On the morning of Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, while getting caught up with yesterday’s news over coffee, minding my own business and bothering nobody, an opinion piece by Ed Wendler came across my attention. (To preface, if you don’t already know by now he’s a real estate developer from hereabouts infamous for his hackneyed espousements of all things sprawl and knee-jerk arguments against most everything about and of Downtown, especially density and rail.) This missive of his in question was entitled Count on higher living costs in New Austin and, pretty much knowing the basic gist of what was in store for me? I rolled my eyes, yawned, clicked the link and began reading, during which I yawned and rolled my eyes some more and immediately after which I once again rolled my eyes and yawned before embarking upon the rest of my life, much like a duck does whenever water rolls off its behind.
But I couldn’t escape
For over the next week or so, his opinion continued to haunt me via various RSS feeds and e-mailing list circulations and whatnot – Such that I actually found myself saving the link! And even occasionally referencing it! Until just the other day? Amidst theretofore polite conversation somebody once again brought it up, ultimately finally compelling this here blog posting. Now, since the only problem I’m having is where to begin, there’s so much nonsense involved, I’ll start at the beginning: Prior to typing his whatever you’d like to call it, Wendler had just recently read a favorite work of mine, “Urban Fortunes” by John Logan and Harvey Molotch.
“It’s a progressive, almost radical take on the economics of municipal growth (emphasis mine), and it argues that cities are structured to promote increases in rents and property values, most times decreasing existing residents’ enjoyment of their homes and lives and displacing those who can’t pay,” Wendler ably summarizes for us, “The authors distinguish between ‘exchange value’ and ‘use value.’ ‘Exchange value’ is their broad term for the economic value of land and buildings. The general theory is that the higher the total rent, which includes mortgage payments (emphasis mine), the higher the property value. Increasing value can be accomplished by adding units, increasing rent per unit, or a combination of the two. Cities increase exchange value by investing in infrastructure to allow more intense land use, zoning land for more units, allowing taller buildings, granting variances to rules or changing land-use patterns. ‘Use value’ is the personal satisfaction we get from (our homes and where we live).”
I continue developing my razor-sharp discussion
Right now I must digress in order to point out “sophisticated” is a Greek-derived word that means deceptively attractive. When used as a rhetorical basis, the word transforms into “sophistry,” i.e., subtly deceptive reasoning or deceitful argumentation apparently plausible in form but actually invalid. A person who employs such a rhetorical ploy is what’s called a “Sophist.” Why, you ask, am I mentioning this?
Here Wendler is providing us with a wonderful example of sophistry because, while correct in his summation, he only proceeds to apply Logan and Molotch’s rationale to Austin’s urban core. When, in fact? It can/should/must be applied to each and every municipality that, together, comprise the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region. I mean, gee whizz, Wendler, isn’t the overriding value of economic growth the foundation of America’s whole socio-political ideology? (To answer my own question: If there is anything approaching dogma in our national belief system, it is the idea that economic growth is the key to solving all problems.) I mean, gee whizz, Wendler, don’t all municipalities form and function to provide infrastructural investments and thus increase said municipality’s exchange value? With elected officials (at least those who want to be reelected) doing what’s good for the tax base such that use value is also increased so that their constituents won’t up and move elsewhere?
Logan and Molotch: “All (emphasis mine) capitalist places are the creations of activists who push hard to alter how markets function, how prices are set, and how lives are affected.” (To generalize, markets therefore systematically establish divergences between individual and societal well-being; they then establish an incentive to pursue individual interest at the expense of social interest because they guarantee that the rest of society cannot be relied upon to safeguard one’s individual welfare; and, therefore, each individual person comprises their own special interest group, which then joins another compatible individual’s special interest group, etcetera and so forth.) Also, aren’t individuals from outside Austin’s urban core, as speculative investors in the housing market themselves, most interested in increasing their property’s exchange value?
Benjamin Wermund: “But a vision for development that was to become the heart of the city is on life support – instead of boutique shopping, developers are trying to lure big-box retailers – and nearby residents, who bought homes based on the idea of a 43-acre, master-planned community nexus, are crying foul. Town Center neighborhood residents have lauded the City Council’s recent rejection of proposals to change the tract’s zoning from a downtown district to a planned development – which allows for generic office buildings, apartments and shopping centers — and they want to be included in any plans to rezone the area. Residents filled the City Council chambers during a meeting this month and asked the council what happened to the vision the city once had for the Town Center.”
John Maher: “Meanwhile, in Elroy, Pedro Mar said some of his neighbors are sad that (F1) construction has halted, because they (are) hoping the track (will) increase property values in the area.”
Marques G. Harper: “Lakeway officials want to get feedback from residents on Lakeway’s first 15-year capital improvement plan that identifies future projects such as improving roads and constructing new walkways and buildings for the police and parks and recreation departments.”
By confining the parameters of his argument and inferring otherwise, as Wendler is and always has been so shamelessly doing all these years, is the height of sophistry –
As well as hypocrisy
Because isn’t he himself a developer? And isn’t every developer’s very essence increasing exchange value by changing land-use patterns (in his instance from agricultural to residential) by investing in infrastructure to allow more intense land-use (in his instance, by the way, going from 0 units/acre to one unit/acre represents a 100% increase in density), increasing the rents his financiers can charge via mortgage payments and subsequently increasing his own personal ROI? Furthermore, one should keep in mind that what a person or group calls “truths” may have very little or no basis in fact; instead “truths” are often fabricated to favor that person or group’s economic interest and further their own economic aims. Thus, ideological debate becomes less an inquiry into facts than some wantonly avaricious battle for power.
Yes, dear reader, I’m calling into question the reason why Wendler and his ilk (which among others include Mike Levy, Dominic Chavez, Jim Skaggs, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Don Zimmerman in the form of these entities: Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin PAC, Engineers Affirming Sustainable Transportation (EAST) PAC, Coalition on Sensible Transportation (COST), Austinites for Action, and the West Downtown Alliance collectivize as a special interest then try ever so hard and vociferously to bloviate other individuals into embracing unsustainable land-use sprawling willy-nilly throughout our region despite their mentality’s most obviously odious ramifications not only to general society but each of us as individually individual self-contained individuals.
Logan and Molotch: “To question the wisdom of growth for any specific locality is to threaten a benefit transfer and the interests of those who gain from it.” Do you now see how and why Wendler et al. are diverting an argument by perpetuating the most illogical of fallacies? Arguments like theirs constitute nothing less than an attack on free enterprise in order to maximize their own bank accounts and whatever reputational status they believe they may gain in our community.
But, again, I’ve been digressing
One example Wendler uses to fuel his hypocritical sophistry about how cities always act to increase exchange value is Austin’s adoption of the Downtown Plan that (and I quote) “promotes growth and advocates spending on downtown parks and infrastructure. That $300 million will be used to subsidize the area…The city’s website says that ‘we should care about downtown because its success is central to the prosperity of the city and the region.’ Reminds me of ‘what is good for GM is good for America’ and sounds a whole lot like trickle-down economics.”
So my question now becomes: Which localities in the Central Texas Region, suburban developments or the urban core, benefits from the other the most and by about, exactly, how much?
Culled from the Downtown Austin Plan
Culled from Hays County Cost of Community Services
The revenues-to-expenditures ratios show agricultural and open space more than pay their fair share of local taxes, even when these lands are taxed at the agricultural valuation. For every dollar these lands generated in revenue for the county, school and public service districts, they required back only $0.33 in services;
- Commercial and industrial lands provided a similar net benefit to the county, needing only $0.30 back for every $1 generated in taxes;
- While residential lands generated significantly more dollars in property taxes, they required even more in services — $1.26 for every $1 paid in taxes.
Culled from Austin’s Chamber of Commerce’s Take on Traffic
- To build out a comprehensive transportation system that actually reduces traffic congestion in Central Texas by 2030, we need to find at least $12.7 billion in funding beyond what we have right now. That’s about $635 million a year for the next 20 years;
And concluding with two conclusions from TxDOT/TTI’s 2011 Urban Mobility Report
- (Our) analysis shows that it would be almost impossible to attempt to maintain a constant congestion level with road construction only. Over the past 2 decades, less than 50 percent of the needed mileage was actually added. This means that it would require at least twice the level of current-day road expansion funding to attempt this road construction strategy. An even larger problem would be to find suitable roads that can be widened, or areas where roads can be added, year after year;
- And (Smart Growth) characteristics can be incorporated into new developments so that new economic development does not generate the same amount of traffic volume as existing developments. Among the tools that can be employed are better management of arterial street access, incorporating bicycle and pedestrian elements, better parking strategies, assessing transportation impact before a development is approved for construction, and encouraging more diverse development patterns.
“As the facts change, my mind changes”
In sum, all of the facts above strongly suggest to me that we, as a regional society, can no longer concentrate upon constructing more and more suburban subdivisions connected by highways, each longer and larger than the last, sprawling us farther and farther away from our urban cores, exacerbating our extreme auto-centricity in the process. Truth will emerge victorious, no? Alas, in the instance of Wendler and his what can only be described as cranky self-interested political action faction? Wherein the antithesis of a crank is commonsense? Most likely it will not, alas.
Joe Keohane: “Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”
Brendan Nyhan (lead researcher on the Michigan study): “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong.” The phenomenon – known as “backfire” – is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”
“Certitude is the last disease of old decrepit kings”
Wendler: “As a born here Austinite, I keep trying to put my finger on what’s different about the New Austin. It’s similar to the experience of seeing an old friend who looks different. You aren’t quite sure what’s changed. Plastic surgery? New hairstyle? Maybe just new glasses?…In many ways, this City Council is the most pro-growth, go-go council in memory.”
So let’s borrow for a minute the Panglossian lenses through which Wendler views how he wishes things should remain, with folks moving out to what were once rural Central Texas counties despite the fact that, at least I’m about to suggest the fact that we’ve essentially run out of land in which to sprawl. Between 2000 and 2010, Williamson County’s population grew 69% and Hays County’s increased 61% while Bastrop County’s population grew by 28.5%, all of which are well above and beyond Texas’ overall 20.6% population growth; also over that time period, according to Metrostudy more than 15,000 new subdivision homes were built in Hays County, another 2,227 in Bastrop County and, in Williamson County, the number of households increased from 86,766 to 162,773.
Eric Dexheimer and Tony Plohetski: “Where the developments and the brush meet is the tectonic fault line of wildfire danger known to fire experts as the wildland-urban interface. In an adaptation of the old philosophical question, if fire breaks out in an empty forest, it is noiseless. Adding people and homes, however, dramatically alters the equation, creating a cacophony. Not only do humans ignite the vast majority of wildfires, their presence demands that firefighters and equipment rush to the scene to protect life and property.”
Jon White (director of Travis County’s Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Division): “It’s the developments that are the danger.”
Paul Maldonado (State Fire Marshal): “We have known about, and anticipated, these incidences.”
We all recall what happened out in Bastrop County this past September and, it must be pointed out, our society must once again subsidize the costs imposed by mindlessly unconstrained suburban sprawl.
Brenda Bell: “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday announced the allocation of $31.3 million in emergency aid to help Bastrop and nearby communities recover from the devastating Labor Day wildfires… Along with the $16.5 million allocated to date by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the HUD program brings the federal government’s investment in the recovery effort in the Bastrop area to $47.8 million… Another pressing need: coming up with the money needed to match the millions of federal dollars flowing to Bastrop. Every $3 from FEMA for debris removal and assistance to fire victims requires $1 in matching local funds.”
Lisa Falkenberg: “Volunteer firefighters on the front lines are rushing toward the flames in tread-worn boots that don’t fit, fire suits too hot and heavy for the job, and sometimes, quite literally, in blue jeans. Fire chiefs across the state describe being outmatched, underfunded and ill-equipped to fight the unprecedented onslaught of fires fueled this year by unceasing drought.”
Ciara O’Rourke: “Windy, dry weather this weekend could set the stage for wildfires. The National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday (1/21/2012) from west and along a line from Georgetown to Pleasanton, about 35 miles south of San Antonio.”
To begin summarizing my argument, the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region, very much including all the cities that comprise it, is nothing but an ongoing, dynamic social experiment; despite all these facts and verbiage I’ve delineated above, Wendler and his cronies will only further assert that we should continue highly subsidizing its, shall we say, stagnation; even when stagnation, in and of itself, only leads to regression rather than progression; and isn’t Progress supposed to be the thing that makes America so great?
As Thomas Jefferson said?
“No generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”
Most economists are asserting that this young generation of ours will fare worse than their parents’ generation, the first time that that has happened in American history. And it still amazes me how wannabe entrenched plutocrats like Wendler, Levy, Chavez, Skaggs, Strayhorn and Zimmerman have been and are still willing to sacrifice another and yet another generation upon future generations even when staring at the End Game of this un-sustainably contrived, heavily subsidized contrivance our society calls “sprawl.” With that being said, shouldn’t we all be hoping for a brighter future for the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region? I cannot relay the following sentiment any better:
Fritz Steiner: “The challenge is clear; we live in a growing city and region. The population is expected to increase by 750,000 by 2039. The metropolitan region is home to more than 1.7 million people and is expected to rise to almost 4 million by 2040. To address this growth, Imagine Austin advocates that new development be focused in centers – places to concentrate new residents and for economic growth. This concept has evolved from the efforts of Envision Central Texas…However, Imagine Austin’s idea is no mere carbon copy of Envision Central Texas or CAMPO; it envisions a much more refined definition of centers. In addition to the regional centers (25,000 to 45,000 new people; 5,000 to 25,000 new jobs), derived from Envision Central Texas and CAMPO, the Imagine Austin draft presents approaches for town centers (10,000 to 30,000 new people; 5,000 to 20,000 new jobs), and neighborhood centers (5,000 to 10,000 new people; 2,500 to 7,500 new jobs). The plan also proposes mixed-use corridors and job centers. In addition, the draft plan designates open-space networks, high-capacity transit and transit stops, highways and streets, and other development both inside the existing city limits and within the extraterritorial jurisdiction. As a result, ideal locations for future conservation and development are explicit.”
An added bonus!
Imagine Austin’s concept dovetails nicely with our national trends.
PriceWaterhouseCoopers’: “Next-generation projects will orient to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented development. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities – gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs.”
Robert “Boom-burb” Lang: “Bedroom communities now must rethink their future and become a little less sprawly, a little more village-like with clustered development, denser housing. The irony is that if they want to keep growing, they must grow as cities, which is diametrically opposite of how they got so big in the first place.”
The current state of our disarrayed regional society today is not much of a recommendation for following that much-traveled path of subsidizing with such obscene sums for such, at the very most, negligible returns from suburban sprawl. We must learn from our historical collective experience in order to overcome these obstacles and flourish. Although it will take years to repair the damage done by such atomistic economic development strategies as Wendler’s, today all of us who comprise the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region need to ask ourselves how we as a society wish to be judged by future generations – Because if we follow such misguided egotistical-driven advice as that gentleman’s?
Boy oh boy you’d better believe we’ll be most sorely judged.
Edwin Shrake (May 10, 1965):
“But like most of the places in the U.S. that are wild and free, the Hill Country in its present form may be disappearing. Because of the popularity of Lyndon Johnson, tourists are entering the Hill Country, though as yet somewhat timidly. There are picnic-lunch sacks crumpled on the banks of the Blanco River where it rushes, clear over the limestone and blue in the channels, near the high blue ridges of The Devil’s Backbone. More dude ranches are opening. Some of the working ranchers are selling out to syndicates from Dallas and Houston. There are grand plans for resorts—hunting and fishing and horseback-riding motels with neon signs and leatherette couches and mustard and catsup in little plastic boxes and, God knows, maybe even Scopitone, which may become known as the last defeat of civilized man. But the Hill Country has one weapon, perhaps an ultimate one, against encroachment, and that is the stubbornness and loneliness of the land itself.
“It is not the place for everybody.”