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Council gets its first look at CodeNEXT

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 by Jack Craver

It’s finally here. At least the first draft.

For the first time, City Council members got a presentation on CodeNEXT, the long-awaited rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code.

The report detailed ways in which city staff, in collaboration with consultants, propose simplifying and reforming what many have described as a byzantine set of rules governing what can be built where throughout the city.

In his opening remarks to Council members during a work session Tuesday morning, Dan Parolek, a principal of Opticos Design, the lead consultant for CodeNEXT, acknowledged that the proposed changes to zoning regulations would likely elicit “some anxieties and fears” but urged those listening to be “critical and constructive, as opposed to critical and dismissive.”

The new code, added Parolek, is not aimed at transforming the city but “reinforcing the unique place that Austin is and the unique culture that it has.” The current code’s myriad of base zoning districts and special overlay districts create more than 400 possible combinations of zoning regulations, he said.

In addition to simplifying the code so that residents can more easily navigate the permitting process and better understand the law, the goal of the new code is to align with the planning principles set forth by Imagine Austin, the city’s 30-year comprehensive plan that is aimed at reversing decades of sprawling development in favor of a more “compact and connected” community that is less dependent on cars.

The proposed code is largely based on six “transect” zones. At one end of the spectrum is T1, which is completely “natural,” followed by T2 (rural), T3 (suburban), T4 (general urban), T5 (urban center) and T6 (urban core).

The transects are further split into subcategories based on how “urban” they are considered and what type of development they will include. One of the three T4 categories, for instance, is dubbed “Mainstreet” and is intended to accommodate a mixture of housing and shops, all limited to three stories.

Incentivizing affordability is another key goal, one that the new code will further by unifying what is currently a hodgepodge of city efforts aimed at promoting affordable housing, said Lisa Wise, an urban planning consultant on the CodeNEXT team.

In addition to reforming the base zoning code and overlay districts, the CodeNEXT team is taking aim at conditional overlays, the site-specific regulations that tend to further restrict how a property can be developed or used. Roughly 12,000 parcels in the city are currently subject to a CO, said John Miki, the CodeNEXT project manager for Opticos.

The team emphasized that any environmental ordinances approved in the past by Council, such as the Save Our Springs Ordinance and ordinances aimed at preserving trees or protecting water quality, would not be going away as part of the new code.

Due to a tight schedule Tuesday, there was not much comment from Council members on the draft, although there is bound to be in the coming weeks and months.

Council Member Leslie Pool applauded the preservation of environmental rules as well as the general principles articulated by the team, but wanted assurances that the distinctiveness of certain neighborhoods would be respected.

“Imagine Austin doesn’t have just one tenet; it’s not just compact and connected,” she told the Austin Monitor after the meeting. “Compatibility is a huge one, as is neighborhood character.”

Pool, who in the past criticized what she viewed as a blanket condemnation of culs-de-sac by city planners, added that it is important for the city to welcome other forms of connectivity besides roads, including bike and pedestrian paths.

Mary Ingle, who recently stepped down as president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, also voiced skepticism about the first draft of the code, telling the Monitor that she was concerned that some parcels that are currently zoned for single-family homes will also be given commercial entitlements, a fact that she argued undermined Mayor Steve Adler’s promise to the group to protect the character of single-family residential neighborhoods.

“How do you protect the character when you change the use to commercial?” she said.

The Planning and Zoning Department’s Greg Guernsey told the Monitor that the new “LMDR zone,” which is closest to the SF-3 zoning category Ingle was concerned about, does not allow new commercial uses.

Brennan Griffin, a founding member of AURA, an urbanist group that is often at odds with ANC on land-use issues, did not express optimism either, but for very different reasons. For one, Brennan’s group is disappointed that the proposed code maintains existing neighborhood plans, which he called a “sort of double layer of zoning.”

“It was intended to simplify the code,” he added, “and so far it looks very complicated.”

Alina Carnahan, a spokeswoman for CodeNEXT, responded that the team was eager to “hear from everybody” and that the goal of past and future public input is to make sure that the new code is “reflecting the values of this community.”

“The code doesn’t seek to create winners and losers,” she added.

CodeNEXT is far from complete, however. After unveiling its proposed zoning map in April and receiving a report in response to the first draft from the Land Development Code Advisory Group in June, the CodeNEXT team will bring a second draft to the Planning and Zoning and Platting commissions in August. The plan is for Council to adopt the proposed code on first reading in December but not approve it on its final, third reading until April 2018.

On Wednesday, city staff will be holding what it describes as an “open house” event for the public to learn about the proposed code from 4-6 p.m. at the Palmer Events Center.

Section of the Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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