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Council set to hire consultants for rewrite of Land Development Code

Thursday, March 14, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council members are poised to select the consulting team that will oversee development of eagerly anticipated revisions to the city Land Development Code. Last Thursday, they had the opportunity to meet the teams, and hear their strategies in person.


There is a lot riding on the decision, as tensions surrounding the revisions have remained fairly high. Some think a revision of the convoluted code would make development saner and easier to understand for the whole city. They also think it will speed up the current bog that is city permitting.


Others are wary of the process, and have reservations about the rewrite. They see the city’s development code as a delicately balanced intricate creature, and fear that changes could have ripple effects and unintended consequences – because they’ve seen it in the past.


Developer representative Ron Thrower wrote the following on Facebook this week: “Okay friends and family – putting a warning out there – Austin is embarking on a Land Development Code Rewrite that will surely shape Austin for the rest of my lifetime. For the next 2-5 years you will see a lot of arguments, agreements, advice, answers and articulate announcements. Along with babble, burble, banter, bicker-bicker-bicker, brouhaha, balderdash, ballyhoo. Likely followed with comments, clichés, commentary, controversy, chatter, chit-chat, conversation, contradiction, criticism, cheap talk. Followed by debates, discussions, dialogue, dualogue, diatribe, dissention, declamation, double talk . . .”


As Planning and Development Review Assistant Director George Adams explained at Council last week, after each major step in the process (such as creating a draft, or adopting the new code) it will be reviewed by the city, stakeholders, and the public.


The process for selecting a consultant team for the revisions also involves a great deal of participation, as it is one of the first big steps towards getting the revision process started. City Council heard presentations from the two teams last Thursday, and will weigh in at their next meeting. They will also consider public input and input from the recently-formed Land Development Advisory Group in making their decision.


The revisions will help align the code with the Imagine Austin Comprehensive plan that City Council adopted in July 2012. There are also high hopes that the changes will also simplify the LDC, which has become more complicated each year.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell relayed an anecdote about a possibly fake British law that required two regulations to be removed for every new one created.


“I think that’s kind of what I’m looking for,” said Leffingwell. “Frankly, what we have now is a Land Development Code that is like a house which has been added on to about fifty times. The whole thing really needs to be taken down and reconstructed.”


“I think our problem is the complexity of our code. If we can simplify the code, the process is automatically going to run a lot smoother,” said Leffingwell.


City staff has independently recommended Clarion Associates, according to the March 21 City Council agenda, which asks Council to approve up to $2 million for consulting services, though contracts will be negotiated in May of this year.


This past November the city sent out a Request for Qualifications to over 2400 firms. Though 103 of those sought information on the RFQ, only three submitted their qualifications. At that point, the city narrowed the field to the two firms that presented to City Council: Clarion Associates and Opticos Design.


Though based in Colorado, Clarion Associates is no stranger to Austin or the Land Development Code. In 2006 they worked to develop subchapters E and F – which established design standards and the McMansion ordinance, respectively. They have also enlisted some local talent, hiring John King of Chan & Partners Engineering, Carter Design Associates president Donna Carter, and Karen McGraw, who is an architect and Vice-Chair of the city’s Residential Design and Compatibility Commission.


Clarion has also partnered with Wallace, Roberts and Todd, which was the city’s prime consultant for the Imagine Austin Plan.


“There are a lot of different zoning traditions that are out there… We’re very familiar with each of those traditions, and from our perspective in the cities we’ve worked on, there’s not one magic formula. There is typically a mix. There’s a balanced code structure that each city comes up with,” said Matt Goebel, a partner in the firm. “This is Austin. Y’all always have a lot of balls in the air. We recognize that, and it’s one of the things we like about working here…There are a lot of moving parts beyond just urban design and we need to understand how all those pieces fit into the puzzle.”


Opticos Design, which is based in Berkeley, California, has also enlisted Austin help. Their local team is led by McCann Adams Studio, and they have also included Todd LaRue of RCLCO, Kurt Schulte of Kimley-Horne & Associates, and Laura Toups, who is the managing partner at Urban Design Group.


They have also enlisted a cultural strategies engagement team which consists of Armando Rayo, Robena Jackson, Mark Yznaga, and Diane Miller. Both Miller and Yznaga were involved with Imagine Austin and Yznaga was Council Member Kathie Tovo’s campaign manager.


In their presentation, they explained that they would incentivize “missing middle housing” like duplexes and fourplexes that help keep cities affordable, preserve neighborhood character, and work to create a clear, user-friendly code.

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