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What businesses are coming to your neighborhood under CodeNEXT?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 by Jack Craver

Mayor Steve Adler continues to assure the public that City Council still has ample time to “calibrate” CodeNEXT. The reassurance is in response to myriad concerns about how the proposed overhaul of the city’s Land Development Code will impact neighborhoods. Early meetings on the subject have displayed just how hard it will be to come to a consensus on the new rules.

A Council work session Tuesday gave consultants who crafted the first draft of CodeNEXT a chance to explain what types of commercial uses the proposed code will allow in certain parts of the city. It was also a chance to display the deep angst about the possibility of more commercial entitlements in traditionally residential areas, particularly among Council members who represent districts in Central Austin.

Some of the concerns center on the permitting CodeNEXT proposes for commercial uses. Under the existing code, a property owner who wants to do something on the parcel that is not authorized under the current zoning must go through a lengthy rezoning process that is ultimately determined by a Council vote.

The CodeNEXT team has proposed simplifying the process by allowing many commercial uses to be approved through two types of permits that don’t require Council action.

Putting a senior retirement home with fewer than 12 residents in what CodeNEXT calls the “Main Street” zone, for instance, would require a Minor Use Permit, which would be approved by the director of the Development Services Department. There will be also be a framework for the unsatisfied party to appeal to the decision, most likely to one of the two citizen land use commissions, according to a CodeNEXT spokesperson.

More intensive uses, such as a day care serving more than seven kids, or a restaurant greater than 2,500 square feet, would require a Conditional Use Permit, which would be approved by a land use commission and could be appealed to Council.

Council Member Leslie Pool voiced concerns about commercial uses “popping up in the middle of neighborhoods” without approval by Council, “the most accountable and most direct reflection of voters.”

Council Member Alison Alter similarly raised the issue of more commercial uses coming to neighborhoods in her district. The proposed code would allow blocks just east of Ramsey Park, on Medical Parkway, to be converted from medical office uses to more intensive commercial uses, including bars, she said.

“We don’t need Medical Parkway to become Sixth Street, which it could easily do,” she said.

Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey stepped in to say that the portion of the proposed code was a mistake that will be corrected in the next draft.

That was reassuring to Pool, who said that it was an “important message to carry to the community” that the new code would not put “bars in the middle of neighborhoods.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan interjected with a question: “I want to understand better the phrase ‘in the middle of neighborhoods,’” he said, later adding that he didn’t think Medical Parkway fit the description. Alter disagreed.

Council Member Greg Casar also noted that some residents want more access to commercial services within walking distance of their homes. The current mix of uses that exist in the city’s oldest neighborhoods are the legacy of a time before development patterns were being shaped by cars. Today, in the context of traffic gridlock, people are increasingly looking for ways to go places without getting in their cars, he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo suggested she was troubled by how CodeNEXT would deal with the city’s roughly 3,800 “conditional overlays,” which are typically restrictions specific to a property that are often put in place at the behest of neighbors seeking to prevent a certain type of activity that would otherwise be allowed under the zoning being sought by the property owner.

In the past, the authors of CodeNEXT have made clear that they would like to get rid of or at least dramatically reduce conditional overlays, saying they represent a transactional, ad hoc approach to zoning that drives up the cost of development and makes development patterns less predictable. In many cases, they have said, existing COs will simply be incorporated into the new code. But after reviewing the proposal, said Tovo, it is clear that is not always the case.

“Where a neighborhood may have negotiated a zoning case and put those conditions into a conditional overlay, adopting the zoning as it is now would lead to a different decision,” Tovo said. “Those overlays sometimes, very often, allowed for cases to be supported by the adjacent neighbors.”

Photo by H. Michael Karshis made available through a Creative Commons license.

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