest attractions in all of Austin (the University of Texas), is no stranger to parking by, well, strangers. However, in Bizarro Austin, street parkers aren’t just a nuisance, they’re a revenue stream. Bizarro Austin has a parking benefit district, which means that every time somebody pays the parking kiosk, a percentage of their money goes back to the neighborhood. This money has been used for improvements to sidewalks and lighting.

Many students have decided to forego cars and park their bicycles instead.

We could take some lessons from Bizarro Austin

One of the reasons few among us know about Bizarro Austin is that most post-college adults don’t want to live where convenience stores sell bundles of ping pong balls and Solo cups. Many folks probably lived in West Campus more than a couple years back when it was part of Standard Austin and don’t realize how otherworldly it has become. But there’s a lot to like about this place and a lot of lessons we could take for Standard Austin.

How my cat is like a construction technology evangelist

I have been writing this blog on and off for 5 years or so. Coincidentally, that’s about the same amount of time I have shared a home with my feline life partner, Mikey. He is now a mature, sophisticated cat.

Photo credit: Susan Kirtz

But he wasn’t always this way. He was once young and carefree, testing his limits at any chance.

He believed that any food in the apartment was, by rights, his.

When I prepared food on my kitchen counter, he would jump up on the counter to investigate. I would promptly pick him up and place him back down on the floor, then return to preparing my food for five seconds before repeating the process. Eventually, though, he got to contemplating:

He realized the problem: he was taking the wrong route! So he tried a new route to the counter:

Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work. He had misidentified the issue. The problem wasn’t that he had taken the wrong route to the food. The problem was that I didn’t want him to eat the food and I had more power than he did.

Mikey in jail.

If Mikey really wanted to get more food, he needed to find a way to either beat my defenses or appeal to my heart:

Who could say no to those eyes?

Why am I telling you this story? Is this just an excuse to show pictures of my cat? Well, yes, of course it is. But it’s also a metaphor.

If you pay attention to housing media for very long at all, you will be bombarded by news stories about how a new technology will save the world from high housing costs. Sometimes it’s a construction material, sometimes it’s a fabrication technique, sometimes it’s something totally different. As many point out, this thinking is both common and wrong:

The error is very similar to Mikey’s: failing to see the deeper, underlying issue that there are people who disagree with your goals and have the power to obstruct you. There are already construction technologies that could greatly reduce the costs of housing in cities with overheated housing markets if deployed at scale (e.g. townhouses, missing middle, or mid-rise construction techniques). These technologies are greatly restricted in their deployment not because of unresolved technological issues, but because of political disputes that have made their deployment illegal in most parts of most cities. New construction techniques will find new paths to inevitable obstruction.

This isn’t to say that pursuing improved construction technologies is useless. There are exciting construction technologies on the horizon, from higher quality modular structures manufactured in factories and pieced together on-site to cross-laminated timber offering the possibility of more environmentally-friendly, cheaper towers. I’m glad that smart people are trying to make these technologies work! But in many major cities, the cost of land alone in central locations is more than most people can afford before construction costs even play a role. The way to fix that is to change politics, not technology. When we talk about new technology as having the potential to drastically lower prices without recognizing that there needs to be the political will to make use of that technology, we’re deliberately closing our eyes from the real problems we face.

Photo credit: Susan Kirtz

Why do so many downtown buildings cut corners?

If you’ve walked around downtown Austin, something you’ve probably noticed is that a lot of buildings built recently and a lot of buildings under construction have cut corners. No, I don’t mean they’ve used shoddy construction. I mean that, literally, they’re shaped as a rectangle with a corner cut off. Sometimes there’s just no building there; sometimes there’s a much shorter part of the building with just the tower component missing. It’s so common that it’s almost becoming Austin’s signature building style. How come?

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Get Your Housing in a Row: Changes to make CodeNEXT Row House compatible

Fourth in a series by friend-of-the-blog Mateo Barnstone. This post focuses on the bad and ugly sides of CodeNEXT and how it could do better. For what’s good and why, see the previous post.

The Building Envelope

As they say, the devil is in the details – and oh boy are there a lot of details.   Each Transect contains 8 pages and 16 subsections of details.  There are 3 transects that are sliced into 13 sub-transects (not including the Open variations). Form is tightly constrained by belts and suspenders, and just to be sure, more belts.  Sometimes the variations between districts are great, other times oddly narrow.  For example, the building envelope for the Medium Rowhouse in the T4MS/O district is allowed to be 48’ deep but in the T5N.SS district the Medium Rowhomes is limited to 45’.  The same is true for the Large Rowhomes.  Why the need for this variation is unclear.  

Keep in mind that the transects only describe what is theoretically possible under ideal circumstances.  Geographic constraints, heritage trees, environmental features, open space, stormwater management requirements and other constraints will surely curtail the actual ability to build of units – predicting exactly how these competing regulations will impact the ability to deliver product will be very challenging.  

Part of the problem lies with the fact the form that is overly prescriptive.  A row house shouldn’t be particularly complicated to code for.  It’s four exterior walls, a roof, and adornments appropriate to the style.   A building envelope for a row house should be simple – pick the height and the front and rear set backs you want and allow for appropriate encroachments.  Instead, we get this:

Rather than describe a simple box, this code includes side wings and rear wings, one might suppose in an attempt to introduce McMansion style articulations, something that makes little sense in the context of a row home.  Inside lots lines should always be zero and it’s unclear who benefits from a rear articulation, outside lot lines would impact the continuous perimeter that is characteristic of row home lined streets and there’s no reason to care about a rear articulation 50’ deep into a lot.  It’s unnecessarily complicate and should not be carried forward in the next draft.   

Relation to the Street

More importantly, this distinction between alley and non-alley access reveals a secondary problem.  Row homes should not front streets when you can’t provide rear access or limit front access via a shared drive.  Narrow lots and front access driveways are a bad combination because they degrade the public realm.  Placing the garages up front on row homes means your sidewalk is a nearly continuous curb cut, it makes on street parking difficult, if not impossible, and creates an unpleasant face to the street dominated by garage doors.   

A continuous wall of parking garages is as unpleasant as it is dangerous and should not be permitted.

I suggest they simply not allow row homes except when rear access can be provided either by alley or through a shared drive to a rear shared drive that acts like an alley.   Absent an alley only one shared driveway per run of units should be allowed with access to a shared drive in the rear.  Streets fronted by Rowhomes on alleys would have no curb cuts and streets without alleys could have only 1 curb cut per 100’ of frontage.  

At the same time, they should eliminate the distinction the 100’/75’ distinction between being on an alley or not – a shared drive in the rear is essential a private alley – there’s no good reason to distinguish between shared drives and alleys.

Ideally, CodeNEXT should eliminate the depth dimension on the lot and simply let the minimum lot size control for density and form.  However, short of that, there’s no reason we should have a lot depth larger than the units being provided for at Mueller and suggest if a lot depth is required it should be at 75’ for all Rowhomes.  

Another form regulation is that the code mandates 14’ floor-to-ceiling heights on the ground floor and 9’ on the upper floors.  This is expensive to build and inefficient to heat and cool as well.  Why are they requiring this?

In all likelihood, it’s because the transects that these row homes are permitted, T4MS and the T5 transects, are mixed use and fairly intense districts.  The intent of the 14’ minimum height on ground floors is likely to allow for or preserve the possibility for commercial future uses.  

This does make sense in those transects, but also calls attention to the fact that this is not really meant to be an affordable single family attached housing product in either the Medium or Large flavors.  The Large and Medium Rowhomes, as proposed, may well produce engaging and active human scaled streets and potentially contributed to mixed districts – but they’re very unlikely to produce anything but very nice and very expensive homes.  

Parking Limitations

The draft makes progress with regards to parking by halving the number of spaces required by residential units.  This is an important advancement and should be defended against inevitable attacks.  That being said, with all the talk about the promise of autonomous cars and Austin’s embracing this as a driving force for the future, it’s curious that they didn’t take the bold step that Buffalo has just done by eliminating parking minimums – at least in the more intense transects that the Rowhomes are limited to.  

While the code makes theoretical 3 units + an ADU per building in runs of 3, 4 or up to 12, as practical matter, there’s only so much parking that fits on a narrow lot.  The typical Mueller rowhouses lots are 22.5’ wide and can just accommodate 2 cars parking side by side. 

Even if the market supports 1 parking space per unit, it would be impossible to provide 3 or 4 parking spaces on a narrow lot.  So while parking is a bright spot in the code, it still serves as an effective limitation on units.  Unless they allow a street space to count towards the parking minimums, at most, I would expect one or two units per building, not the 3-4 theoretically allowed.

Run of Homes

As we noted above, Rowhomes are required to be constructed in runs that are limited by both buildings and length (more belts, more suspenders).  However, in some cases, the run of buildings doesn’t seem responsive to Austin’s lots.  SF3 (the most widely zoned district) has 50’ lot width minimums and because much of early Austin was platted with 25’ x 125’ lots that were combined to 50’ lots we have many 50’ lots.

In terms of prescribing a run of buildings it makes sense to think of how many Row Homes could be built by someone who’s assembled two standard lots.  In Austin that would typically be a minimum of 100’ frontage which could accommodate as many as five 18’ row homes (if on an alley) or as few as three 28’ row homes.  

The T4MS zone prescribes a run of 3-4 buildings with a maximum combined width of 75’.  This seems like an arbitrary cap in terms of both buildings and width.  Having limits on scale and massing is fine but in determining what that limit should be it would also make sense to imagine what might be possible by someone who’s assembled two standard lots – about 100′ on which between 3 and 5 row homes could be comfortably built. 

A final note about the run of buildings.  Having a minimum and maximum makes sense to me in the neighborhood context.  If you allowed single row homes, you would get more organic development, but embedding that into fully built out neighborhoods is tricky and you’d get individual buildings with flat sides, no windows on a zero lot line and would stick out like a sore thumb.  Building them in runs of three or more makes contextual sense and I believe this will be more acceptable to residents in existing neighborhoods.

I’m not sure that holds in the T4MS transect which is really a neighborhood commercial street.  There, it would make sense to allow the more organic development and allow individual row houses to build to the lot lines and not prescribe runs.

Medium and Large Flavor Rowhomes are an exciting addition to the range of options we have in Austin.  With a few tweaks to the regulations and the right mapping this could result in transformative change for small sections of the city.  However, the draft code limits the use of Rowhomes to the most intense T4 subzone and T5 transect.  We don’t have a map yet, no one knows exactly what to expect, but if reports are to be believed, we’ll only see about 20% of the city mapped initially with the transects.  

We’ve also been told most neighborhoods will not change significantly. The fact is that all the transects where Rowhomes are allowed in the draft code would be very significant changes to Austin single family neighborhoods.  While we might get a smattering of them throughout the city, the chances of a wide-spread application in residential neighborhoods of these intense transects seems exceedingly remote given current messaging.  

The Rowhomes are entitled to have multiple units on them, and exist in transects with other buildings as intense or moreso.   As such we’re very unlikely to see any iterations as single family, attached, fee-simple home.  Certainly if we do get these, it would only be in the form of very expensive mansions.  

Still missing from the Missing Middle is a Small Flavor of Row Home: a 2 or 2 ½ story single family attached unit that a family can owned in fee-simple (i.e. not as part of a condo regime).  

The absence of this option is conspicuous.  It is one of the most common housing products in Mueller and it’s proven to be in high demand there and in the Crestview TOD.   Why is this true missing middle option for the middle classes off the table?  Why aren’t row houses permitted in the other transects with missing middle housing types such as cottage courts and multiplexes?

The likely reason is political opposition.  It was alluded in a recent presentation on the code that the intensity of use that Row Homes permit would mean widespread adoption and rapid transformation of established neighborhoods.  Perhaps a calculation was made that introducing row homes the mix would kill acceptance of those transects and preclude some of the other missing middle housing types from much of Austin.

Whatever the reason, this is something that needs to change in the next draft or we will not see fee-simple attached housing as a real option in this city.  In my list of suggested changes below I’ve included adding a small flavor rowhouse that can be built as single units + ADU in runs of 3 – 5.  There is no reason why this form of housing can’t co-exist in neighborhoods that also allow multi-plex homes (T4N.IS and T4N.SS) and even cottage court homes (T3N.DS and T3N.IS).  

While row homes will not solve all our affordability issues, the value of land and construction costs are such that it will be very difficult for any builder to deliver new housing that is deeply affordable, it can be attainable housing in a way that the single-family detached home has ceased to be.  Austin is a desirable city, blessed to be in a beautiful part of the country with a robust economy and a creative spirit that attracts many.  We’re going to a need a lot of housing options if we’re going to avoid the path of San Francisco – a very lovely place for the very wealthy.

I’m glad to see Rowhomes featured as part of this mix because they potentially combine affordability that people need with the privacy and control of their homestead that people crave.  This draft code doesn’t quite get us there and as provided for we’re unlikely to see these make a significant dent into the overall housing market.  However, this is just a draft and the things that make it difficult are quite fixable.  If row homes are something the community desires as a widely available as an option and lets the consultant and staff know, the code can be revised to make them a reasonable option.


The Good:  The form, scale and massing of the Medium and Large flavor Rowhomes, the theoretical ability to do house up to 4 families on a narrow lot, and flexibility of use is an exciting addition to the landscape of available options.

The Bad:  The building envelope is overly prescriptive and should be relaxed.  14’ ground floors will ensure this is an expensive housing type.  Minimum parking requirements remains a real limitation on theoretical units in a building.

The Ugly:  Where these can be built is at once too liberal and too restrictive.  Front access does not work for narrow lot homes and should be prohibited except where a shared drive can provide rear access.  However, because the transects are limited to the most intensive residential districts, we’re unlikely to see much of these in the city.  There must be a Small flavor added in other T4 and T3 districts to achieve the promise of this missing middle housing type.

The Comments Section  

Staff and consultant are asking the public to comment directly onto an on-line version of the draft code.  If you want to provide feedback to the consultant about things they are doing right and things that need attention, it’s highly recommended that you do so.  You can register to make comments (and see everyone else’s) directly into the code by going here and registering at the Add Comment box.   

Below are a few of the comments and suggestions that I will be making.

Comment Page
Add a Small Rowhouse flavor for the T4N.IS and T4N.SS as well as T3N.DS and T3N.IS transects.

  1. 2 – 2.5 stories
  2. 9’ floor plate
  3. Minimum width of 18’ (interior) to 25’ (side)
  4. Maximum width of 25’  
  5. 1 unit per building
  6. Runs of 3 – 5 buildings up to 100’ for the Small Flavor row homes
23-4D-2100 / pg 32

23-4D-2110 / pg 40

23-4D-2120 / pg 48

23-4D-2130 / pg 56

Permit a Small Rowhouse flavor in T4MS in addition to Medium flavor  23-4D-2140 / pg 64
Allow a 5 story option of the Large Rowhouse on the T5U and T5MS.    23-4D-2140 / pg 64
Allow for a cottage court row home variety for large/deep lots.    23-45-2060 / pg 13
Map row home zones into urban neighborhoods and transitional neighborhoods planned for more walkability where you want transit supportive density in a residential context. Limit to lots with rear access (via alley or shared front or side drive).  Permit up to one curb cut per 100′ frontage of row house units.    
Relax the Building Envelope
Eliminate Depth Requirement – setbacks and lot width are sufficient to control form.  If must limit density, do so with lot size.  If depth measurement required, select the 75’ on all units on alleys or with rear shared drive. Subsections  C in sections:

23-4D-2140 / pg 63

23-4D-2150 / pg 71

23-4D-2160 / pg 79

23-4D-2170 / pg 87

Eliminate accessory building setbacks.  
Eliminate side building and rear wing articulations.

  1. Allow the Medium Rowhomes an additional 14’ depth on the main building.
  2. Allow the Large Rowhomes an additional 14’ of depth and 4’ of width on main building.
23-4D-2140 / pg 64

23-4D-2150 / pg 72

23-4D-2160 / pg 80

23-4D-2170 / pg 88

Credit 1 on-street parking space per building towards parking minimums. 23-4D-2140 / pg 67

23-4D-2150 / pg 75

23-4D-2160 / pg 83

23-4D-2170 / pg 91

Consider eliminating all parking minimums on the Main Street transects.  23-4D-2140 / pg 67
Building Runs
Eliminate Length of Runs – just limit the units in a row to control massing.    

  1. Medium and Small flavors:  eliminate  minimum length of run – cap with a maximum of 5 units (about what could be fit on 2 standard lots in Austin).
  2. Larger flavor –  limit to a run 4 – 10 buildings, no minimum length of run (about what could fit on 2 – 4 standard lots).  
23-4D-2140 / pg 64

23-4D-2150 / pg 72

23-4D-2160 / pg 80

23-4D-2170 / pg 88

Get Your Housing in a Row: How Row Houses Could Mean CodeNEXT Success

The third in an ongoing series by friend-of-the-blog Mateo Barnstone.

In 2015 I wrote a couple of posts [here] and [here] arguing the row house is an underused and unappreciated housing type in Austin that should be made possible through CodeNEXT.

In the first post I posit that by eliminating side setbacks and allowing for narrow lots, the row house provides a more affordable housing type that also benefits builders and the city through more efficient use of land.

“In the row house scenario – everyone wins. There are more units available and thus more people can live closer to their desired locations. Living closer means fewer and shorter trips, less traffic, and less congestion for everyone. The cost per unit is lower. The taxes per unit are lower, but the taxes collected by the City are higher. The City’s costs are arguably lower as well by not having to maintain roads and utilities and provide services over longer distances. The builder’s profit is higher which incentivizes more builders to build more lower cost units like this. We’ve added to everyone’s bottom line and made the city more resilient in the process. And the only thing we had to sacrifice was a bit of mostly useless side yards.”

In the second post I looked at where we get row homes in Austin (namely small area planned districts like PUDs and TODs) and how the zoning code otherwise prohibits the fee simple row house.

“The promise of CodeNEXT is that a range of housing types can be allowed throughout the city.  Currently, we mostly allow for single family detached homes and duplexes on the one end, and high density large scale apartment and condo buildings on the other.  The stuff in the middle (including row homes, multi-plexes, cottage courts, stacked flats, small scale apartment buildings, etc.) is mostly missing.”

The draft code has finally been released.   Through sheer coincidence, the row house units that I live in ended up in all the CodeNEXT marketing materials.  So it seems like a fair question to ask – does the draft code make row house units, like mine featured in their materials, possible in Austin’s residential neighborhoods?

CodeNEXT features small scale single family attached homes like the author’s. Does it deliver them?

The short answer is – not really.  A longer answer is very much a tale of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.




Though in some ways the draft code falls short of the promise of the fee-simple single family attached home that I have advocated before (more on that below), in others ways it is more exciting.

Form, Massing, and Scale  (jargon alert)

CodeNEXT allows for two flavors of row homes: Medium and Large.  The Medium flavor appears in a sub-zone of T4 Main Street (T4MS) and T5N.SS.  The Large flavor appears in T5U.SS and T5U.

Building a City – Five Easy Stories

Lost in the focus on building typology, the need to match community character, and writing a code seemingly intended to offend the fewest number of people necessary to ensure its passage is that this is about designing the future of our city. The character and built form a city takes is derived from its building blocks.

The basic building block of the pre-war cities were not palaces, castles, chateaux or soaring cathedrals. Nor was it the grand parliament buildings, townhalls, or ancient amphitheaters. It wasn’t the fortified walls, magnificent city gardens, piazzas, plazas and squares graced by fountains and statues, or the aqueducts that brought them water.

Rather, the basic building block of some of the best cities that were ever built is a fairly narrow mid-rise building that stands shoulder-to-shoulder, lining streets and squares creating a continuous perimeter that frames and defines space giving order to the civic realm.

Though each individual block is a simple modest building, by lining these up together and repeating for block after block whole cities were built.  And when they assembled enough of these together – they made cities.

“Just as cells go to make up an organism, so middle class town houses are the sine qua non of the European city.  On their own, town houses are unassuming, but as a group they dominate the urban scene.”

Buildings of this form, scale and massing go back nearly a 1000 years and for at least seven centuries they dominated the fabric of the urban cores of cities. As a building type, it’s a chameleon – versatile enough to build both the mansions of the Upper East side and the tenements of the Lower East side. You can see this building form in different iterations in capitals, towns and burgs in cities the world over.  It has proved to be adaptable over time and suitable for a wide variety of neighborhoods and which survived great social, cultural, and economic upheavals which impacted urban design tremendously.  Once grand homes of the bourgeois of Europe were broken into apartments and tenements, only later to be reconverted into flats with ground floor retail.

Creating great places doesn’t require doing big things.  It means doing a lot of modest things well, again and again, over a long period of time.  A simple human scaled mid-rise building, repeated enough times creates the great streets that make the bones of great cities. This building typology, by its nature, creates compact and complete communities and happens to be dense enough to support high frequency transit and neighborhood retail options.

By contrast, the dominant typology for most of the last 60 years is Austin is the low slung, deep setback, large lot detached home.  This, combined with poorly connected street grids, results in a sprawling development pattern resulting in auto-dependency, and segregated incomplete communities.

Much effort has gone into CodeNEXT to preserve that which makes Austin special – and mostly, there’s agree with that sentiment.  But it’s worth asking whether our sprawling land development pattern something we want to preserve? Is that working for us? If we really want to change the form our city takes, we have to start with the right building blocks.

Both the Medium and Large Rowhomes can exist on lots as narrow as 18’ or with buildings as wide as 28’ and as deep as 48’ (with possibility of including side or rear wings).  The Medium Rowhouse in the T4MS zone is limited to 3 stories and 55’ in height but allowed up to 4 stories and 65’ height in the T5N.SS.  The Large Rowhomes are allowed up to 4 stories and 60’ of height in T5U.SS and T5U zones.  The major difference between the Medium and the Large flavors is the how many attached buildings are allowed in a run with the Medium flavor allowed in runs of 3 – 4 buildings or 3 – 5 buildings and the Large flavor allow runs of 4 – 12 buildings.  Both the Medium and Large flavors allow for up to 3 units per building plus an ADU.

OK, that’s a lot of technical speak (and we’re just scratching the surface).  What does this describe?

These are narrow mid-rise buildings that when standing next to each other, shoulder-to-shoulder, line the street creating a perimeter defining and giving order to public space, and which also have the flexibility to house anywhere between one and four families.  The draft code allows the flexibility to vary use over time or even mix use within a building.

The stuff dreams are made of.

Multi-unit mixed use rowhouse was not something I was anticipating out of CodeNEXT and the prospect is exciting.  Buildings like this have a form and scale when built en masse has the ability to produce human scaled streets and provide sufficient density to support transit and commercial activity.   Because they only rise a few stories plenty of light reaches the street which can be residential, commercial or mixed in character.

I call this the sweet spot of (or Goldilocks) density and we would be wise to embrace it.  Austin is a sprawling 1 – 2 story town and that needs to be fixed.  But we don’t have to Manhattanize to do so.  There is a more affordable, more sustainable, more transit supportive mid-point, between sprawling and high-rise:  the mid-rise city.

Streets, lined with such buildings, create human scaled spaces and places.

Up to now, the mid-rise buildings outside the CBD and UNO have pretty much been limited to the ubiquitous liner building apartment wrapping a parking structure (the Texas Donut).  The Medium and Large Rowhomes provide an option to create mid-rise places with a level of fine-grain urbanism that can never be achieved by the Texas Donut.

The Texas Donut’s large scale and massing makes fine grain neighborhoods difficult to achieve.
Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 2.30.08 AM
Compare to the row homes of Amsterdam.
Transit supportive in Dublin.
Graceful NY walk ups.
Row Homes provide enough density to support transit and commercial activity while still producing family friendly residential neighborhoods.

Use and Proximity

If there’s a silver bullet in the way we regulate land use that can solve our problems of sprawl, congestion, equity, sustainability, and resiliency it’s in the ability to provide more proximity between people and their desired destinations (whether for work, recreation, entertainment, worship, or civic reason).  The relaxation of the regulations that separate uses is a great benefit of form-based codes.

The Medium and Large flavored Row Homes have the potential to enhance proximity in two ways.  First, anytime you put more units onto the same amount of land you gain the ability to have more people near desired destinations.  Secondly, they allow mixing use within the same structure or along the same block.  As of yet, in Austin, this is only really achievable through the large block VMU forms.

It’s very exciting to see the multi-unit row home in the Large and Medium flavors make it into this first draft of the code.  But alas, this won’t be a solution for the family looking for an affordable fee-simple option.

Next: Check out my critiques and recommendations for CodeNEXT.

Time for Some Game Theory: Five ways building market-rate housing helps affordability

How do we handle the growing unaffordability crises in many cities? Most people agree that building more subsidized Affordable Housing can help by providing an opportunity for people who struggle to pay market rates with more options. But that’s not the only type of new housing that can help. Here are five ways that building more housing–even if it’s not subsidized or rent-limited–can help affordability.

1) Fewer folks competing for existing affordable housing

In growing cities, standing still in housing stock means going backward on affordability. As new residents look for housing, they’re looking at the same houses and apartments as everybody else. If folks with money can’t find something in their price range, they often still pay more–but for housing that used to be affordable. Providing them with something new can mean fewer move into existing affordable housing and drive up rents.

2) Residents of New housing pay taxes

Most below-market-rate housing gets government subsidies in one form or another: tax credits, fee waivers, grants, loan guarantees, etc. The ability to provide these subsidies depends on having a large enough tax base to generate funds without making taxes too high. Market-rate housing builds up this tax base. Of course, the new residents will also require other government services that require taxes. In the long-term, infill housing–where new residents make use of existing streets, buses, pipes, schools, etc–can be more affordable for cities than adding miles of pipes, wires, and road networks to maintain.

3) Today’s luxury housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing

Many of the new, fancy buildings of today will eventually become the ordinary, affordable buildings of tomorrow. Some people like paying the extra dollar for brand new appliances, cabinets, floors, etc. Others would rather save some money and move into a place with a little less shine and a little more character. But the existence of twenty-year-old housing twenty years from now depends on us building new housing today!

4) Transportation

Where new housing is built in central cities, it opens up possibilities for more people to live without the expenses of car ownership. This means that, even if rent is higher, your overall place-based costs (rent, utilities, transportation) may be lower. Down the line, when rents for the building are no longer the top of the housing market, this effect can be even greater.

5) Political pressure on Affordable Housing

In growing cities that don’t build much new housing (like San Francisco or many other cities in California), prices skyrocket until a larger and larger percentage of the population struggles to pay rent. Politically, the pressure for politicians to allow middle class people to take advantage of programs originally intended only for poorer people becomes immense. The result is that, for people who struggle the most with housing costs, they have even less of a chance of getting government aid. Building enough housing to keep market costs down reduces the pressure to spread out housing supports away from the population they help most into the broader population.

Why so many folks are drawn to the urban form

There’s a budding YIMBY movement across the country and across the world. Folks who enjoy cities and say “yes” to development near them. The reaction to this movement from anti-development advocates has frequently been to assume that the folks who want development are somehow a “front group” for developers. Perhaps some folks simply can’t understand why it is people would want development. So here’s five reasons people get drawn to varieties of different (and denser) housing forms, to an intermingling of commercial and residential uses,  to connected street grids. In short, this is why people say yes to urban forms and yes to development in their back yard!

1. Urban forms fight global warming

Everybody knows about substituting solar electricity for coal power, Priuses for pickups, and getting better insulation for your house. Moving from suburban to urban forms, though, can bring about changes that aren’t merely substitutional but transformational. Trading a large house for a smaller townhouse or apartment–even one that hasn’t been specially designed for environmentalism–means using less energy to cool and heat, both because less air needed to be heated and cooled but also because shared walls benefit from their neighbors’ climate control. More people living and working in close proximity to each other means shorter trips. This saves on gas in the car, but more importantly, makes it easier to take some or all trips using less polluting travel modes like walking, bicycling, or taking the bus.

2. Urban forms prevent habitat loss

People can live without green space, but most people don’t want to! Suburban forms answer this need by dedicating more green space to each house. Larger houses on larger lots with larger gaps between the houses provides room for everybody to have their own lawn or garden. You could think of it as borrowing a bit of nature from the countryside to live with you. And if this is what you want or need to be happy, I say more power to you; find that house! But if all of us have a nice big lawn, then as the population grows, we’ll need to pull ever more land out of its natural state to accommodate our houses and offices with their own lawns. Urban living offers the possibility of something different. Apartment dwellers sharing a courtyard or neighborhood park; small lot homeowners foregoing the large lawn; coop dwellers sharing a single big house. All of these folks take a little bit less of the rural into the city with them and leave it there for the critters!.

3. Urban forms give people access to more things to do

I grew up in a suburban environment: large house on a large lot, lots of green space, and strict separation of residential from commercial uses. It was a nice place to be and a nice place to walk but it was very hard for me to find things I needed! Within walking distance, I had zero jobs, one restaurant, and zero grocery stores. When I moved to a more urban form, my world came alive: libraries, universities, jobs, food and culture from all around the world became open to me.

4. Urban forms allow more affordable access

Whether you’re talking houses, townhouses, condos, apartments, or any other form of housing, there are some things that set expensive construction apart from less expensive construction: granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, high-design finishes. In a place with more land than people, this is what sets apart a fancy house from a cheap one. But when you get into the city, the biggest factor in the price of most homes isn’t the construction, but the access. Is this my dream neighborhood? Is it close to schools, jobs, parks, play structures, music, food? In Austin, an empty lot in a great location can sell for twice as much as a fully built house in the suburbs! An empty block downtown can be 100s of times more valuable. Most mere mortals can’t afford to buy a full parcel downtown by themselves, but when folks pool their wealth together and build vertically, the price of that access can be split across hundreds of people, bringing it down to affordable levels.

5. Urban forms Allow variety

If you want excellent food from one culture, you go to the source, where that culture developed. If you want excellent food from many cultures, you go to a city. Cities are places where people of different backgrounds, jobs, and social statuses interact every day. There’s rightfully a lot of soul-searching on ways in which cities fail at this, from exclusive enclaves priced too high for much variety to two-tier public transportation systems. But cities face these questions because we know and expect that a city is a place for people of all stripes to come together and learn from one another.

Austin’s Killer App: How Austin Tech Can Compete with Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is the most important center of US technology development. Its cluster of tech workers, financiers, and services are light years ahead. There was no special natural resource that made Silicon Valley the only place for a tech boom, but once it got started, Silicon Valley built a strong First Mover Advantage–any place that wants to compete has to not only duplicate Silicon Valley’s ecosystem, but it has to do it in a world where Silicon Valley is already here. Silicon Valley also has strong network effects–each new techie that moves to Silicon Valley makes it an even more attractive place to build a company, which makes it a more attractive place for techies to move, which…

But in tech, there’s sometimes a Second Mover advantage. New companies can learn to navigate around the market leaders’ failures and steer straight for the successes. Big companies can get sclerotic and bureaucratic, unable to appreciate the problems they have or unable to fix them even if they know. Success breeds complacency–famously, Microsoft struggled after its employees became millionaires by virtue of owning stock options at the right place and the right time. Company culture becomes backward looking, focused on preserving the successes of today, rather than building toward tomorrow.

Silicon Valley’s Achilles Heel is Terrible public policy

To many residents of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, the dangers of being First Mover are very familiar–not from their workplaces, but their local politics.

  • The bureaucratic ordeal in getting a new software development project started at a large company is legendary, but pales in comparison to getting a land development project off the ground in Silicon Valley.
  • Silicon Valley and San Francisco have their own versions of Microsoft Millionaires: Housing Millionaires. Folks who had the good fortune to own a house in San Francisco years ago and became lucky as their asset skyrocketed in value. Many of these folks have, understandably, become less concerned with making San Francisco a place where a new generation can make their fortune and more interested in protecting what they have.
  • Despite (or perhaps because of) its reputation for innovation, San Francisco’s local politics is dominated more by discussions of the past than the future. Like a company that refuses to release new products out of fear of harming their current cash cow, the city has become extraordinarily conservative in its approach to new development. New developments must first prove that they will harm no existing residents in any way, rather than merely proving they will provide a benefit to new residents.

The results are catastrophic: San Francisco and Silicon Valley are failing at one of the core competencies of any city: providing housing. Tech workers spend enormous fractions of their income to live in poorly maintained homes in the Mission, while those outside tech frequently live far outside the city and commute long distances on congested roads. New housing for tech workers is protested as are buses to transport workers from homes in San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley. The city and the region understand that they are in an intractable mess of antagonistic politics, but still cannot do anything to extricate itself. San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are ripe for disruption.

Housing could be Austin’s Killer App

Building the best product isn’t enough to compete with a network effect. If it were, a few more of us might be using Google Plus or Google Wave today. The new product or platform has to be close to comparable in the current feature set and, crucially, it has to have a Killer App that makes people not just like it, but want it and need it. For Austin and our platform of functional public policy, the Killer App can be walkable, bikable, transit-accessible, relatively affordable housing.

While the construction technology for building housing at low-cost is not something new, the political technology of a functioning municipal governance platform that facilitates its creation through times of poverty and times of prosperity is something that the United States as a whole lacks. In addition, improving on current governance and providing housing to meet demand would be a difficult act to match. There are few cities outside Silicon Valley that have the right ingredients of a startup economy as well established as Austin does. All of them have had housing cost problems for far longer than Austin has had, yet none of them have adequately addressed the issue.

Tech needs long-term, Quality Public Policy Engagement

How can the technology community in Austin help with local governance? For starters, the community needs to engage with public policy at a much deeper level than it has to date. Politics is not a company to buy or a video game to win. Sometimes throwing money into politics without understanding things hurts your position more than helps. The companies and communities that have a lasting impact on politics don’t just show up when there’s an issue that directly affects them. They develop deep relationships so that when issues affect them, they understand how their proposals will affect others in the community and vice versa.

Technology companies need a supportive environment around them to succeed–angel and venture for funding, consultants to help navigate situations other companies have seen before, IP lawyers, board members, complementary companies. A good company takes advantage of all the resources they have available to them. The same is true of a smart participant in public policy. The most effective ones don’t go it alone; they have an ecosystem of allies and advocates, consultants and collaborators whose advice they listen to and cherish.

This is important for anybody who wants to participate in politics, but it’s especially important for tech. Tech, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, does not share a background with everybody in the community. The common experiences that bring tech people together can divide us from everybody else. A company that lets its programmers do design will end up with an interface designed for programmers but clunky for everybody else. When the tech community designs its own political messaging, we end up with arguments, imagery, and optics that look good in the board room and clunky–or even offensive–to everybody else.

Learn to Listen and Not Just Lecture

When Uber and Lyft decided on putting their case to the Austin voters, they did not lack for a voice. They brought more money to the campaign than the city has ever seen spent in a race. In a campaign that will be studied for years, voters received dozens of pieces of direct mail, text messages, app alerts, and in-person messaging. Uber and Lyft did not have trouble getting heard. Indeed, many people reported having heard so much from Uber and Lyft that it got in the way of their ordinary life, soured them on Uber and Lyft’s message, and fed into the narrative Uber’s opponents campaigned on (Uber as corporate bully).

While Uber’s money succeeded perhaps too well at getting its voice heard, Uber failed at some of the basics of campaigning. Despite a large number of people and organizations that supported their cause in general, they failed to build a coalition working for them. Many of their allies dropped out of official events and organizations while others failed to rally an effort. For those familiar with the campaign, this wasn’t a surprise; Uber as a company didn’t come to this campaign with any willingness to listen to allies and understand what they wanted and needed out of a campaign.

For those who have been involved in tech, the listening deficit shouldn’t be surprising. The mythos of technology startups says that visionary founders and young startups are a special breed of people able to see what the broader society cannot. But building effective political coalitions is very different from building technology startups. If the technology community wants to participate effectively in local politics, it must bring the skills appropriate to the problem.

Not Every Problem can be solved by tech

Technology can be applied to any problem. Sometimes in the technology world, this gets combined with a frustration about the difficulty of involvement in public policy, and comes out as “every problem can be solved by technology.”

There are numerous housing technologies today being developed to improve construction techniques, from cross-laminated timber to prefabricated apartment blocks. But the technologies to resolve San Francisco’s housing crisis were developed in the early 20th century and before. The reasons that San Francisco and the Bay Area lack the housing supply to accommodate the people who want to work there is definitely not because the area lacks the technical know-how to construct housing. Developing new technologies can reduce costs, but it cannot create new housing when the purpose of the regulations that prevent new housing is precisely to prevent housing. There is no technology short-circuit to public policy engagement.

How to get involved

Where to? The biggest effort to reform Austin’s public policy right now is CodeNEXT, a rewrite of the extensive set of rules governing everything from the height of buildings to which streets can be used for offices and which streets for homes–a reform with the potential to shape Austin’s competitiveness for decades to come.

The author has worked in technology for 15 years and engaged with Austin politics for a few.