Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: Austin (page 1 of 8)

Last chance at Little City

Little City is a coffee shop that’s become a bit of an Austin institution over the last 17 years. They’ve lost their lease and will close May 13th. Gwen and I had a last lunch there today.

We recently rented Slacker, and the movie is slice of Austin’s past. Almost none of the locations in Slacker still exist in the same form. When I walk around town, I see what used to be superimposed on what is, like a palimpsest

Little City wasn’t in Slacker (the fact that it’s too new is a bit odd to contemplate), but in a few days it too will become a layer of palimpsest that I can’t help but see.

The not-Nueces not-Bike Boulevard

Dear City of Austin—

I think your heart actually is in the right place regarding bikes. You want to do right by bikes. But time and again, you’ve shown that when you apply bike facilities to existing infrastructure, the streetscape is such that the results are worse than no bike facilities at all. Beyond that, the fact that compromise apparently is valued not only as an end in itself, but as a higher goal than a good outcome (which is the nicest way I can say that you lack the courage of your convictions) means that good ideas get turned into bad ones. We saw this with Shoal Creek Boulevard, and now we’re seeing it with the Nueces Bike Boulevard.

The irony is that Nueces already feels like a de facto bike boulevard. It gets very little motor traffic and is a pleasant place to ride. When the project was first announced, I thought it was smart, a way to recognize and build on what already exists.

But the whole Shoal Creek Boulevard debacle taught us that the city prioritizes convenience for parked cars above bikes. I suppose the retreat from the original Nueces Bike Boulevard plan is slightly less appalling, in that it shows the city prioritizes convenience for moving cars above bikes. But it is still galling.

I don’t want to be that guy who complains without offering solutions. Here’s mine: Stop. Stop planning or announcing any bike facilities whatsoever. You just get our hopes up and then let us down.

Mueller ramble

Gwen and I went for a walk through Mueller today, and because it’s Sunday, there were a lot of open houses. We stopped in six. It was educational.

The first two we stopped in were of a small number of showcase, architect-designed, “parade of homes” houses facing the park. These all have seven-digit pricetags. The others were all builder houses. The contrast between them was interesting. The architect-designed houses were profligate in their use of fancy materials and construction techniques. One of them had a floating staircase where each tread was supported from the ceiling by a serpentine square-section tube, and slatted overhangs above the windows that in total consisted of many hundreds of small tubes, each screwed down in four places. Swingarm mounts for flat-panel TVs abounded. Another had a rooftop porch (accessible by elevator!) with a sink shaped like a martini glass.

The builder homes, in contrast, were all swaddled in carpeting that could charitably be described as “disposable,” and generally had cheap finishes and cheap materials except on certain bullet-point features. We were struck by one home, listed for $608K, that had pine cabinets stained to look like walnut, but a vast expanse of marble countertops in the kitchen practically equal to our house’s floor space. On a house that was listed for more than $500K, the interior doors were plastic. Most the builder houses felt very suburban, with fussy trim, “great rooms,” and upstairs playrooms for kids. There was only one house that had a (sort of) open-plan first floor. While all the homes have some level of LEED certification and meet some kind of green-building standards, this struck me again as a bullet point to be checked off rather than as an actual design goal. Houses had incredibly high ceilings (whose main purpose seems to be making lightbulb-changing difficult), but no ceiling fans. None of the homes made any provision for rainwater collection, and when Gwen quizzed the realtor at one of the architect-designed homes as to why, she answered “there wasn’t room.” Which struck me as unlikely—I doubted it had ever been contemplated.

I was struck by the way quantity is prioritized over quality: maximum floor space seems to be the number one priority. Yard space was very limited—I know that short setbacks were mandated for Mueller, and I can’t really complain about small back yards in a city, but those are some of the very few features of the development that feel urban. All of the houses were at least twice as big as our house, and were clearly not designed with people like us in mind. Something that traded space for quality of construction, without going overboard on showy, labor-intensive features, and that reflected a more urban aesthetic. There is a single row of boxy, modern townhouses, but that’s the only part of Mueller like that, and we didn’t get a chance to look inside them.

Dean Keaton restriping

Google Maps image of Dean Keaton at I-35

When I got home from the recent road trip, I discovered that Dean Keaton had been restriped, adding reverse-angle parking, bike lanes, zebra stripes, and a generally dizzying array of new road markings. On the day of David Byrne’s recent talk about bikes, I rode this newly restriped stretch of road and found it to be a disaster for bikes.

The image above shows how the street looked before restriping. To be fair, this is an inherently difficult situation to make bike-friendly, especially westbound: there is a pullout for a city bus, an offramp, an onramp, and two places where traffic is turning across the lane. Not visible here is the fact that this is all happening on a downhill, so both bikes and cars are likely to be moving relatively fast (this stretch is signed as 30 mph, but the limit is rarely observed). Also not visible is another intersecting offramp just to the west.

As shown here, the street has two lanes, with a third lane for merging offramp traffic. After restriping, there is one lane on the left, a no-man’s-land denoted by zebra stripes, and a bike lane on the right; there’s a second lane for merging offramp traffic.

The way the bike lanes have been striped makes them an absolute hazard. The bike lanes zig-zag across onramp and offramp traffic in a way that minimizes the crossing distance. This runs contrary to both my own intuition and effective cycling methods, where the cyclist holds a straight line across the onramp/offramp. Worse perhaps is the quality of the pavement: although the pavement in the main travel lanes is in good shape, pavement in the bike lane is very rough.

As a cyclist, I am skeptical of bike lanes in general. They seem to be designed to cater naïve riders, who don’t know how to conduct themselves in traffic, and more than that, to motorists, who don’t want to be forced to deal with bikes at all. Many motorists will interpret the existence of a bike lane as a requirement that bikes ride in it, even when it is impassable. And naïve riders will follow bike lanes, even when they’re laid out poorly. That said, there can be good bike lanes and bad bike lanes. This is a bad one. A motorist taking the onramp or offramp will come up fast on a cyclist staying inside the lane, who is swerving and cutting perpendicularly across the motorist’s path at the same time. The choppy road surface set aside for the cyclist clearly reflects our second-class status. And the plethora of dashed lines, zebra stripes, chevrons, etc, all serve to confound everybody.

That night, I went to David Byrne’s presentation. One of the speakers was the City of Austin Bicycle Coordinator, Annick Beaudet. She spoke proudly of some of the city’s new bike facilities. Including this one. I can understand a city bureaucrat taking pride in seeing a project to completion, but I have to wonder: has she actually ridden this stretch of road?

See also: How not to design a bike lane.

Highball observations

After seeing The Informant at Alamo South, Gwen and I stuck our heads in at The Highball. A few observations:

1. The place looks great. Seriously, like some kind of Rat Pack fantasy.
2. If Tim & Co don’t do a good job keeping the place up, it’s going to look like shit in three years.
3. I predict it will be the site of the Hipster Singularity.

Austin Broadband Information Center

I recently wrote about the impending volume caps that Time Warner Cable will be imposing on its Austin customers, a move which has earned an angry reaction from many Austinites. I’ve seen an online petition in opposition to these caps. I’m not a customer of TWC, and frankly, I’d be just as happy for them to continue pissing off their customers, convincing more and more customers to leave, until TWC doesn’t have any customers left to worry about pissing off.

It is telling that TWC approvingly cites Canada as an example of bandwidth caps in action. Cory Doctorow, a Canadian citizen, has stated that he cannot live in Canada because Internet access there is so dismal. It is equally telling that TWC does not cite South Korea or Japan—where bandwidth that Americans can only dream of is common—as an example of the kind of Internet service they aspire to provide.

Anyhow, the tirelessly public-spirited Chip Rosenthal is actually doing something to help: he’s put together a website to serve as a clearinghouse on information on the subject: the Austin Broadband Information Center. Check it out.

Butterfly garden blog


Gwen and I were walking home from the gym, and swinging past the neighborhood greenbelt when we spotted the sign above. I’d noticed the sign before, but not the URL. We exclaimed and laughed that the butterfly garden—a tiny, improvised corner of something that can’t even be called a park—had its own blog.

A couple of guys were walking a dog behind us, and one of them said “Hey, that’s my blog!” He apologized for the fact that both the blog and the butterfly garden were looking sorry because of the drought.

It’s great that one of the neighbors has stepped up and decided to do something interesting with that corners, and it’s great that he’s got a blog for it too.

East Austin Studio Tour: an incomplete preview

This year’s edition of the East Austin Studio Tour is daunting, with some 200 artists taking part. I plan to see as many as possible, and encourage everyone else to, too. But if that’s just not in the cards, here are some tips for places to see that should give a good sampling on a limited time budget.

First off, ride your bike. Places are so close together you’ll likely spend at least as much time driving, parking, walking from car to each venue, and so on as you would if you rode—plus, bikes are more fun.

Second, there are a lot of different locations, but there are a few locations that have a lot of artists.

Here are some highlights. I am unapologetically playing favorites and calling out my friends here. The numbers below are the numbers given on the map.

9. Big Red Sun. Landscape architects. Always beautiful stuff here.

12. Okay Mountain. They always have interesting stuff.

14. Ethan Azarian. Whimsical paintings.

15. Barry George. Sculptures made out of scrapmetal. Do not miss.

30. Doghouse Studios. My friend Jen Balkan, who just got a nice writeup in the Chronicle, is based here.

151. Obsolete Industries. Poster printers. Yes, this is numbered out of sequence

45. Lisa Crowder. Jewelry with really nice silversmithing that combines fine work with a slightly industrial aesthetic. One of her studio-mates is a ceramicist who I don’t know but does nice work. And the Seussian building facade by Lance is a work of art in its own right.

49. Veronica Ceci Blasphemous robot art. Need I say more? There’s other good stuff at her location.

59. Splinter Group. Several furniture makers are based here, and they do stunning work.

60. Pump Project. This location probably has the most art, and the most artists, per square foot, of any place on the tour.

68. Big Medium. These are the guys who started E.A.S.T. Another high-density art complex.

70. Craig Newswanger is the mad scientist responsible for the singing Tesla coils. ‘Nuff said. He’s in a complex with a lot of other worthy artists, making this another high-value target.

78/79. Gingko Studios/Philippe Kleinfelter. Ceramics and monuments. It’s fun just to walk around this place. Sort of out of the way, but worth it.

84. Austin Artistic Reconstruction. These are my people. They are creative and weird.

91-99. Tillery Studios. This is where my good friend and neighbor Mychal has her studio, which is where Gwen will be the guest artist. This is a very big complex with a lot of very good stuff. Another high-value target.

127. Flatbed Press.

I know there’s a lot of other great stuff on the tour, and I don’t mean to give short shrift to anyone, but I feel confident recommending all these locations.

Promoting parental responsibility

Bumper sticker spotted at El Chilito:

“If you don’t talk to your kids about John Aielli, who will?”

After the storm

Split tree on Clarkson

Austin was hit by a severe storm, with baseball-sized hail and 80-mph winds, at about 12:30 AM on 15 May 2008.

We came through it OK. There are a few new dings in our car, there’s a small rip in the screen on our porch, and some of our tomato plants look pretty bedraggled, but no big deal. Power was out on our block for over 24 hours, something I’ve never seen before.

Many of the trees in our neighborhood have been very badly damaged. A neighboring house had every west-facing window broken. Oakwood Cemetery, which has many ancient trees, has been ravaged.

I’ve posted some photos of the storm’s aftermath around my neighborhood on flickr.

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