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Council still puzzled about CodeNEXT

Thursday, February 23, 2017 by Jack Craver

Most City Council members still don’t know what to make of the first draft of CodeNEXT, the long-anticipated overhaul of the city’s zoning code that was first unveiled late last month.

On Wednesday, the consultants hired to craft the draft code gave a presentation to Council members that touched on the guiding aspirations of the new code, including walkability, connectivity and a simpler permitting process. Much of the conversation, however, focused on how the new code will affect restrictions on height, building design and other “compatibility” issues.

Currently, a building’s height is often limited by its proximity to a single-family home, a situation that leads to uncertainty, explained CodeNEXT project manager John Miki.

“The construction of a single-family home nearby could dramatically impact what you can build on your property,” he explained.

What the new code proposes is that height limits be determined based not on their proximity to the nearest single-family home, but on their distance from an entire low-to-medium density residential zone.

In some instances, the consultants suggested, that will lead to taller buildings. But Council members had a hard time determining to what extent that would be the case and where in the city that would take place.

“At this point, I feel like I have a lot more reading to do before I come to an assessment of what the new code is doing successfully and what we might want to continue talking about,” Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told the Austin Monitor following the presentation. “At this point, it’s hard to get a sense of how some of these proposed changes are really going to impact the neighborhoods I’m most familiar with.”

Other Council members similarly indicated that many of the changes being discussed were hard to visualize in the absence of a map displaying the effect of the code on different areas of the city.

“Without a map, I don’t know what I’m talking about,” said Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who further suggested that there wasn’t much value in garnering community input on the current draft before the map comes out in April. The CodeNEXT team has already hosted an “open house” event aimed at collecting feedback on the proposal and will do four more in the coming weeks.

The disconnect between Council Member Leslie Pool and the CodeNEXT team appeared even more profound. Pool said it was her understanding that the new code would not result in major changes in existing zoning.

“This change is a terminology change, but we’re not changing the zoning,” she said, prompting an assurance from Miki that certain building standards, such as impervious cover limits and setbacks, will remain the same.

That answer did not satisfy Pool, who asked how much of the city’s zoning will change. “We have been hearing that a majority of the city won’t change, as much as 90 or 95 percent of the city,” she said.

“I would say that most places in Austin won’t see a drastic change in the type of zoning that may be there,” replied Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey.

Miki said it was hard to define the percentage of the city that would be treated the same under the future code as it is currently, but ventured that “it is likely going to be much higher than 51 percent.”

Peter Park, another consultant on the team, was the only one to explicitly reject Pool’s suggestion.

“We can’t say it’s simply about changing the name of the zone,” he said. “Our charge was to provide a better code. Implicit in that it’s going to be different.”

Council Member Greg Casar said that he did not want to focus too much on what parcels would be zoned differently but how the proposed overhaul would help the city get to a better place in terms of housing affordability, public transit and environmental protection.

Rapid gentrification and increased economic and racial segregation show that the current trajectory is “very damaging,” Casar told the consultants. The question to answer in the long-run, he added, is, “How is what y’all are doing changing the trajectory of the city?”

Council Member Alison Alter, whose recent election to Council was largely shaped by debate over two contentious planned unit developments in her district, wondered how the new code would “offer some relief from the constant flood of PUD cases.”

Park responded that the high number of PUDs was a “symptom” of a broken system, adding that such cases plummeted in Denver, where he used to oversee the city planning department, after an overhaul of its zoning code.

Alter responded that a reduction of PUDs might not be such a good thing, however, if the city loses control over its ability to extract community benefits from developers, as is often the case in PUD zoning cases.

Mayor Steve Adler, before adjourning the meeting, said that he “agreed with 95 percent” of what his Council colleagues had said.

“I really do think that we have a common goal,” he said. “I’m not saying this is all going to be easy to get from here to there, but I am encouraged.”

Transect zone diagrams courtesy of the city of Austin.

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