San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
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March 28th, 2008
Building cities we care about

The Myth of Jones: A Column
By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

Most of the people who have moved to Buda and Kyle in the last several years did so because of a misunderstanding. They thought they were moving to Austin.

They knew – we all knew – that we weren’t moving to Austin proper. We moved to the place where we could find the best house for the money, maybe to a place that’s of Austin if not in it, or maybe to a school system with a little less chaos than the public outfit in Austin. But we all thought we were either moving to or staying in Austin.

After all, the jobs are in Austin. The money is in Austin. The fine restaurants, the nightclubs, the recreation, the museums and theaters are in Austin. People didn’t move here because they heard through the grapevine that Buda is a haven for young singles. People didn’t move here because they read in a national magazine that Kyle is a magnet for the creative class. People didn’t move here because Hays County is a jobs gold mine. They moved to Austin and wound up finding their houses in Hays County.

According to data from the Hays CISD, total population within the school district almost doubled from 2000 to August 2007, from 30,767 to 58,528. By 2012, that number will rise to 74,166.

All over a misunderstanding, which threatens to morph into a self-fulfilling prophecy as the influences of suburbanization cast their homogenizing shadows down the interstate from the capital city.

See, Buda and Kyle aren’t Austin, and they never have been. They are historically freestanding communities, always fairly near Austin, but a world away as recently as ten years ago. They were struggling communities, to be sure, but they were their own invention and people cared about them as such.

One remembers his first understanding of Buda, back in 1999, when a town of fewer than 2,000 people feared that a 2,000-home subdivision would unbalance school taxes, clog the few roads around and clutter the quiet nowhere they treasured as home. Hundreds of people showed up at the Kunkel Room at Buda Elementary School to voice their concerns in an electric town meeting.

One old man complained that night traffic on IH-35 was growing so loud he no longer could hear the whippoorwills at night. People worried that the community would lose its sense of intimacy.

Maybe the outcry made a difference, and maybe it didn’t, but the developer soon after cancelled the project. However, hundreds of other local developments persisted. So, we still don’t hear the whippoorwills, anymore, and the community has lost much of its intimacy.

The area reached a turning point back in 2002, when a man who lived in Kyle fell to his death off Mount Bonnell in Austin. The death was shocking enough. Even more shocking, no one in Kyle apparently knew this man, which had, until then, been nearly inconceivable.

People who lived in Kyle all their lives and seemingly at least knew the names and some family history of everyone in town didn’t know the dead man in the news who had just lived among them. He apparently had moved to town recently. Unbeknownst, a stranger lived in town. One of the first out of tens of thousands. Kyle was on its way to becoming the social brownfield of suburban anonymity that we know – or don’t know – today.

Growth, in and of itself, isn’t the problem for Buda and Kyle. If it were, then Buda and Kyle would be in big trouble because the forces of demography are larger and stronger than any forces we could marshal against them, even if we still wanted to.

Buda and Kyle realized as much seven or eight years ago, so they raised a good question: Granting that growth is inevitable, how do we want to grow? The answer, in essence, was that we wanted to preserve the area’s rural character while encouraging enough of a commercial tax base to keep school taxes in line.

Maybe that wasn’t the best answer. We’ve wound up with single-family homes on large lots in numbers doubling the local population, so traffic is murderous. To that, we’ve added cookie-cutter strip retail. In short, we’ve got sprawl, designed to accommodate automobiles rather than people, at a time when the oil economy makes the model decreasingly tenable. Furthermore, these communities are losing their individuating character to the stamp of suburbanization one can find anywhere in America.

It’s time for a new question, a little more detailed than the old, but still along the same lines: How do we grow Buda and Kyle into places that are worth caring about, granting that many of our residents don’t really care about Buda and Kyle because they think they’re in Austin?

We’ve explored the question to some degree in The Hays Highway (www.hayshighway.com), which believes the answer lies largely in building the living environment to human proportions with less deference to the automobile. Create a unique built environment that puts people and their needs before the automobile.

Nothing against cars, but nor do we gain by building cities that are impassabe without them. The very best solution to traffic congestion is to build cities in which driving isn’t an absolute requirement. In the best cities, the automobile is an instrument of freedom, rather than an instrument of necessity. Think of all the pretty, walkable cities built before the automobile. It not only can be done, but it has been done.

Others might answer differently. Either way, this is the discussion we need to be having. Indeed, these communities need to take the question seriously, lest they should become the nowhere that newcomers mistakenly entered and that old-timers have openly feared.

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2 thoughts on “Building cities we care about

  1. I can’t believe that this very well thought out posting has received no comments since March. HELLO.
    Here are my comments.
    It seems to me that both Kyle & Buda are rolling over to whatever residential developers want to do. Developers want to build cheap cheap houses with no consideration for energy or water conservation. They claim that GREEN improvements mean that costs increase and that buyers will buy elsewhere. Baloney. Kyle & Buda by now ought to have GREEN construction requirements, but from what I have seen here and also in the sprawling city I moved here from, the people in power are from realty, bankers, business owners, and others who have a total interest in immediate population increase. Long term, the no GREEN approach is very much more expensive to all of us.
    Have you noticed that our local roads, even those recently built or improved, have no provision for bicycle riders? Cars & trucks only and shame on us. Did we not know years ago that fuel was going to get expensive? We ride in SUV’s getting few mpg, and get fat. Then we have heart attacks and get lung disease.
    Kyle & Buda are beginning to wallow (comparatively) in tax revenue. This area needs roads &/or paved paths where people can travel locally by burning calories instead of gasoline.
    In short, we need building codes for housing and infrastructure that make sense. Building more sprawl on the cheap is stupid. Unfortunately, those in power want profit and they want it now. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, those in power were smart enough to run for office and they had the connections and funding to win their elections. The rest of us just get up in the morning, go to work the long hours, and come home tired to only a few hours of family time. We don’t run for office. We just gnash our teeth as we sit at the traffic lights and watch development wipe out our rural quality of life.
    I believe that Kyle & Buda can do much better. We deserve better.

  2. Mr. Robinson,

    Thanks for your kind remarks. In fairness to The Mercury’s esteemed readership, I should point out that this publication launched on April 21 and this piece, written nearly a month earlier, was in the archive, so a lot of people probably didn’t see it.

    However, I can’t agree with you more about the points you have made. People in Buda and Kyle aren’t especially hip to this problem, much due to reasons you have given (busy and frustrated just trying to get by, they lack the energy to engage the big policy picture).

    Not that they should be excused. They are Americans, after all. The whole point of America is the freedom, and responsibility, of self-government. People who decline this responsibility deserve what they get. Sadly, Americans are conditioned to decline the responsibility by viewing government as “they” instead of “we.” What the people get, as a result, is scary.

    I’ve got especially low regard for the kind who think nothing of sending kids to Iraq for a blood letting, raising no questions until it’s way too late, then they place American flag decals on their SUVs as if to establish their credentials for patriotism, then they make no sacrifices to reduce our dependency on oil and won’t even trouble themselves to vote in important local elections. I can go on and on (and have), but you get the point. Flag waving truly is “the least” you can do.

    It’s at once sad and heartening to see the old-timers in Buda and Kyle fighting so hard to keep their towns from sliding into sterility. They’re working against enormous social and economic forces.

    Say, for example, that we want local, distinctive businesses. Instead, we get chains, for a couple reasons. One, it’s so much easier and cheaper to buy a national franchise and turn the key than to create an entirely new brand and establishment. Two, the consumer, inherently lacking a sense of adventure, favors the well-known national restaurant because there’s no risk. She knows what she’s going to get. As a result, some very good local restaurants in downtown Buda and Kyle suffer from lack of patronage, even relative to these belt-tightening times. Both downtowns are really struggling right now.

    On the whole, local governments do reach out to citizens, trying to encourage participation. But government can, and will, only do so much without checks and actions by citizens and consumers. Both cities need their citizens to think locally, to patronize local establishments and engage local issues. But that’s not going to happen if the citizens don’t care about where they are.

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