Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HOV lanes, Not in my Backyard!

What exactly are HOV Lanes?  HOV or High Occupancy Vehicle lanes are lanes on a congested highway that are set aside either by a buffer or a barrier and are reserved for vehicles with usually 2 or more passengers.

Barrier HOV

Buffer HOV

HOV lanes mean you have to pay a toll to drive on the highway, right?  WRONG, an HOV lane is just a dedicated lane of a regular highway.

If they make it so one lane is only for carpools and buses, it's going to make traffic even worse! Well not according to a study done by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), part of the A&M University System, on the effectiveness of HOV lanes in Dallas. TTI found that

  • All five freeways with an HOV lanes have shown an 8 to 12 percent increase in average automobile occupancy, suggesting that motorists have formed carpools to gain the benefits of traveling in an HOV lane.
  • HOV lane speeds on all five facilities are significantly higher than the speeds on the adjacent general-purpose lanes.
  • General-purpose lane speeds have remained constant or have increased on all corridors since the opening of the HOV lanes.
  • Bus operating speeds have more than doubled since the opening of the HOV lanes on IH-30, IH-35E North, and IH-35E South during the AM and PM peak hours.
  • DART’s bus operating costs have been reduced by approximately $587,000 per year since the implementation of HOV lanes.
  • All HOV lane projects are cost-effective and have attained or are projected to attain a benefit-cost ratio greater than 1.0 within the first six years of operation.
But, light rail would be so much better than HOV lanes and buses.  Well apparently commuters in Austin don't agree.  Tory Gattis at says that
Austin bus riders are protesting the cancellation of existing commuter bus routes that parallel the new rail line.  Why?  Because the buses are *faster*.  This is one of the key arguments I've made against commuter rail in Houston: net-30mph commuter trains are much slower than 60mph express buses in HOV lanes, especially when considering the long walk or connection after getting off of the train vs. buses that can circulate around the job center to get you close to your building.
So, if HOV lanes increase the speeds on highways, make buses faster, help bus transit authorities save money, and are cost-effective (in other words, pretty inexpensive to install), WHY ARE YOU AGAINST THEM?????

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

That F@##%@# Tree Ordinance!

Developers hate being hindered by rules that limit the amount of property they can use for construction, it's easier to make a building plan for a blank sheet of paper, than for one with barriers, such as trees.
Most people would say, what's the big deal, whenever I fly into San Antonio it's a sea of trees. But the Urban Ecosystem Analysis of Greater San Antonio done by American Forests found that

  • In 1985, areas with heavy tree canopy (50% or greater treecover) covered 26% of the area (201,000 acres). By 2001, that number had fallen to 20% (156,000 acres)—a loss of over 22% of the densely forested areas. 
  • Areas with light tree canopy (less than 20% tree cover) expanded from 69% in 1985 (540,000 acres) to 77% in 2001 (605,000 acres). Though agricultural areas as well as urban areas fall under this category, the sharp increase in San Antonio’s population over the last decade (22.3% - Census Bureau) suggests that this increase in areas with little tree cover is largely the result of urban expansion.
  • While areas of medium density canopy (20-49%) had the most significant percentage change, the total number of acres affected were small in comparison to the heavy and light canopied areas. In 1985, 6% of the Greater San Antonio Area (47,000 acres) was covered by medium density canopy. Thisnumber fell to just 3% by 2001 (27,000 acres) a loss of approximately 43%. This trend suggests that as new development occurs, tree canopy is not being conserved.
In San Antonio trees are a special commodity.  It takes a long time for a tree to grow naturally in San Antonio.  Dr. Jerry Parsons at says that
In our alkaline, rocky, and caliche soils, several tree species that do excellent in other areas of Texas, do very poorly here. Our sudden temperature fluctuations in the spring and fall kill many non-adapted trees each year.
High temperatures, low rainfall and alkaline soils may deter other trees but the hardy Live Oak finds a way.
Live oak is fast-growing under optimal conditions. Seedlings may reach 1.2 m (4 feet) in height within the first year, but growth rates taper off as age of the tree increases (Harlow et al 1979; Haller 1992). 70 year old trees may have trunks that measure as much as 54 inches in diameter (Van Dersal 1938).
Around here under natural conditions, it takes a Live Oak or a Texas Red Oak, 10 years to grow into a nice shady tree.

 The city tree ordinance used to only protect 10" diameter(and larger) trees which didn't take into account smaller native trees.  But in 2006, the ordinance was strengthened to include other native trees besides heritage live oaks and fees were raised so the builders and developers wouldn't be as tempted to build the fines for cutting down trees into the cost of development.  However, developers have discovered other ways to get around the ordinance by using vested rights, and claiming other uses besides development (such as claims that the land will be used for ranching) to clear cut property.
``People get frustrated in the process,'' engineer Gene Dawson Jr. said. ``They get held up by the city arborist on a tree issue, so they just say, `Well heck, I'm going to get my property grandfathered and I'm going to go clear the whole (property).'
In one of the most egregious cases of clear cutting
The trees were bulldozed to make room for Encino Ridge, a dense neighborhood by national chain Pulte Homes, one of San Antonio's largest builders. The Michigan-based company took in a record $11.7 billion in gross revenue last year.
``They worked day and night out here,'' nearby resident Donna Biggs said. She stretched her arms to form a wide circle. ``There were oaks this big cut down.''
Encino Ridge from Citizens Tree Coalition
Pulte's local president, Bart Swider, said the company wanted to grade the hill to cut down on the cost of each home. But he admits the clearing was an environmental blunder -- one that city tree preservation ordinances might have prevented.
In San Antonio, the law encourages the development industry to blur the line between legitimate projects and outright land speculation, records show.
The Express-News review found that:
-- In a pattern repeated on at least three occasions since 1994, developers flooded City Hall with plat filings hours before council members approved new development rules, exempting thousands of acres from more stringent city codes.
-- Developers and lobbyists helped write rules such as the water quality ordinance. Those same insiders then shepherded scores of clients through the exemption process to avoid those rules.
-- The oldest permit ever used to trigger vested rights in San Antonio dates to the horse and buggy.
In May 2010 the City Council underlined its commitment to increase the tree canopy in San Antonio by doubling the cost of cutting down trees.
 The new ordinance doubles the mitigation costs — from $100 to $200 per inch in tree diameter for significant trees and from $300 to $600 per inch for heritage trees. That means cutting down an oak with a 24-inch diameter would cost $14,400, and a 30-inch-diameter tree would cost $18,000 to remove.
The council also voted to implement a citywide program to help meet the goal of a 40 percent tree canopy, using developers' mitigation fees to plant new trees.
The ordinance, which is supposed to close two loopholes that allowed for the clear-cutting of trees, doesn't apply to property that's already been developed.

So what does beefing up the Tree Ordinance mean for the ordinary property owner?  You are exempt from the Tree ordinance if your tree meets any of the following conditions:

A. Any tree(s), significant, or heritage or tree canopy determined to be diseased, dying or dead, by the city arborist.
B. Any tree(s), significant, or heritage or tree canopy determined to be causing a danger or be in hazardous condition as a result of a natural event such as tornado, storm, flood or other act of God that endangers the public health, welfare or safety and requires immediate removal.
C. Tree(s) or tree canopy located on property 0.5 acres or less on which construction of single-family, two-family or three-family residential dwelling units has been completed.
D. Tree(s) or tree canopy located in the clear vision area, as defined in the street improvement standards.
E. Tree(s) or tree canopy preventing the opening of reasonable and necessary vehicular traffic lanes in a street or alley.
Needless to say, residential developers are unhappy about this augmentation of the law and claim that it will cause them to pass the cost on to the consumer and may price some prospective buyers out of the market.  But most new housing being built today is outside of Loop 1604, there is still plenty of good pre-owned housing stock within 1604 with developed trees and yards that are affordable.  Personally,  I want trees in my yard, how about you?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What's Your Vision of San Antonio's future?

This morning I went to the launch meeting for SA2020, a series of public planning meetings to come up with a vision of San Antonio for the next ten years.  A very enthusiastic crowd was there, and I do mean crowd.  The event planners originally expected about 700 participants, over 1300 people signed up to go.  They managed the crowds by spilling over from the TriPoint YMCA at US 281 and N St Mary's to the SAWS building on the other side of the highway.   In order to enable all those people in different buildings to interact, the meeting was webcast by NOWCastSA. The webcast also made it so that not only could people at the conference participate, but also anyone online could as well.  The conference received over 1500 comments from the online community.  One man even tweeted fromt the Denver Airport while in transit.

The major themes that the attendees felt San Antonio needed to work on were:
  • Education at all levels but especially school readiness and job and vocational training
  • Health including magnet hospitals, lowered obesity rates, and accessibility to health care
  • Sustainable Growth including revitaliztion of older areas, water policy, and more controlled growth
  • Infrastructure Improvements
  • Transit options from drivable streets to bicycle lanes and better mass transit
  • Making SA more Hip--this particularly for the young singles out there
  • Combine Growth, Progress and still keep the history of the city
  • Improve Livability in the Inner city and keeping a balance with tourism
  • Job Equity and bringing better paying jobs
But not only did we talk about what needed to improve we also talked about what's great about San Antonio.
  • The Big city with the Small town feel
  • Strong support of the military, not just the bases but also for disabled vets and retirees
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Historic Traditions and conservation
  • Food
  • Fiesta
  • Economic Stability
  • Strong work ethic
  • Accessibility to more state parks than any other city in Texas
  • Higher Education options
  • Cooperation between the civilian and military Biomedical community
and many other positve qualities.

There are four more public meetings planned
October 28, 2010           Creating a Vision for San Antonio
  7-9 pm
November 20, 2010       How will we Measure Progress?
December 7, 2010         What Will Success Look Like? 
January 22, 2011           Putting it Together:  SA2020
If you would like to participate in these meetings, check out the SA2020 website.  If you can't attend, the other meetings will also be webcast live and you can participate by posting comments during the meeting.
Brakenridge HS Mariachi Band

Now the people who came to the conference are probably the most engaged people in San Antonio when it comes to civic issues, but what about your average San Antonian?  SA2020 wants to hear from you as well.  They've made it easy for you by setting up an online community survey and a special youth survey to engage the youth of San Antonio to find out what San Antonio needs to do to keep them here.  So what do YOU think?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bike Sharing In SA-You're kidding right?

Bicycle Sharing has become the In Thing for cities wishing to project a green image.  Portland, Oregon was the first city in the US to start a program back in 1994.  Its program was simple (take a bike, use it then leave it for someone else to use) and free but ended in failure due to vandalism and theft.  Bike share programs are much more sophisticated today and although they aren't free, the fees are affordable.  San Antonio kicks off its pilot program, "B-cycle" on October 13, 2010 at the MPO Bike Night event.  But what exactly is bicycle sharing and how does it work?

There are several bike sharing programs in Europe and other cities in the US to draw inspiration and lessons from.  There's even a bike sharing blog.

In Paris, Velib (short for velo (bicycle) and liberte (freedom)  has been running for three years now and is very popular.  Velib has three subscription options that allow you to use the service for one day, one week or one year.  To subscribe you must have a major bank card (Mastercard, Visa or American Express).  The charge to rent the bike for 1 day is 1€ ($1.34), a week 5€ ($6.67) and a year for 29€ ($38.69) for a year's subscription.  The service encourages short term usage by making the first 30 minutes of use free and then charging additional fees that escalate over time.  They also encourage uses to park bikes in docking stations at the top of hills, like Mont Marte, by adding an additional 15 minutes of free use.  The bikes are sturdy, have a guard to protect clothing from the chain, have a large basket to carry purses, brief cases, etc., and a security chain in case you have to park it somewhere other than a docking station.

Bicing in Barcelona is another bicycle for hire system that has also been running for about 3 years.  Similar to the Velib system, it is also meant for short to medium length trips.  However the system caters exclusively to commuters who live in the city (to keep from competing with local tourist companies that hire out bicycles), subscriptions are only given out on a yearly basis for 30€ ($40.02).

Pamplona had a bicycle sharing (n'Bici) program when I was there in June 2009 (inagurated in 2007). The Ayuntamiento (City Hall) website described the program as something like checking out a book out from the library.  You could go to city hall to get your card issued and then swipe it at the n'Bici docking stations.  Now it's no where to be found on the Ayuntamiento site and I'm wondering if the last festival de San Fermin (the running of the bulls) was it's downfall.  Bicycle theft and vandalism is a common problem for bicycle sharing programs and things get pretty rowdy around festival time.

Nice Ride in Minneapolis charges a subscription plus a trip fee.  The first 30 minutes are free to encourage short rides.  Subscription prices go from $5.00 for 24 hours to $60.00 for a year.  Lydia Kelly of the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) was recently in Minneapolis and she said she saw elementary school students using the Nice Ride bikes to go home after school. 

In order to discourage theft most of the bikes used in these programs are heavy, three gear models that are meant for short term rides over fairly easy terrain.  San Antonio Bike Share, a non profit organization which will be maintained and operated by Bike World bicycle shops, will use bikes provided by B-Cycle, a company that provides bikes for over one hundred cities in the US.  There is no word yet on the fees for the SA program but it will have membership fees for access to the bikes and usage fees based on the amount of time the bike is used.

Criticisms of bike sharing programs include vulnerability to theft, damaged bicycles that are unrideable, no place to carry purses, bags, etc, and not enough bicycles.  The San Antonio program solves the theft problem by using bikes that have GPS chips installed in them and by making sure that VIA bus drivers don't allow the bikes to be put on their bike racks.  Some bicycles used in sharing programs have a button you can push to alert the company that the bike is damaged.  B-Cycle bikes don't appear to have this feature, their demo video just says to put a damage bike back on the docking station.  I'm not sure how they would know which ones need repair.  The B-Cycle bikes do have a basket in the front to hold items you have with you, they also encourage you to use a helmet, but it has to be your own, there are no helmets to share (probably a good idea, I don't want to get head lice!).  The San Antonio program is starting with 194 bikes in the downtown area, but I haven't been able to find out where the docking stations will be.  The Streetsblog was critical of the San Francisco program because it was starting with only 50 bikes, but San Francisco has a much more friendly bicycle culture than San Antonio, so the criticism is justified.

The unfriendly bike culture in SA is likely to be the biggest obstacle to the bike sharing program, as most of you cyclists out there know, bicycling in San Antonio can be hazardous to your health, sometimes even deadly.  The Bike Map put out by the MPO rates most of the streets in the downtown area as fair when it comes to cycling conditions, but they obviously need some work.  Streets to avoid downtown are Commerce between Alamo and Frio, Frio south of Dolorosa, Dolorosa/Market between Dwyer and Cameron (Spanish Governor's Palace),  San Pedro north of Main, Alamo from Commerce to HemisFair Plaza, Durango east of Alamo and west of IH 35 and Cypress street.  I'd definetely get a bike map from the MPO before venturing anywhere on a bike, even on the streets considered fair you have to be on guard.

Bicycle rules of the road for automobiles and bicycles are not very well known in SA, so FYI

  • A cyclist shall never ride against the flow of traffic
  • A cyclist must obey all traffic signs, signals and rules of the road (this means stop at red lights and stop signs, no rolling through)
  • Every bicycle in use at night time shall be equipped with the following:  a lamp that emits a white light visible at a distance of at least 500 feet and a type of red reflector on the rear approved by the Department of Public Safety (it doesn't appear the the B-Cycle bikes have these features, at least from their website)
  • Persons riding side by side shall not impede the normal and reasonable flow of traffic;  Persons riding side by side on a laned roadway must ride in a single lane
  • Bicycles may be ridden on roadway shoulders, except where expressly prohibited by law
  • A motorist must allow 3 feet of clearance when passing a cyclist (you have to give this much to other cars to avoid clipping them, so why not to cyclists as well)
I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who tries out the SA bike sharing program to see what you think, or even if you are driving near them downtown.  Drop me a line.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I can't put that in my recycling can, then what do I do with it?

It's a little hard to keep up with what can actually be put in a City of San Antonio recycling container.  At first it was #1 & # 2 plastics, newpapers, metal cans and clear, green and brown glass.  Then it changed to #1 through #7 plastics, office and school paper, cardboard food cartons, glass food containers, newspaper, and metal food cans.  Next the city decided to stop receiving Styrofoam because it clogged up the sorters.  In order to keep up you practically need to check the Solid Waste Management site once a month.

But what do you do with the other stuff you'd like to recycle?  Here's a list provided by Solid Waste Management:

Metal Recycling
ABC Recycling
Aluminum cans, brass, copper, stainless steel and radiators

River City Steel & Recycling
All metals, car parts, radiators, water heaters

Vance Recycling
601 Roland
Aluminum, copper, brass, car batteries, radiators

Ashley Salvage Co
4918 Roosevelt Ave
Aluminum cans, scrap metal, iron, steel, tin, copper

Great Northwest Recycling
Metal only--refrigerators, stoves, car parts, copper, brass

Longhorn Recycling
Copper, appliances, lead, steel, radiators

AG Pickard Pecans
117 Nogalitos
Non-ferrous (no iron or steel) metals, aluminum, copper, brass

Monterrey Iron & Metal
Iron, copper, brass, aluminum cans, stainless steel (i.e. flatware), tin, zinc

Toucan Recycling
1415 Poplar
All non-ferrous metals (no iron alloys), aluminum, brass, copper, tubing, radiators

Plastic Bags
Most HEB & Walmart locations
Look for the recylcing bins in front of the stores

Paper Recycling (for those of you not in the city limits)
Abitibi Recycling
(the bins in most school parking lots, used as a fundraiser)
Paper, newspaper, mail, magazines, cardboard

Electronic Recycling
Corona Vision
Fee: depends on item
All electronics

(all locations)
used motor oil, car batteries

Technology Recycling
Scrap computers

Keep San Antonio Beautiful
Old cell phones

SARS Recycling
Any electrical item that plugs into an outlet

Home Depot 
unbroken fluorescent light bulbs at the return counter

City of San Antonio Bitters Mulching Facility
Clean brush

Firestone Tires & Service Centers
Various locations
tires for a fee

In addition to this list the Lions Club takes used prescription eyeglasses ( there is a drop off box near customer service in the Walmart at IH 10 and De Zavala).

Wow, who knew you could recycle all this stuff here in San Antonio!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Are YOU putting Trash in your Recycling Bin?

I was putting out my recycling bin this morning and I thought it might be a good idea to give everyone a heads up on what I learned at the Neighborhood Resource Center Convention.  I spoke to a representitive for the Solid Waste Management department and she said that inspectors are already going out to neighborhoods with the recycling trucks to inspect the cans for noncompliant uses. If they find trash in your bin you have three chances to clean up your act before they discontinue the service.

The items that you are allowed to put in the recycling can have changed some what over time, so here is a new list:

  • Office Paper--envelopes, construction paper, etc.
  • Food Packages--cereal, pasta, rice, beer/soda cartons
  • Paper bags
  • Newspapers
  • Plastic bottles--beverage bottles, medicine containers, shampoo and lotion bottles
  • Food Containers--condiment bottles, clean (NON STYROFOAM) clean food trays
  • Beverage bottles--soda and beer bottles
  • Condiment jars--Sauce jars, condiment containers (i.e. jelly, mustard), metal lids

  • Aluminum cans
  • Aerosol cans--Empty and remove nozzle (I didn't know about this one)
  • Steel and tin cans--soup, fruit, dog food, etc.
Solid Waste Management also asks that the items be LOOSE in the bin (no bags).

It will take awhile for the inspectors to check all those recycling bins, so they are starting with the parts of town with the most egregious users first (you know who you are).  So, in the meantime, check your bins for non compliant items, and take them out!  I'll post a list of places to take recyclable items not accepted by the city.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How will San Antonio look 10 years from now?

The kickoff event for SA2020 is this Saturday.  If you want a say in San Antonio's future get involved.  Register for the free event here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I'd like to fix up my neighborhood, but I don't know where to start!!

Yesterday I attended the 21st Annual Neighborhood Conference presented by the Neighborhood Resource Center.  If  you are on the board of a Home Owners Association or you just want to improve your neighborhood and you've never heard of the Neighborhood Resource Center, then you are missing out.
The Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC) trains neighborhood leaders with a focus on neighborhood and homeowner associations. The NRC trains neighborhood leaders utilizing informational resources to community groups in order to enhance their ability to effectively represent and develop their neighborhoods. 
 Besides the annual conference the NRC offers Annual Neighborhood Awards with $1000 prizes, a six month Neighborhood Leadership Development Program ($75 with some scholarships available), and a store with low cost neighborhood workbooks, workshops, and helpful links.

At the conference yesterday they had exhibition booths set up for various organizations and government entities that work with neighborhoods and individuals, such as the Bexar County Dispute Resolution Office, that mediates, free of charge, in disputes between neighbors (or anyone else you're having problems with),
the Pedestrian Mobility Advisory Committee, the Bicycle Mobility Advisory Committee (I got a really cool, waterproof Bike Map that shows the best streets for cycling and planned routes), The Voice for Texas Pet Owners, which promotes responsible pet ownership, Scenic San Antonio (210-342-0135) which promotes attractive sign policy and regulation, and landscaping and tree preservation,The San Antonio Office of Emergency Management, which is hosting a Citizens Preparedness Workshop (contact Lorenzo Sanchez at for more information), VIA Metropolitan Transit, the San Antonio Conservation Society, Neighborhood News, that provides essential communication tools for neighborhood organizations at affordable prices, and Solid Waste Management answered questions about what items can be recycled.

Speakers involved in neighborhood issues were there and available for questions afterward, including David Garza, the head of Housing and Neighborhood Services (who gave us his direct phone number, 207-5850), Tommy Adkisson, County Commissioner Precinct 4, who has been involved with his neighborhood HOA at Highland Hills since the age of 19, and Ashley Hernandez, a 19 year old college student, who has been the chair of the Woodlawn Lake Basura Bash for 3 years.

Several workshops were also offered on topics such as developing neighborhood leadership, how to use social networking and internet websites to promote neighborhood activities, neighborhood legal issues, HOA board training, and responsible pet ownership.

The keynote speech was given by Dr. Christine Drennon of Trinity University about the Trinity Project.  The Trinity Project is a Place Based development project that works to coordinate the efforts of the various governmental agencies and private entities (which in the past have worked independently and sometimes at crosspurposes) to work together to revitalize neighborhoods.

The pilot project is focused on the Eastside Reinvestment Zone that includes the Dignowity Hill neighborhood.  This area was chosen because funding was already in place.  The catalyst that sparked involvement by the neighborhood was the announced SAISD school closure list that included two schools in the immediate area.  Dr. Drennon believes that a strong neighborhood can be glued together by its neighborhood schools.  Schools can be used for more than just class time, libraries could be opened up for neighborhood use, school facilities could be used for community meetings and playground facilities could be used to promote health initiatives. The goal of the project is to revitalize the neighborhood, while maintaining mixed income levels, and encouraging neighbors to stay in the the area.  This is a herculean task because 40% of eastside residents move in and out of the area each year.  If the project suceeds other neighborhoods will be slated to recieve similar attention.

I for one, plan to keep tabs on the Trinity Project, if it works, it could initate a new way of dealing with neighborhood, city and regional issues.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Views on Zoning: Smart Growth

Now a days more and more planners are becoming New Urbanists.  New Urbanism champions encouraging higher density housing, mass transit and mixed uses within smaller areas that make fully contained neighborhoods with a myriad of land uses within a two to three mile area.  Huh?  What this means is that New Urbanists want to recreate the old city neighborhood that existed before the advent of zoning; remember the business with the family quarters above it, walkable streets and street cars.

The idea of the importance of the mixed use city neighborhood was first touted by Jane Jacobs in her book
The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Written in 1961, the book lambasts urban planners for their shortsidedness in building large multi-family housing projects with interior public spaces (such as parks and playgrounds) to separate the inhabitants from the unclean, noisome street.  She argues that the busy, noisy street was what kept people safe.  Seldom used interior spaces became inhabited by hoodlums and were danger zones.  She stresses the importance of the local shopkeeper as a trusted member of the neighborhood who helps glue the neighborhood together and has a vested interest in keeping the area safe.

In order to recreate this ideal neighborhood New Urbanists instituted a strategy called Smart Growth.  Smart Growth uses a number of tools to force density and encourage mixed uses.  Zoning designations that allow mixed uses started to come into vogue in the early 2000s.  In 2002 the City of San Antonio came up with a plan for its first New Urbanist Neighborhood, City South.

 Since this area of the city has long been underdeveloped, city leaders had big dreams that encouraging mixed uses (along with a new Toyota Manufacturing Facility) would create interest and desirability for the area. Unfortunately, so far most growth still occurs mostly in the far north and western areas of the city where residential land is considered more attractive, and school districts more competitive.

San Antonio included Smart Growth use patterns in its new Unified Development Code (UDC) adopted in 2006

This Unified Development Code includes "Use Patterns" for various forms of smart growth development such as traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development, neighborhood centers and conservation subdivisions, new infill development zones, parking caps, and street design and infrastructure options.

The purpose of this code is to consolidate the regulations pertaining to patterns of development in San Antonio. These use patterns reflect either the majority of anticipated permitting activity or the patterns, such as traditional neighborhood development, that the city would like to encourage. Each section describes the use pattern, the procedure for approval, and the standards relating to approval, with cross-references to other parts of this chapter where needed. The intent is to present a visual, user-friendly overview of the regulations that apply to those types of uses or development styles.
Three new zoning designations were adopted, Mixed Use Districts (MXD), Transit Oriented Development Districts (TOD) and Infill Development Zones (IDZ).  MXDs encourage concentrated mixed uses like the old fashioned city neighborhood, TODs encourage mixed use zones along proposed light rail lines and IDZs allow flexible uses for unused land parcels (brownfields) in inner city areas.

Most of Downtown along with several neighborhoods, surrounding the central business district, within Loop 410 have MXD designations.  There are also several neighborhoods outside of 410 with lower density MXD designations. (Check out this site to see zoning maps in PDF form, be warned, these are huge files.)  What's interesting is a lot of the MXD designations outside the Loop are over existing residential neighborhoods.  Concievably, home owners could have home business, which has been strictly banned.  However, mixed uses are still segregated to certain areas within these districts, so MXD designations are somewhat misleading.  So the only truly mixed used zone with the potential to become a New Urbanist neighborhood, other than Downtown is City South.

In 2008, Bradley Schacherl conducted an applied research project for the Texas State University Public Administration Program called Assesing Smart Growth in San Antonio, Texas.  He concluded that
The City of San Antonio recognizes that it must enact policies to control its
tremendous growth and fight the effects that sprawl and years of unbridled growth have
caused to its infrastructure and land. However, the City has chosen to enact partial
policies and does not seem fully committed to all aspects of smart growth, or must
overcome certain obstacles associated with Smart Growth. San Antonio’s population is
majority Hispanic, of which many are of Mexican origin. City administrators must focus
on this demographic and package certain Smart Growth policies in a way that is attractive
to this population. The City has done a very good job with its array of revitalization
projects and continues to redevelop land including brownfields. San Antonio also does a
fairly good job of providing mixed and affordable housing. Areas like Coliseum Oaks
and Arroyo Vista prove what San Antonio can accomplish once it wholeheartedly adopts
a smart growth plan. The example of City South has become a model of smart growth
and New Urbanist policies in San Antonio. This area showcases the types of
communities that can be created in San Antonio and should serve as an example for other
local neighborhoods and developments.
Schacherl suggests that
first, the city must work at establishing new developments as Traditional Neighborhood Developments and to provide incentives to transform existing neighborhoods into TND. A prime example of missed opportunity is the Alamo Quarry Works (AQW). The AQW has everything except some type of dense housing mixed-in.  Perhaps some apartment complexes, or condos would fit perfectly in this immediate area.  This housing would also facilitate more mass transit out to this area and could turn the many parking lots into a concentrated, central parking garage. The second area the city must focus on is its mass transit system, with particular emphasis on upgrades to its pedestrian accessibility. A truly efficient and accessible transit system will attract more riders and will support additional revenues through increases in fares. Locating more
transit stops in accessible areas in the neighborhoods and designing neighborhood
improvements around these transit stops would be an acceptable first step. Next, the city
needs to evaluate and rework many of the stops in the downtown and commercial areas to
be more pedestrian friendly and accessible. An aggressive plan for a light rail system
should be created and fast tracked to serve the city and alleviate some of the growing
traffic congestion. To help with costs, a light rail system could be implemented in parts
to serve the areas with the greatest need first. The system should be designed anticipating
the growth and addition of more lines as funds become available.

To decrease the amount of urban sprawl, pollution, and uncontrolled growth, the
city of San Antonio must become more proactive in adopting and enforcing the New
Urbanist ideals. If the City continues to revitalize its established communities, they
should end their practice of annexing suburban areas in an attempt to regain tax base.
The City should focus more on purchasing greenspace and limiting development while it
focuses its priorities on increasing the population density within its city limits.
 This last suggestion leads us to creating non-development zones that circle the city to force higher density growth within the city.  These Green Urban Growth Boundaries, most notibly used in Portland, Oregon, are created by city purchases of development rights to vacant and farm/ranch land that surrounds the city.  These zones do increase residential density within the city, the only problem is they raise housing costs through the roof as Wendell Cox argues on New Geography.

The Issue is Land Supply: The escalation of new house prices during the bubble occurred virtually all in non-construction costs such as the costs of land and any additional regulatory costs. It is not sufficient to look at a large supply of new housing (as the Boston Fed researchers do) and conclude that regulation has not taken its toll. The principal damage done by more restrictive land regulation comes from limiting the supply of land, which drives its price up and thereby the price of houses. In some places where there was substantial building, restrictive land use regulations also skewed the market strongly in favor of sellers. This dampening of supply in the face of demand drove land prices up hugely, even before the speculators descended to drive the prices even higher. Florida and interior California metropolitan areas (such as Sacramento and Riverside-San Bernardino) are examples of this.
One of the reasons San Antonio has been largely unscathed by the Great Recession is the fact the housing is still reasonably priced.  A median priced home inside the city limits is about $189,000 and even more reasonable in the rest of the county, $145,000.  New Urbanists would argue that this is a bad thing because it encourages urban sprawl, which is true, but sprawl in SA mostly goes towards the Hill Country.

Now I'm sure many of you have seen articles in the Express-News about the Hill Country ecosystem being stressed by the amount of development taking place there.  The Nature Conservancy observes that
Hill Country towns today are magnets for Texas urbanites seeking a small-town lifestyle within
commuting distance of Austin and San Antonio. As a result, the populations of seven counties
within the ecoregion are among the fastest growing in the nation. San Antonio, the eighth-largest
American city, continues to grow, with much of that growth occurring in the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer.
The very appeal of the Edwards Plateau spurs the greatest challenge to conserving the ecoregion: We are in danger of loving the Hill Country to death. Poorly planned growth;
habitat fragmentation as older, large landholdings are developed; introduction of harmful, non-native species; poor range-management practices; and suppression of natural fire are putting severe pressure on the environment, particularly water resources.
The city has been buying up land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone since 2000, implementing a additional 1/8 cent sales tax, approved by the voters, to purchase this sensitive property.  So far the city has bought up 97,000 acres.
2010 Proposition 1
This November 2, 2010, voters will have an opportunity to again consider whether the City may continue to impose a 1/8-of-a-cent sales tax for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Venue Project. This proposition would authorize the City of San Antonio to continue the watershed protection and preservation projects initiated in 2000 and continued in 2005. It would continue to protect water in the Edwards Aquifer by acquiring and preserving land or interest in land in the aquifer's recharge and contributing zones inside and outside Bexar County. The 1/8 cent sales tax would collect $90 million for this project.
 The more land bought up by this project, the less would be available for housing in these areas.  Who knows, maybe someday, City South will finally become attractive to new homebuyers and city growth will become more balanced.  I guess we will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Will the Edwards Aquifer still be ours to control?

The Edwards Underground Water District, a local government entity, is in jeopardy of being closed down if they can't make a decision about how much water can be used during times of severe drought.  You may be thinking, great, I didn't like the Edwards Authority anyway. But, if the district disappears then either the Texas state legislature or the Feds will take over water policy for the aquifer that supplies water to Bexar, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, Hays, Medina and Uvalde counties.
Personally, I would rather decisions about the aquifer be made by the people who use it.

The members represent an array of competing interests — city water systems, farmers, industries, environmentalists and others. So far, they've gotten along, but Friday their track record of consensus started to fray and some balked at what changes might have to occur to solve the problem.
The debate surrounds how much water needs to continue to flow into the springs in order for endangered species, protected by federal law, to survive.  Biologists hired by the authority estimate that there needs to be a 30 cubic foot flow of water through the Comal Springs for the animals to survive, but environmentalists aren't buying this and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, a large wholesale water supplier, doesn't agree with that figure either.  They don't think 30 cubic feet is enough to meet their customers water demands.

Right now the district is between a rock and a hard place.  Compromise is imperative to keep local control.  Perhaps no one will be happy, but at least we get to continue to have a say in how our water is used.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Southside ISD Election may be a victim of voter apathy

Well, just another example of voter apathy, the Southside ISD bond election, which ends today at 6:oopm has had a dismal turnout so far, less than 1% of eligible voters have cast their ballots.

This doesn't surprise me a whole lot because Southside ISD is a minority school district with a high poverty rate.  Most people are just trying to survive and many work long hours.  Their access to information is also limited.   But it's not like the school district hasn't tried to get their attention. 

Jorge Topete, the district's public information officer, said district officials have worked to promote awareness of the election through a public hearing, postings on the district's website and Twitter, announcing election information at a recent football game, visiting local churches, sending information to local businesses and other methods.
The bond won't even effect the tax rate for the district, it just allows them to shift funding around.  So if you know anyone who lives in the district, urge them to go vote!

For information on where to vote check out this post.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What kind of Grocery Store would work for Downtown?

Well, I just read an interesting story in the Express-News about a potential property swap between the city and SAISD.  The city wants to swap the Friedich Air Conditioning Factory building, which now has very low occupancy and is a blight on east side development, for the current SAISD headquarters on Lavaca in the central downtown area.  One of the possibilities for the use of the Lavaca facility is a downtown grocery store.  Right now the closest grocery store to downtown is on West Commerce at Zarzamora on the west side and E Houston at N New Braunfels on the east side, each about 2 miles from downtown.  Not that far by car, but part of the allure of living downtown is not having to use a car.

Some nay sayers don't believe that a grocery store would have enough business downtown.  Part of the problem is the number of people who live there, about 15,000.  A regular grocery store needs about 30,000 customers to make a go of it.  So, I say, why does this have to be like all the other stores in town?

First off, it would probably make a lot of sense to do some marketing research.  HEB does this all the time in their stores, in case you're wondering why they pull you aside to try food and fill out questionaires.  I know they have a good marketing research department.  Questionaires that ask about food preferences, income levels, amount of home cooking versus preprepared meals the population eats, whether they would prefer to cook if they had the option, preferred ways of bagging food to take home, how often they would be apt to shop there, how much money would they probably spend on a visit, how often would they shop and how many would be apt to use a car, versus public transport or walking.  This would give them a place to start.  Of course, it stands to reason that this store would be smaller than a normal store, it may need to have a large variety of food options, but just not stock as many of the same item as they would in stores outside of downtown.

If the city owned the Lavaca property, they could give HEB a break on the lease, until the store started turning a profit.  This would be in the city's best interest, because it would make downtown more attractive to potential downtown dwellers.  The HEB company would be the best option because they have a large operation that can buy in bulk and distribute merchandise throughout all the stores in town, they have a good marketing research department, they have done specialized projects before and Charles Butt, the CEO of the company, is also interested in making downtown a viable neighborhood.

So, if you live downtown, what kind of a grocery store would you like to have?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Smaller House in Your Future?

McMansion:  A great big, pretentious, tract built, "luxury home", usually considered tasteless and badly designed.

The death nell for the McMansion has been heard across the internet.  First cities started enacting zoning regulations to limit the size of housing and now that the economy has put us on a diet, we are asking for downsized housing to help us lose financial weight.  Well, not only are McMansions dying off, middle income home sizes are shrinking as well. 

It's just plain cheaper to buy a smaller house.  Not only do they cost less, they are less expensive to air condition and heat.  The economy is actually forcing people to become green!  Smaller houses on smaller lots use less space, less electricity and less water for landscape maintenance.  They also save money because you don't need as much furniture to fill them up.  Even if you want a custom built house, it doesn't need to be huge.  Sarah Susanka has been designing houses for years that have all the amenities, but use space wisely.

Now, tell me, do you really need a great big house? 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

C'mon People, Get Out and Vote!

Voter turnout for local races in Bexar County is always dismally low.  That's why I like to vote in those elections because my vote really counts.

This November the elections are statewide, with the Governor's race, several state official spots and some congressional seats up for grabs.  This is an important election, but county election officials are predicting only 30 percent of registered voters will show up, and that's with 27,000 fewer registered voters than in 2006.

So what's holding YOU back?

Do you need to register, or find out if you are registered?   Then check here.
You have until October 6, 2010 to register.

Want to know who represents you now and what districts you're in?  Click here for statewide offices and here for.  For Bexar County and City of San Antonio click here.

Are you not sure who's running?  Then check here.

Do you need more information about the candidates?  Then check here.
Also, check out Texas Public Radio 89.1 FM about a week before the election (November 2, 2010) for interviews with the candidates.

Not sure when voting starts?  Check here.

Are you living abroad, but still want to vote?  Check here.
Not sure which precinct you're in?  Check here.

Do you want to vote early?  Here are the locations and dates.

Don't know where you're supposed to go vote on election day?  Click here.

So now you have NO EXCUSES!!!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Build San Antonio Green

Heather Gayle Holdridge, the Sustainability Coordinator for Lake|Flato Architects, wrote an interesting article  awhile back about green buildings and their importance to the greater sustainability effort in San Antonio.
Buildings represent
almost 75 percent of electricity consumption in the country, and here in San Antonio, consumption climbs to more than 90 percent. Buildings are also major users of our potable water supply. Research has shown that building greener buildings would do more for the environment than any other single measure. There is no way to conserve water and energy faster, more significantly or more inexpensively.
So I decided to see what's happening in the green building sphere.

The City of San Antonio is getting on board.  The city approved its first contract for a green friendly fire station.  The San Antonio Housing Authority incorporated sustainable features such as solar panels and improved insulation in its new San Juan Square Apartment project.

The Fountainhead Business Park II received the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver Certification in SA in July.  Genzyme, the sole tenant, made it easy for Grubb & Ellis to retrofit the building to meet standards for lighting, recycling, and use of green building materials and cleaning supplies.

Northside ISD just opened its first green school, Martin Elementary School, which in not only the first school to be built within Loop 410 since the 1980s, but also LEED certified.  Among other features, it has light sensors, concrete paving instead of asphalt to lower heat, window shades for west facing windows and a learning garden.

The Pearl Brewery Complex's Full Goods Building has the largest solar array in SA on its roof and is a joint venture with CPS Energy.

Source:  San Antonio Express-News
YouthBuild Construction Corp. teaches high school dropout how to build green buildings.  Their home building project on the east side is underway to meet LEED standards and they plan to sell the home for $72,000.   And Lennar Homes has become the first national builder in San Antonio to agree to meet LEED standards for all of its new home construction.  The city's Office of Environmental Policy has a Green Contractor Rebate Program for participating builders and remodelers. 

So what can you do to make your property more green?  Hire a Home Energy Auditor.
The average cost of retrofitting a house once it has been audited is $8,000 to $10,000, according to Von Schrader, and it is not always advisable to go with the lowest estimate. "Work done correctly often costs more," he says.
Fortunately, there are programs to offset the costs. Some state energy programs and utilities offer rebates, which require accredited home-energy auditors and contractors to do the work. A federal energy tax credit of $1,500 is available until the end of this year.
 Check out the rebate programs offered by CPS and SAWS.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The State of the Air in SA

The American Lung Association has posted its State of the Air City Rankings.  Cities were rated by the amount of ozone in the air, year round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution. The 25
Worst Cities were slightly different for each category.  Luckily, San Antonio didn't make any of the lists, but that doesn't mean we have nothing to worry about.  The ALA gave SA a failing grade for the 34 orange ozone action days it logged during the reporting period.  Orange means unhealthy for sensitive populations, like people with asthma, lung problems and the elderly.

Morning Edition's story on heat waves and air pollution reported that

Ozone and fine particles are the two types of pollution that trigger Code Red and Orange days. Both are formed out of exhaust from power plants, cars and a lot of other things. With ozone "the two bad chemical actors are oxides of nitrogen and hydrocarbons," Edelman says. "When they're exposed to heat and sunlight, a chemical reaction takes place which releases ozone." And when people breathe it in, it irritates their lungs, which are as fragile as the inside of eyelids.
Children are particularly susceptible  because their air passageways are much smaller than adults.  Asthma attacks are brought on by inflammation of the lungs which is caused by breathing in harmful irritants, so children with asthma are at higher risk on ozone action days and are not allowed outside. 

Breathing in ozone and particulate matter can also cause asthma symptoms in otherwise healthy children.  This study published in the Lancet by R. McConnell, found that

In communities with high ozone concentrations, the relative risk of developing asthma in children playing three or more sports was 3·3 (95% CI 1·9–5·8), compared with children playing no sports. Sports had no effect in areas of low ozone concentration (0·8, 0·4–1·6). Time spent outside was associated with a higher incidence of asthma in areas of high ozone (1·4, 1·0–2·1), but not in areas of low ozone. Exposure to pollutants other than ozone did not alter the effect of team sports.

The good news for Texas is that air quality is improving.  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has tips on what you can do to improve the air.

Tips for Citizens: 10 Things You Can Do

  • Share a ride to work or school.
  • Avoid morning rush-hour traffic.
  • Walk or ride a bicycle.
  • Take your lunch to work or school.
  • Combine errands into one trip.
  • Avoid drive-through lanes.
  • Postpone refueling until after 6 p.m.
  • Don't top off your gas tank when refueling.
  • Postpone using gas engines such as lawnmowers until after 6 p.m.
  • Keep your vehicle properly tuned to keep exhaust levels low.

Tips for Business and Industry:
Small Steps, Big Solutions

  • Shift work schedules to allow employees to avoid morning rush-hour traffic.
  • Allow employees to work at home (telecommuting).
  • Offer bus passes.
  • For employees who rideshare or use public transportation, provide a guaranteed emergency ride home.
  • Carpool to lunch and meetings.
  • Schedule meetings that don't require driving (meet on site or make conference calls).
  • Offer free drinks at your cafeteria to encourage employees to eat at work.
  • Postpone fueling fleet vehicles until after 6 p.m.
  • Postpone working with mowers, bulldozers, backhoes, tractors, and other two-cycle engine activities.
  • Delay painting, degreasing, tank cleaning, ground maintenance, and road repair.
  • Postpone routine flaring or venting of hydrocarbons.
  • Postpone the loading and hauling of volatile organic compound (VOC).
  • Postpone VOC-producing activities such as chemical treatment and catalyst preparation.
  • Switch loads to fired heaters or boilers with low nitrogen oxide burners.
To find out the daily air quality forecast check out the AirNow website.  Looks like it's gonna be a Good day in SA.