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:

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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.

Seven Suggestions for CodeNEXT’s Uptown Regulations

The city of Austin is rewriting its zoning code. Staff has prepared a draft with two different groups of zones running in parallel: traditional zones and a new form-based code with tighter rules about what buildings can look like. Each set has zones of different density / intensity of land uses; both include high-intensity downtown-like zones. Staff have indicated that more traditional zones will be used in downtown Austin while the form-based high-activity zones could be used in Austin’s uptowns, like the Domain.

Some friends of mine and I sat down at a party organized by AURA and read through the form-based downtown codes, known as T6. I love how the code description puts a real emphasis on walkability, so I’m going to share some suggestions to make this dream a reality. Many thanks to Tyler Stowell, Seth Goodman, and Mateo Barnstone for most of the ideas below.

  1. This downtown high-rise tower under construction has a comfortable width of about 69′.

    Eliminate or reduce minimum lot widths

Minimum lot widths are a rule sometimes used to limit density; they make little sense downtown. Practical construction considerations mean that many downtown towers will be wide. But tall, narrow buildings do get built; there’s one under construction right now on Congress Avenue that would be 30% narrower than allowed in the draft T6 rules. Narrower buildings can increase walkability by providing more storefronts per city block, increasing the number of walkable destinations.

Suggestion: Eliminate minimum widths as principle and send the message that narrow buildings are preferred. If minimums are kept, dramatically reduce them to where they are no longer a bottleneck. For example, 15’ for a main street building, 30’ for a midrise, and 50’ for a high-rise.

  1. Allow smaller building types
Incremental density in downtown Austin: a one-story building popped up into two stories.

Downtowns and uptowns are great places for tall buildings! But smaller, narrower buildings can complement these tall buildings well, filling gaps between towers or making use of small or oddly-shaped lots. Allowing small building types also allows districts to grow up incrementally without requiring rezoning.

Suggestion Allow Main St, Low Rise, and Rowhouse buildings in T6U and T6C.

  1. Raise or eliminate stepback floors
The North Shore apartment complex with stepbacks on one side from the Waterfront overlay district.

Stepbacks are requirements that buildings must be set back from the street that only kick in above a certain height. Buildings under these rules get narrower as they get higher in a characteristic “wedding cake” style. Stepbacks have pros and cons — without them, you can end up with a sheer wall along the street; with them, you can lose valuable sidewalk shade. But  the particular numbers in the draft T6 section (stepbacks at the 5th and 8th floors) are both too low and too small between floors. Stepback sections of buildings that are only three stories will be awkward to design and unpleasant to look at. Stepback stories starting at the fifth floor compromise the ability to deliver the large floorplates some offices need.

Suggestion: Reduce to a single stepback, starting at the 9th story. Consider raising that height on wider streets.

  1. Allow floorplates to grow or shrink as buildings rise

There is a requirement in the draft code that a building floorplate can not be larger than the floor beneath it. Most buildings already meet this requirement. When buildings don’t, it’s for a good reason: overhangs to provide shade, open-air amenity decks, unique aesthetic designs, corners cut out to create visual interest, etc. This is not addressing a problem, but does cause new problems. Eliminating this requirement will allow for more interesting and creative building designs while simplifying the building code.

Suggestion: Eliminate this rule.

  1. Remove the private open space requirements
Totally inadequate open space that satisfies a tiny fraction of the private open space requirements in my  building.

Private open space is the sine qua non of downtown luxury condos: swimming pools, rooftop decks, amenity levels, meeting space, etc. But not all housing need be luxury housing! I am moving into a downtown condo that nobody but the most snooty Austinites would call inadequate yet it will have only a tiny fraction of the required private open space. In walkable districts, residents have easy access to public open space. Removing this requirement will help improve affordability, walkability, and code simplicity.

Suggestion: Remove private open space requirements.

  1. Recalibrate parking setbacks

Walking right next to parking garages can be unpleasant, between noise, light, and air pollution. So let’s get those parking far from the street, right? Not always! If there isn’t enough space left to allow parkers to pull into spaces right or left, the parking garage may end up taking double as many floors! Alternatively, this encourages property owners to assemble multiple parcels together into large single sites, so the ratio of setback area to total area is reduced. The space around the parking garages isn’t necessarily particularly useful—office buildings work best with large open spaces, and parking garages wrapped by other uses need expensive mechanical ventilation. I’m the last person to encourage buildings build lots of parking. But if buildings do build parking (and downtown’s experience is that yes, most will), they should build them simply and efficiently, without ruining the rest of the building by encouraging overly large buildings or tall garages.

Suggestion: Replace garage setbacks with screening requirements from UNO. If garage setbacks are maintained, reduced them 10’ on upper floors, not 40′, to allow smaller buildings.

  1. Main Street building type
This building reads as a building that intends to be read as multiple buildings.

In the Main Street building type, there is a requirement that buildings wider than 150’ should be made to appear like multiple buildings, each no wider than 100’. One of the reasons this requirement is great is it underscores how important narrow buildings are and why it’s so important to make sure the are allowed everywhere. But the section is so ambiguous that, as written, it would guarantee years and years of contentious zoning board and City Council hearings over whether individual buildings comply.

Suggestion: Spell out how buildings can comply in a way that is clear enough that everybody or almost everybody can agree whether a particular building is in compliance.


Many of these ideas seem more like tweaks than overhauls. But when prescribing detailed rules, each and every rule must be closely calibrated or else any particular rule can create a cascading effect of complex consequences. Because of these complex consequences, I was very relieved when I heard staff was more interested in using the traditional code downtown. But these tweaks should help improve the T6 code as well.

Nine barriers to building housing in Austin’s central city

The Austin area has, for the 5th year running, been in the top two major cities in population growth. Yet, even though everybody knows about the new apartments sprouting up on transportation corridors like South Lamar and Burnet, much of the population growth has been in our suburbs and the more suburban areas of the city. Our city is growing out more than it’s growing in or up.

How come? The desire for living in central Austin has never been higher. But Austin, like most cities, has rules that prevent new housing from getting built in the central city. That makes it easier to buy up virgin land in the suburbs and build new housing out there. It’s worth understanding what some of those rules are.

1 Minimum Lot size

Historically, expensive houses were built on expensive, large lots; cheaper homes were built on smaller, cheaper lots. Austin decided that new houses can’t be built on small lots. Even if you want to build a small, cheap house, you still need a lot with at least 5,750 square feet. In central Austin, that costs a lot of money, even without the house!

In 1999, Houston reformed its minimum lot size laws. Since then, environmentally-friendly central-city urban townhomes have flourished.
In 1999, Houston reformed its minimum lot size laws. Since then, environmentally-friendly central-city urban townhomes have flourished.

If somebody owns a 10,000 square foot lot, they aren’t allowed to split it into two 5,000 square foot lots and build two medium-sized houses, let alone three 3,333 square foot lots with three small houses, let alone three 3,333 square foot lots with triplexes!

2 Minimum site area

For areas that are zoned for apartments and condos, there is a cap on the ratio of number of apartments to lot size known as “minimum site area.”

3 Impervious cover maximums

Impervious cover is any surface that prevents water from seeping into the ground, including buildings, driveways, and garages. There is a cap on the ratio of impervious cover to lot size.

4 Floor-to-Area ratio Maximums

FAR explainerFloor-to-area ratios (aka FAR) maximums are a cap on the ratio of livable space to lot size.

5 Height Limits

Outside the central business district downtown, there are limits on the height of buildings. These limits vary based on zoning category, but except in a few special districts do not exceed 60′. Most residential lots in the city have height limits of 35′.

6 Minimum Parking

Perhaps Austin's most essential and defining architectural genre is the hulking car storage facility. This example is in West Campus, where most students can walk to class.
Perhaps Austin’s most essential and defining architectural genre is the hulking car storage facility.

Outside downtown, all housing must build parking—whether surface parking, carports, and garages. These parking spaces cost money and count toward impervious cover limits. If they are enclosed, they count toward floor-to-area ratio limits.

7 Setbacks

In the central city, setbacks are actually more complicated than stated here, as a building can't reach it's full height even outside setbacks.
In the central city, setbacks actually extend vertically, forming an envelope in which a house must not be built.

Front, side, and rear setbacks are strips of land on the front, side, and rear of a lot where buildings aren’t allowed to be built. Most importantly, side setbacks prevent the construction of rowhouses: single-family houses that share side walls.

8 Compatibility restrictions

Diagram for height limits for buildings near single-family homes.
Diagram for height limits for buildings near single-family homes.

Single-family zoning and multi-family zoning are different zoning categories with different limits on the variables above. However, if a multi-family zoned property is located next to a single-family house, additional rules limit these variables in the part of the lot close to the house. Multi-family buildings near single family homes in particular are subject to stringent height limits and setbacks that the single-family homes do not themselves have to observe. There are very few properties in central Austin that aren’t next to single-family homes.

9 Site plans

Whether building single-family houses or apartments, one must comply with all the technical rules of development. For apartments, there’s an additional layer of requirements, such as the creation of site plans with detailed engineering drawings subject to detailed staff review demonstrating that your plan complies with the rules. Single-family houses aren’t required to prepare site plans.

Getting site plan approval can add a huge expense to apartment development, and that expense would not be able to be borne by smaller, 3-4-unit apartment buildings. I say would notbecause Austin has almost completely regulated 3-4 unit buildings out of existence. In 2015, there were only 76 permits for new 3-4 unit buildings,  compared to 11574 new single-family homes.

So what?

In many ways, Austin is headed in the wrong direction. The city is getting more expensive, more sprawled-out, and less environmentally sustainable. This is the result of the difficulty of building central-city housing. The more the city’s population grows, the harder it is for people to find affordable homes with convenient, environmentally-friendly commutes. Many people are finding themselves not drawn to the suburbs, but pushed to the suburbs—car-dependent and stuck in traffic by economic necessity.

Each of our rules were put into place for a reason. Limits on impervious cover regulate stormwater drainage to prevent flooding. Front setbacks can make sidewalks feel wider. Minimum parking rules discourage residents from competing for on-street parking. But when the whole package is put together, the result is that it’s extremely difficult to do the one thing we absolutely have to do for environmental sustainability: build housing with short commutes. Instead of getting the sum of the benefits of these rules, we are getting the sum of the costs, to a bill of environmental destruction, economic hardship, and architectural conformity. And that’s just in the short-term! Long-term, the results could be far worse.

Austin needs more central-city housing. That doesn’t mean that every one of these rules need to be removed completely, but we absolutely need to understand why developers are making the choices that they are, and decide which of those reasons we are going to change and soon.

Developers are required to make car-friendly houses. Read one Coop’s reply!

Anybody building housing outside downtown is required to make it car-friendly by building or buying parking spaces. ICC Coops is a non-profit with a social mission for providing affordable, democratically-run housing. They ran into these requirements as they’re building out their new affordable student housing in West Campus. Unlike most developers, they decided to fight the requirement by seeking a waiver from the rules. Some of the reasons they cite:

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9 things people always say at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats

If you watch enough zoning hearings, the testimony begins to sound pretty repetitive. That novel argument you’re making? The Council members have heard it a million times before. Here are 9 of the things we hear most often at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats.

1. I’m not opposed to all development.  Just this development.

Those 1,000 times you sat on your couch to support developments far away from you surely counterbalance that one time you came out to oppose your neighbor’s development.

If you’re opposed, just tell us why; don’t go on about how you’re not a person that opposes things.

2. Nobody Talked to me!

The city notifies neighbors and registered civic organizations about upcoming permits. Developers seek out people they think might be affected. But it’s hard to know who is going to care and notifications are often thrown out. Don’t feel left out! If you’re at the hearing, you’re being heard. Just say what’s on your mind.

3. Reality is, Everybody Drives A Car.

Usually said while proposing somebody build more parking. If you want that reality to ever change, you have to accept building less car infrastructure.

4. These greedy Developers only think about profits

Land development is a business. Like all businesses, sometimes you make money and sometimes you lose money. You just try to make sure that you make enough money on the winners to cancel out the losers. Focusing in on the fact that the developer is hoping to make money makes your testimony sound more like you oppose out of spite than a particular reason.

5. Let me tell you MY Theory of Economics

If council members haven’t learned economics by now, they’re not going to learn it from your three minute testimony.

6.what this neighborhood really needs is a coffee shop, not more apartments

For all the mean things people sometimes say about developers, a lot of folks seem to fashion themselves amateur land developers, with a keen eye on exactly what types of businesses will succeed or fail. As it turns out, those things coincide perfectly with the things they personally enjoy.

7. I’m 5th Generation! My Great Great Grandfather moved here before This was even on the Map!

That entitles you to one vote, just like everybody else. Now tell us what you came up here to say.

8. We need to respect the hundreds of hours spent crafting this neighborhood plan

Respecting people for volunteering time making plans doesn’t mean those plans should never change. Now tell us your reasons for or against this particular change.

9. This housing Is Too Small for me!

Different people have different needs and desires! Just because you don’t like a particular thing doesn’t mean nobody would like it.

Don Zimmerman vs. reality on whether sprawl is fiscally effective

Earlier this week, I brought to you a debate between Council Member Don Zimmerman and Council Member Delia Garza on whether downtown density or suburban sprawl causes more congestion. At the same meeting, CM Zimmerman also found himself in a debate between two sides of himself: his belief in limiting government spending and his belief in subsidizing suburban sprawl.

To set this clip up, Austin Transportation Department is presenting their work to date on implementing “rough proportionality” in transportation impact fees, fees developers pay toward street improvements near their developments.

ATD notes that there are two factors affecting how much a new development will have to pay in transportation impact fees:

  1. How much extra transportation infrastructure will be needed in this area. Places where streets don’t need or can’t handle expensive upgrades have fewer fees to pass on to developers.
  2. How much new development will happen in that area. Places where more development is happening, the costs of the streets can be shared across more people so each person pays less.

The example that the ATD officials give of a development that would have had to pay smaller impact fees per vehicle-mile generated was the Austonian. 1) It’s downtown, which already has a very mature transportation network; 2) there’s a lot of new development coming downtown, so all those new developments can split the costs for any street upgrades that have to be made.

The formula deciding the costs for the developers isn’t random; it represents the real costs to the city of fielding that type of development at that location. This is where CM Zimmerman begins going off the rails. He realizes that, if forced to bear the true costs of building out lots of new infrastructure, sparse new suburban sprawl may not “pencil out”–that is, may no longer be profitable enough to get built. That is, if we made suburban sprawl pay its own costs, there might be a lot less of it.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the least NIMBY Council Member, the one most eager to see new private development in his own district, is also a fiscal conservative in the district where development requires the biggest infrastructure subsidy to pencil out. Until CM Zimmerman reconciles his belief in small government with suburban sprawl’s need for subsidies, I’m going to have call another argument against him.

EDIT: Scott Gross, the ATD engineer sends this in:

·        Rough Proportionality is currently being implemented

·       Rough Proportionality currently applies to existing authorities under Code – Border/Boundary Street Policy and Traffic Mitigation Policy

o   Border Street authority applies to ROW and street construction adjoining property

o   Traffic Mitigation authority applies to nearby street/intersection improvements to mitigate traffic

·       Rough Proportionality currently applies to localized/nearby improvements and are not impact fees

·        Impact Fees has not been implemented and will take 1-1/2 to 2 years if Council approves budget for it

·       Impact Fees would apply to system improvements within a 6 mile service area and are focused more on capacity, rather than mitigation

·       Impact Fees is subject to the RP test and, as implemented by Ft Worth, incorporates RP authorized requirements as credits against the actual fee.

If you plan for everyone to drive cars, they will

On June 18, City Council took its first look at an ordinance to make it easier to build granny flats, also known as ADUs or backhouses. A granny flat is a small home on the same lot as a single-family home. They have traditionally been used to keep multi-generational families together or as an affordable option for rental housing. Very few new ones have been built in Austin lately, in part because rules make it hard. But this column isn’t about granny flats. It’s about one comment Council Member Leslie Pool made, about the requirement that each new granny flat be paired with an off-street parking space:

I want to acknowledge that while we’re moving in other transit-oriented directions, which I support, the reality is that people in Austin still drive cars, which is why we have the requirement for at least one [off-street] spot for a car to park.

In the past, CM Pool has showed vision toward what she calls “other transit-oriented directions” by signing AURA’s pledge to make a transit-oriented Austin. So I’d like to challenge her and any others thinking along these lines to think bigger about how they as Councilmembers can shape our city.

Off-Street Parking Doesn’t Just Reflect Our Driving Reality, it Drives Our Reality

Not every new household in Austin must bring or buy a car. I get around without a car and it’s getting easier all the time. But many people will weigh whether to own a car and decide that, as things stand, they’d be better off with one. Some of the people who decide to own a car are actually close to choosing not to have one, but are ultimately swayed by the particulars of their situation.

Our parking requirements are one of the prime reasons driving the decision to own a car:

  • Some potential ADUs in older, central neighborhoods, won’t get built because a legal parking space can’t fit on the lot or the homeowner doesn’t want to pave  their little paradise to provide a parking space.  Potential residents who would’ve chosen to live in an affordable, small, central home are forced to live further on the periphery and drive in.
  • Instead of some ADUs being built with a nice garden and no car parking, and others with a small or non-existent garden but a parking space, all will have the parking space. Deprived of the potential benefits of doing without parking, residents may as well make use of the space.

Requiring parking drives the reality of people choosing to own cars. It’s important for policymakers to not just react to life as it is now, but to be move us towards a future where people have the practical freedom to live with whatever transportation mode they choose.

How it works downtown

The city council ended parking requirements downtown a few years ago. The result has not been a parkingpocalypse of car-drivers unable to move downtown because they can’t find parking. Most new projects that have gotten built since then have included parking. This shouldn’t be surprising: downtown is mostly a high-end market and people who can afford to spend a lot of money on housing can afford cars as well. New apartment and condo complexes like Fifth and West, the Seven, or the Bowie include parking as an amenity.

But some projects are getting built with less or no parking. A new office building on Guadalupe was built completely without parking to lower rents; it advertises availability at a garage a couple blocks over. The JW Marriott hotel was built with limited parking. Some employees take public transit in; others park at a leased parking lot a few blocks away. Conference guests are encouraged to take public transit or use spaces at the convention center garage. The Aloft hotel is going to be built using a valet-only model that shifts cars to existing underutilized garages. There’s even rumors of new apartments planned for downtown without parking for a much lower price point than typical downtown living. Even though downtown is the most accessible place to live in the city without a car, the transition has been slow and gentle.

From here to there

If Council Members fear the consequences of allowing ADUS without parking, there are half-measures they could take that would get most of the benefit. One example would be to allow no-parking ADUs only near high-frequency bus lines that can support carless mobility. This would let the city continue to dip its toes into accommodating folks like me who get around without a car, while maintaining the vast majority of the city for guaranteed parking.

Other Policies

ADU parking requirements are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how policy makes it impractical for most people to live in Austin without a car. Off the top of my head, some other ideas:

  • Dedicated transit lanes.  About half of those who travel down the Drag do so in buses, packed efficiently into only 6% of the vehicles. If one street lane were allocated for buses to zoom by, like the transit priority lanes downtown, this could benefit half of the street’s users in a stroke.
  • Mixing uses. The city maintains a fairly rigid separation of residential space from commercial space. This has some advantages, but the disadvantages for people getting around without a car are obvious: they have to go further from their homes to reach convenient places to work, shop, and dine.
  • Allow more residents in transit-accessible places.  There’s a limited number of places in the city that are already convenient to live without a car: downtown, West Campus, and other inner-city neighborhoods.  Building new transit-accessible places is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. The simplest way to allow more people the freedom to live without a car is to allow more people to live in the places that are already transit-accessible.


The reality is, Austin can’t wait until an imagined transit-oriented future before we give more people the practical freedom to choose whether to own a car. We must forge that future for ourselves. Every day that we delay, the hole we’ve dug for ourselves gets bigger. As I write, there are construction crews building subdivisions in District 6 that will be pretty much impossible to live in without a car for decades to come. Other construction crews are spending tax dollars widening MoPac so that the residents of the new subdivisions can drive into downtown. Shouldn’t we also be building places where people who choose to live a transit-oriented life can do so without paying for parking?

Density is a tool; Access is the goal

I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Jarrett Walker, a highly-regarded transportation consultant who has worked on, most recently, Houston’s reimagined bus network.  Walker makes the good point that ultimately, transit is in the business not just of laying X miles of rail tracks, or even moving people Z miles, but of providing people freedom to access the places they need and want to go: work, school, church, restaurants, stores, parks, etc.


Access here is the stuff of life. Can I get to that job interview on time? Can I get home from work in time to see a movie? Can I meet my friends for dinner? Does this okcupid match live close enough to make dating possible? When my daughter asks to play on the traveling soccer team, can she get to practice?

The context of Walker’s talk is public transportation network design. But access is just as much an issue in land use–what buildings, parks, roads, etc get built where. Whether you’re driving, riding, walking, biking, ubering, or whatever, the basic fact is that you can reach more destinations in the same amount of time when those destinations are close together. And more destinations means more opportunities–whether that’s opportunities to work, to learn, to shop, or to meet people. This was the basic lesson I took from living my own life in different parts of Boston.

This shouldn’t be a complicated or counterintuitive concept. Even with a car, traveling from one end of Austin to another is already quite a daunting trip to make more than occasionally. The more people Austin gets, the more destinations there will be–economic, cultural, or otherwise. But the more we spread out, the less access new and old residents will have to each other and to the destinations we create. We are foreclosing options by where we build.

This isn’t to say that density is the only ingredient necessary for access. There’s plenty of ways to build density that doesn’t afford much access. You can arrange your streets so that, even though two places are near each other, the path you must take to get between them is far. You can enforce a strong separation of complementary uses (homes here, shopping there, offices over there), so that, even though there are a lot of people near you, you have to go far in order to go to work or get Indian takeout. You can place density mostly on corridors, rather than in a grid, so that people must traverse the whole length to have access. This is why you often see the same people who argue for more homes in central Austin also fighting for removing gates from streets or allowing restaurants on 45th St. The connection is about removing barriers to access.

I don’t blame anybody for watching city debates and thinking that they’re mostly about abstract concepts they don’t identify with–sidewall articulations, dwelling units per acre, floor area ratio, headways, lane allocation. These are important parts of implementation. But at the heart of the matter is whether we as a city can make room so that everybody has a chance to participate in meeting new people, building a career, finding love, getting an education, seeing great music, and whatever else we want to do. The more distance we put between ourselves, the fewer opportunities we have.

From 300 to 100,000: Making Transit Oriented Development Normal

The Burnet Road rezoning case I’ve been following (1, 2) is over. City Council voted not only to approve the apartments, but passed Greg Casar’s proposal to increase the number of allowed apartments from 225 to 300. The developer correspondingly upped his pledge to 45 rent-reduced units and committed to a certain number of those having 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms.

This is great, because 300 households will soon have the option of living in nice, new homes right along one of the city’s prime bus lines (the 3/803). But 300 might not be enough to handle the people moving here in a week, let alone a month or a year or burning off the backlog of people who already live in Austin, but want to live more central. In his state of the city, Mayor Adler set a target of 100,000 new units over 10 years. I don’t know if that’s enough! In the end, we as a city should set our goals based on vacancy rates, rents, and home prices, not arbitrary round-number targets. But we already know that we have to build a lot of new homes in central Austin. I’ll use the notional “100,000” though to mean “enough units to reach price stability.”

So, how do we get to 100,000?  No one idea is going to be enough. Brennan Griffin has kicked off the discussion with a list of things already getting built in Austin’s core: downtown, Mueller, VMU, ADUs.  I’d throw in UNO as well. But today, I’ll focus on one option to get us further: making transit-oriented development normal.

Transit Oriented Development

Transit-oriented development is just a name for homes and offices and other places designed for people to get to without cars. Of course, it should be near good transit (whether buses or trains or streetcars or whatever). It should also have fewer amenities oriented around cars, like parking spots, and instead have amenities oriented around walking, like a front door you can take onto the sidewalk without traipsing through parked cars.

Austin has three plans for TOD, centered around the Crestview, MLK, and Plaza Saltillo MetroRail stations. These TOD districts are a kind of small-batch, artisanal zoning district, crafted painstakingly over the course of years, for small groups of customers to truly love. As it says on Page 97 of the Plaza Saltillo Station Area Plan:

Planning for the TOD Districts has been a lengthy and complex process. It has involved numerous stakeholder groups, including the City, private developers, and affordable housing advocates. DMA’s recommendations are the result of careful consideration of all interested parties with an eye toward the creation of a vibrant, diverse, and affordable community.

Detailed Glazing Rules
The Plaza Saltillo regulating plan has extraordinarily detailed design requirements hand-crafted by specialist consensus-builders to meet the specific needs of a relatively tiny area of the city.

However well you think these plans have accomplished their goals within their borders, they just don’t add up to much. Austin as a whole is getting less affordable, less diverse, and in many ways less vibrant. Most of Austin’s growth is in traffic-oriented subdivisions along the edge. We are a city with more than 800,000 residents, gaining more new residents than almost any city in the United States, convening stakeholder processes with dozens of people planning a couple hundred homes for years. It just doesn’t scale up.

Map of 801 + 803 bus stops
Frequent bus service already covers a lot of the city. Imagine a 10-minute walk radius around each of these stops.

Meanwhile, in many areas that are pretty good for living without a car (far better than MLK station), we have to fight tooth and nail for every new transit-friendly home! Build a side house in West Campus? Not without car parking, you don’t! We need to pull some of the simplest elements for TOD out of the realm of the exotic, craft-zoned district and into the realm of the ordinary. People who want transit-oriented development shouldn’t be limited to tiny patches of the city, each with their own special rules. Ordinary home-builders should be able to follow  standard, city-wide design documents and end up with transit-friendly homes in transit-friendly places all over.

I have no issue if the city wants to keep experimenting with extensive transit-oriented regulations in small places, but in order to see real, sizable effects, we need to update the code in general to be more transit-friendly. I’m not going to get deep into the weeds, but the basic ideas aren’t complicated and could be implemented immediately: anywhere within a 10-minute walk of a good transit line is “transit-friendly.”  In a transit-friendly area, you should be allowed to build transit-friendly homes without expensive car amenities.  You should tweak our density-limiting code in these areas so that you can build more homes close to the transit stops–distance matters a lot when you’re walking to your bus stop. Perhaps also make these areas more mixed-use, whether in the same building (vertical) or on the same street (horizontal), to provide more destinations for people to walk to. We must not worry so much about making each new transit-oriented area have the perfect feature set if it means years of delays on the most important feature: existence.

Because these transit-friendly buildings will be built spread out around the city, wherever there’s decent transit, rather than clustered in a single area, they may go pretty much unremarked. They won’t fix all the problems of a city code built up for decades around the paradigm of a-chicken-in-every-pot, a-car-in-every-garage. But to build a more affordable city with more transit-friendly options we need to make “affordable” and “transit-friendly” simple, ordinary, and widespread, and iterate from there.