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CodeNEXT likely to ditch transect zones

Friday, June 30, 2017 by Jack Craver

One of the key concepts underpinning the proposed revamp of the city’s land development code will likely not be included in the next draft of the proposal, city staff informed City Council members Wednesday.

The team responsible for drafting the new code is considering getting rid of transect zones, Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department said during a Council meeting focused on CodeNEXT.

“Transect” is the term used to describe a zone that is intended to be largely shaped by the form of buildings. In the first draft of CodeNEXT, transect zones were distinct from zones that were defined by the types of property uses allowed.

The confusion that the two systems created convinced the CodeNEXT team to change course, said Rusthoven. In the next incarnation, he said, the transect and non-transect zones will likely be combined “into a single spectrum of zones.”

The CodeNEXT team will also try to make the terms simpler and easier for a layperson to understand. For instance, using “R” to refer to “residential” and simply placing a number afterward to describe the number of units allowed on the property.

Nobody on Council appears to be mourning the potential departure of transects.

“Generally the concept of having one framework for the zoning makes sense to me,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

While the transects might be out, the controversy surrounding the new code will no doubt persist, as displayed by a later discussion about how CodeNEXT should affect neighborhood plans.

It started when Council Member Jimmy Flannigan expressed surprise that staff was identifying certain parts of the city for future “small area plans.”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing with CodeNEXT as a whole?” he asked. “I don’t see how you do holistic planning one small area at a time.”

Peter Park, one of the CodeNEXT consultants, explained that small area plans were intended to lay out a more comprehensive vision of what an area is supposed to look like in terms of infrastructure, parkland and character. The idea also includes identifying other entities, including businesses, nonprofits and other jurisdictions, such as the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, that will play a role in fulfilling that vision, he added.

“I hope that was helpful,” said Park.

“No, it’s completely unhelpful,” replied Flannigan. Council is telling the community, he said, “don’t worry (about CodeNEXT), we’re going to come back and do a small area map later.”

Council Member Greg Casar argued that neighborhood plans were not necessarily “good or bad” but noted that an audit last year of the city’s neighborhood planning process found it to be exclusionary and unrepresentative of city residents.

For instance, said Casar, the audit found that only seven of the 253 members of neighborhood plan contact teams were renters. He also described as problematic the ability of a “small group” to block infill development.

Tovo quickly came to the defense of neighborhood plans and expressed concerns about “aspersions” being cast on the work that city staff and neighborhood activists put into crafting them.

Tovo also pushed back on the notion that CodeNEXT should amount to a “rezoning of the entire city” or that the new regulations should diverge significantly from the policies put in place through existing neighborhood plans.

Imagine Austin, the comprehensive plan adopted in 2012 that is supposed to guide future land use decisions, states that the land development code should “not veer dramatically from neighborhood plans” and “avoid endangering the existing character of neighborhoods,” said Tovo.

She has received hundreds of emails from concerned constituents, she said, noting one that came from the head of the Clarksville Community Development Corporation, a group that has helped build affordable housing for 15 families in the wealthy neighborhood.

Casar reiterated that he didn’t mean to bash neighborhood plans, but noted that the “vast majority” of his constituents “don’t believe that they or their kids will ever be able to afford a house in Clarksville.”

Instead, Casar added, what his constituents were mostly hoping is that they would be able to remain in a $600-a-month apartment. To that end, he noted the benefits of plans, such as the University Neighborhood Overlay, that allow an increase in density and different types of housing.

Flannigan, who noted that his district does not include any neighborhood plans, asked Tovo “which of the neighborhood plans has succeeded in maintaining affordability.”

He added that “if the neighborhood plans have done a great job at solving some problems, I’d like to know which ones they’ve solved,” to inform city planning strategy.

Tovo said that a number of plans had identified affordable housing as a “key priority” but that there was “no silver bullet” to lower housing costs. And she pushed back on the view that neighborhood plans are all about restricting uses, noting that some plans had encouraged density in certain areas and sought to preserve the existing character in others.

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

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