This blog is devoted to things Austin, mainly zoning and land use issues, but perhaps other topics from time to time.
I'm a lawyer, but my viewpoint (I hope) will be relentlessly economic. I'm just an amateur economist, which means I'll mainly borrow my ideas from others. I'll try to provide references. (The side bar has links to academic papers on the economic impact of zoning regulations.)
I'm a 40-ish lawyer who likes living in an urban environment. I live in an "urban home" near Oltorf and South Lamar. I like density because it attracts lots of amenities. Not just more restaurants, bookstores, theaters, and Starbucks. Intangible amenities, too, like less crime, more interesting architecture, arts, and a more lively mix of people.
Austin is not a dense town, though, and not likely to get denser any time soon.
According to 2000 census figures (see here), Austin had a density of just 2,610 per square mile, a little less than Phoenix. Houston (3,372/square mile) and Dallas (3,470/square mile) were much denser, not to mention San Francisco (16,633/square mile), Seattle (6,717/square mile) and Portland (3,939/square mile).
These figures are calculated by dividing city population by land area. That's a pretty crude measure of density (e.g., a city might have an unusually large amount of parkland per capita). But even using more precise measurements, Austin is not very dense. You can check out data compiled by Austin's demographer. (Download NPA_Comparative_Data.pdf) For example, the Bouldin neighborhood, just across Town Lake from downtown, is an "inner city" neighborhood. In 2005, the Bouldin neighborhood had just 8.1 people per acre (or 5,184/square mile). This density is typical of a suburb, not an inner city neighborhood of a large American city. This shouldn't be surprising. The Bouldin neighborhood was just a suburb when it was developed in the '40s and '50s.
Although rapidily rising home prices prove the demand for housing in inner city neighborhoods, I don't expect Austin (except for downtown) to get significantly denser any time soon. Austin's zoning regulations are stacked against dense development. And Austin's neighborhood associations implacably oppose any liberalization of zoning. (The McMansion ordinance they just pushed through actually tightened zoning.)
Austin's neighborhood associations are well organized. The activists who run them have endless amounts of time to campaign against development. The City Council cannot ignore them.
Among other things, I'll talk about why Austin's neighborhood activists are such enemies of increased density. The short answer, IMHO: they want to maximize home value. I don't know that you can expect anything else, really -- people generally will act to maintain or increase their net worth. But we should be spared the moral posturing. There's nothing noble about asking the city council to crimp the housing supply for your economic benefit. These same neighborhood activists who do their best to limit the supply of housing and drive up home values are also the most vocal advocates of affordable (i.e., subsidized) housing, environmental protection, and the preservation of inner city schools -- all goals perfectly incompatible with their agitation for less density.
These inconsistencies will be one of the main themes of this blog.