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What does CodeNEXT mean for Austin parks?

Thursday, April 27, 2017 by Jack Craver

Parks advocates hope that the ongoing effort to overhaul the city’s land development code will make it easier to develop parks of all kinds throughout Austin.

On Tuesday night, the Parks and Recreation Board voted to recommend three changes to the current draft of CodeNEXT, which City Council is currently in the process of reviewing. Board members also agreed to consider recommending more changes in the coming months aimed at imposing even greater parkland dedication requirements on developers than are stipulated by the current Parkland Dedication Ordinance approved by Council last year.

Most significantly, the recommendation calls for the new code to allow the Parks and Recreation Department or private developers to build “passive parks” (those without intense recreational uses, such as swimming pools or multiple courts) without first obtaining a conditional use permit, no matter their size. The current draft of CodeNEXT only exempts parks that are smaller than one acre from such permits.

In addition, the recommendation seeks clarifications in the new code to ensure that parks are allowed in all parts of the city. It also calls for CodeNEXT to impose certain rules on buildings that front parks throughout the city, including a requirement that their windows be tinted, rather than reflective, and that their Dumpsters near parks be screened. Those rules only currently apply downtown.

The recommended changes were supported by Parks and Recreation Department staff, which has already proposed them in discussions with the consultants involved in crafting CodeNEXT. Marilyn Lamensdorf, principal planner at the Parks and Recreation Department, recalled an instance in which a developer offered to provide a small park, including a playground, but backed off after learning that the parcel, which was zoned for single-family homes, would require either a rezoning or a conditional use permit.

“We don’t want to make it more difficult for them to give us parkland,” said Lamensdorf.

Board Member Michael Casias, however, suggested the city should go even farther. The problem, he explained, is that neighborhoods typically welcome small passive parks, which are often only used by those who live nearby and help boost surrounding property values. Neighbors are less inclined to support active parks, whose facilities attract people from elsewhere in the city.

So far, added Casias, CodeNEXT appeared to be “just another diluted, watered-down and disappointing extension of our existing code processes where the powerful … control the most attractive uses and keep them concentrated and exclusive.”

Nevertheless, Casias later accepted that permits would be reasonable for certain very intensive uses.

In general, reported Parks and Recreation Department staff, CodeNEXT is kind to parks and aligns with the city’s goals of providing more open space.

However, Eleanor McKinney, a member of the CodeNEXT Advisory Group, told the board that the new code was in danger of replicating a major shortcoming of current code. She argued that the Parkland Dedication Ordinance, which is incorporated in the current draft of CodeNEXT, makes it too easy for developers to avoid providing parkland by allowing them to instead pay the city a fee-in-lieu.

In addition, said McKinney, the city is not moving ahead fast enough with the fees it’s collecting to develop parks in parts of town where they are sorely lacking, such as Burnet Road and Airport Boulevard. It may soon be too late, she warned.

“It’s just astounding to me, with the prices of land going up, that we are not aggressively acquiring land in these areas,” she said. “We will not be able to afford it in five years.”

She proposed that the new code require any developer that owes more than a quarter acre of parkland to provide an on-site pocket park. Currently, the Parks department has the discretion to accept a fee-in-lieu as long as the developer owes less than six acres (according to a formula based on the size and type of development) and the development is not located in an area deemed “park-deficient.”

In light of McKinney’s concerns, the board opted to strike a provision of the recommendation that supported CodeNEXT’s inclusion of the Parkland Dedication Ordinance. It will discuss potential ways to improve parkland dedication provisions of CodeNEXT in the future.

Board Member Rick Cofer told his colleagues to brace for headaches.

“Giddyup for the new rodeo, because y’all remember how easy it was to do the Parkland Dedication Ordinance,” he said. “What we’ve decided functionally tonight is that we’re taking that back up.”

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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