Blog from February 2012

There are 5 blog entries from February 2012

Thirsty in Jersey
February 26th, 2012 | View Post
I discovered what I would describe as a new low for corporate America in bed with government. In this case the problem appears to be with either the New Jersey State Legislature or the Newark City Council, perhaps both. The newest wing of the Newark Liberty International Airport (gates C120 - C139) was built without a single water fountain in it. It does however, have about a dozen fast-food-esque restaurants nicely arranged in a circular design, all of whom sell bottles of water.

I know this might seem like a "first world problem" to some people, but that's not my angle; citing the absence of water is a far cry from citing a lack of mobile power stations or WiFi. Cynical as I am towards those in charge (and I believe justifiably), I remain hopeful that people will ultimately reject the outright commoditization of drinkable water, even if we do continue buying it at thousands of percent markup. But having written that, I have a hard time believing this was simply an architectural oversight for a major international airport.

That, dear home state, is just shameful.
Canada to US Border Crossing
February 23rd, 2012 | View Post
After visiting my friend Marciano in Montreal this evening, Caroline and I headed south on CA15 (US IH-87) towards the American border. I've been hearing more and more stories about how frustrating and "un-American" this process has been getting and so it was interesting to experience it for myself.

I'd been telling Caroline for weeks that she was certainly free to say anything that she felt comfortable saying, but that I simply had no intention of answering questions regarding my life in the United States. Simply meaning that I wasn't trying to sway her to my way of thinking, but that I also had no real intention of altering my principles either.

We crossed around 9:40pm and the border was completely empty. We pulled up and handed Agent Goodine our passports. He started to ask a series of questions, none of which were particularly relevant to anything. Caroline was driving our rental car and did most of the talking. We declared a bottle of whiskey we'd just purchased at the duty free shop and told him we had nothing else. Eventually he asked me where I was born to which I responded "Am I required to provide that to you with that information?"

He acted a little surprised, though I doubt he really was. His initial response to me was that no, I didn't have to answer and instead could just go inside the booth so they could work it out. After some quick jabbing back and forth, I laughed and told him I was originally from New Jersey. He had a good sense of humor up until this point and asked me why I was ashamed to be from New Jersey.

But shortly after this he opted to look in our trunk. I wasn't sure what the law was on this and thus didn't try to argue it (though I am somewhat regretful about that in hindsight; I should have at least questioned the legality of it). I was put off by his statement that he was "going to search it", rather than asking us if he could search it.

Towards the tail end of his snooping, he did start asking some other questions to which we weren't answering. I think Caroline probably wasn't answering him because the questions didn't really make sense, but he took the lack of response to heart. He gave us a brief spiel about how in the past thousand cars he had seen, nobody had problems responding to his questions, so he naturally found suspicion with us that we didn't have good answers to his questions. He then started directing more questions specifically at me. One of the questions was why we had three new boxes of Converse shoes in the back seat. Caroline explained they were a gift, though he seemed reluctant to believe this. I didn't say a word about it, but Marciano is the VP of Marketing for Converse. Obviously I could have provided this as the simple answer, but the fact remains that it's none of the government's business.

He asked why we were having such trouble providing him with simple answers. Sensing that he was about to detain us and that Caroline was not going to be happy with that outcome, I told him our collective lack of response was likely my fault and that I just didn't believe in answering these types of questions. When he asked me why I felt this way, I told him it was because I had libertarian values and I didn't feel I should be questioned to enter the United States (as an American at least). Comically, he said he didn't know what being a libertarian meant. He said something to the effect of "...does that mean supporting liberty? Because I served in the armed forces to protect liberty".

Since my intent was not to inflame the situation, but rather to avoid answering ridiculous questions for entrance back into my own country (where I am a natural, legal and tax-paying citizen), I mostly just sat quiet from this point on. He did give us a brief lecture about how he didn't know us and if we refused to answer questions, then how was he to know that we didn't have drugs or weapons with us? I again sat silently.

After he finished this 30 - 45 second lecture, he concluded with "...but I don't believe you pose any threat, so you can go on". He handed us our passports and off we went. I guess a "welcome home" is not how the system works anymore. I guess we can chalk that up to the terrorists too?

The entire experience was just a big show and definitely confirmed what I already had read about. I believe very sincerely that the whole thing is just a conditioning experience. It's brutish intimidation aimed at forcing people to comply with American authorities at the expense of their basic American [and human] liberties. I know there are a lot of people who tell me that my reluctance to be openly complicit with American agents is unnecessary, but I hope those people are able to understand that no type of abuse wanes with complacency.

As we drove off, Caroline told me that she was actually surprised I didn't argue with the guy more. She said she didn't think I had said much at all, which was honestly my only intention. In hindsight I do wish I had discussed the notion of liberty a bit more with him, but I truly wasn't trying to get on a high-horse about politics, only to exercise my rights within the law. Perhaps next time across I will be a bit more direct about that.
Consequences of Neighborhood Governance
February 18th, 2012 | View Post

I found this parody slogan on the web and thought it was perfectly appropriate to my message
It has long been my belief that the City of Austin places an undue burden on its citizens when it comes to developing commercial land. The costs are outrageous and many of the city's policies ignore basic individual property rights, one of the fundamental tenants of our entire democracy. What most people don't seem to understand is that these developmental burdens don't necessarily prevent commercial growth, they just ensure such growth is dominated by corporate interests.

Firstly, let me state that I am NOT opposed to local regulations - at all. I think they are protective, generally well-intended, and necessary for society to function. But there is a line of reason that the City of Austin crossed long ago and is increasingly aiming to further surpass. Anyone who has spent any time trying to develop in the City of Austin knows that developers are notoriously at the mercy of city staff and neighborhood groups. No matter how many concessions are made, there always seems to be something else holding up development. This becomes a huge financial burden.

The problem stems from a mentality of collectivism gone awry. For whatever reason, Austin communities regularly feel entitled to dictate the specifics of new projects. They are willing to spare no expense when it comes to the already cumbersome design process, meanwhile enjoying the convenience of not having to pay the bills required to accomplish this. And the city allows it to happen. There often appears to be an engrained mentality that if the development exceeds a single-family bungalow, the developer(s) must be in cahoots with local officials and be extremely deep-pocketed. But in my development experience, this is rarely the case.

This would be a more understanding, perhaps even forgivable point of view if Austin took a more lenient attitude to zoning and development. But the unbelievably complicated set of City Ordinances in Chapter 25 (better known as the Land Development Code) make it virtually impossible to negatively impact neighboring properties. An application for a small commercial project will be reviewed by literally dozens of city staff and will likely take a minimum of a year to get city approval, assuming the application gets approved at all.

In my personal opinion, commercial development projects (and residential projects for that matter) should be governed on a case by case basis where common sense is applied to a common community goal. It's not hard to comprehend why we might want to prevent people from building a chemical supply store in the middle of a neighborhood, or a strip club next to an elementary school, but Austin's approach is to design a black and white playbook for any scenario, and this just doesn't work. Moreover it creates a hugely disproportionate fee to valuation ratio. This essentially means that a one-hundred thousand dollar project is subjected to the same level of scrutiny [and consequently cost] that a one million dollar project would be. This makes smaller projects very costly.

I strongly believe that this mentality will be the undoing of Austin within the next ten to fifteen years. I won't go into all of the details in this post, but the "Keep Austin Weird" mentality is a fading notion of the past; it is a marketing tool for the city, and increasingly just a hoax. Unless one is backed by huge corporate coffers, it is virtually impossible to surmount the sea of local development bureaucracy, and that makes it damn hard for 'weird' people to develop their visions.

The irony is that the very people in Austin who likely reject corporatism are the ones on the front-line demanding more costly and impassible bureaucratic regulations. Which brings me to my most recent experience on the subject.

2200 Tillery Street

I've sat on the East MLK Combined Neighborhood Planning Contact Team since 2007. It was a group I helped to reboot after it sat defunct for almost six years. Like all other planning contact teams, the contact team is responsible for creating a long-term vision of a planning area. It also oversees future land use cases (one half of Austin's zoning maze), and helps dictate Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs). The group has absolutely no legal authority and its rulings are never binding. But curiously, it is codified by the City (§25-1-805), and developers seeking to change future land use tables are still required to seek approval from the team.

For the past five or so months our team has heard and debated arguments over a commercial piece of property located at 2200 Tillery St. We have met with Richard Crank, the property's representative, at least two times since October of 2011. We have also met with representatives of the JJ Seabrook Neighborhood Association on several different occasions.

At our January meeting we heard again from the president of the JJ Seabrook Neighborhood Association. And once again the contact team was asked to support a measure that would postpone the planning commission hearing for another month. This would be the third consecutive postponement of the hearing and would bring the property owner(s) to the seventh month they have had their property tied up with City of Austin business.

The property is currently zoned commercially and has a future land designation of mixed-use. The previous property owner defaulted and the mortgage company now owns the property; the mortgage company wishes to sell the property. The property is not particularly viable in its current configuration, not because it's a useless building, but because the city's parking space calculator inhibits the type of use most suited for the structure. As an aside, street parking is not factored into these calculations despite it being overwhelmingly abundant in the area. The owner feels it would be difficult to sell the property for its current use, but a number of city ordinances prevent the owner from using the building for what it was originally intended.

I have asked on several occasions since October what the JJ Seabrook neighborhood association would ultimately like to see happen to the property. Unfortunately the only consistent response I receive is with respect to mixed-use and/or residential development. I even received an email from someone in the neighborhood association on September 28th, 2011 that stated, "I think that the bank/mortgage holder should demolish the building and devide [sic] the land into 4 lots (at least 10,000 sq ft--quarter acre--) to build single family detached homes." Sufficed to say I quickly wrote back the many reasons why this would not occur. Unfortunately the amount of money that would be required (especially within the city's complicated guidelines) would be financially devastating to the owner, and thus not reasonable.

Although my position on the matter has been consistent since October, I once again presented an economic case at our January hearing. According to TCAD, the property is valued at $834,857. At a 2.3% tax rate, this means the property owner pays over $19,000 a year in taxes alone. In the seven months that the property has been tied up in the Austin bureaucracy, they've paid over $11,000 in taxes - for a property they can't currently do anything with! This figure does not even factor the few thousand dollars of filing fees they've had to pay the City of Austin nor whatever fees their engineers and lawyers are collecting for handling the case (possibly tens of thousands of dollars).

But it does not stop there. Richard Crank has been completely transparent about the owner's intentions, has met with multiple neighborhood bodies numerous times, and has been willing to restrict a dozen uses from the property with a conditional zoning overlay. He has even been willing to enter into a private contract with the neighborhood outlining specifically desired improvements and limitations.

My argument is that unless the neighborhood association has a specific compromise that they're willing to consider, it is not fair for them to continue delaying the process while the property owner is left to front the bill. Thus far the immediate neighborhood has rejected my position. It was even suggested to me by a JJ Seabrook representative (after I presented my economic argument) that I should not be defending or sympathizing with the mortgage company.

I abhor banking and mortgage companies; I speak and write against them regularly. However, this should not, and legally does not change the fact that they have just as many rights to fair case management and expediency as everybody else. In fact, I am often left surprised that the City of Austin has not been hit with a class action suit for allowing this type of negligent behavior to hold up property cases.

I will be very curious to see what happens, but even more curious to try and learn what the total cost of doing business with the City of Austin works out to be for this developer. My guess is that they lose over $50,000 to the Austin bureaucracy (or more than 6% of their current valuation).

So my problem with the entire system is simple. There is far too much power granted to neighborhood associations and similar groups to raise problems that may not even exist while private entities are left to front the bill. In some cases the neighborhood groups do not even represent the true intentions of a community. Rather they represent the desires of a fractional segment of that community. Incidentally, the segment that is very vocal and interested in regulating everything not belonging to them. I know for a fact that our contact team in no way represents the greater community. We are essentially a group of twelve relatively young white people debating cases for a community of more than 17,000 people, most whom are minorities.

But my intent is not to condemn neighborhood associations (nor our own contact team); I participate in many and believe they serve a very good purpose. Rather my intent is to condemn a city that grants neighborhood groups the power to stop development while simultaneously forcing the developer to conform to thousands of regulations, all of which have already been designated by the community in the first place, and all while paying a premium to do so!

One of these systems has to give and until it does, I don't see how the problem is going to get any better. My personal preference is a simple five-fold approach:
  • Work to ensure that neighborhood associations are strong and well-represented
  • Get rid of the one-size-fits-all development regulations, codes, and fees; every development is different and has unique challenges and obstacles
  • Have a single individual case worker for each commercial development and require them to serve a the liaison between the active parties
  • Have a legal appellate process set in place for cases that cannot be resolved
  • Require that all development projects have a fixed time in which business is resolved
So then coming full circle, why would I tie this into corporatism? Because as the problems that I've described continue to worsen (and they are definitely worsening), the ability of small businesses to develop anything on their own trends towards being impossible. The average business cannot simply float tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a year while attempting to stay financially afloat and be expected to meet the minute demands of community activists. A community might see a few light poles as nice-to-have, but the developer of a $200,000 project is required to see them as 10% of his or her budget. It is simply not possible to fulfill these demands, especially with the regulatory oversight costs (read: C.Y.A.) required by the city. This essentially means that as Austin continues to mature, more and more corporate interests will be served as they're the only ones with the time and money required to overcome these hurdles.

If the residents of Austin desire to see corporate interests take over the skyline, that's fine by me (though I personally don't support it). I only ask that the city stop toting itself as "weird", because in my opinion, there's nothing worse than turning a way of life into marketing ploy for corporate America.
Ron Paul Photoshopping
February 13th, 2012 | View Post
I was messing around in Photoshop and thought I'd put this together. I posted it to Reddit as well as Facebook and wound up having a number of lengthy (albeit productive) arguments with people on the subject matter.

My take is the following: if you believe in killing other people for some greater good, that's fine. Just have the balls to say it. Promoting some long-term agenda for these wars while conveniently ignoring the fact that war results in innocent people dying is cowardice.

Ron Paul 2012

One does not simply...
February 11th, 2012 | View Post
I made this little ditty for Evan on our ski trip after his difficulty on the platter lift at Vail.

One does not simply ride the T-bar on a fucking snowboard