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Building heights, regulations among CodeNEXT concerns at RECA lunch

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Builders and other leaders in the Austin housing industry hope the release of the third draft of the city’s CodeNEXT planning document later this month will alleviate the confusion and contradictory objectives they say have plagued the first two drafts.

That was one of the consensus points Tuesday at a luncheon hosted by the Real Estate Council of Austin where more than 400 attendees discussed the portions of the second version of CodeNEXT, which was released in September. Subtitled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” much of the discussion Tuesday among panelists and guests fell in the latter two-thirds of the title.

The biggest problem identified came from the so-called “non-zoning” portions of the code, or language affecting features such as water quality, stormwater management, detention ponds and traffic management. Those aspects of CodeNEXT aren’t intended to impact density or building heights but when written without having other features taken into context, they become limiting factors for builders.

“The biggest obstacle is the sheer complexity of it, because we have a wide range of goals that are intended to deliver on Imagine Austin but we’re finding out what they all mean on their own,” said panelist Scott Turner, owner of Turner Residential, which focuses on infill projects in Austin’s core. “The effect of what’s in there now is that it is downzoning and increasing the regulatory burden. No one likes it right now and we hope for something better with version three. No one thinks that Austin is still affordable, and the result is people have to live further and further out.”

Turner said his biggest hope for the next draft of CodeNEXT or the final version is a reduction in the amount and kinds of developments that require site plan approval, which he said typically adds a year of carrying costs plus up to $50,000 in planning and legal expenses. Under the current regulatory system, Turner said it is typically more desirable for a builder to construct one expensive single-family home on a piece of property with no site plan requirement instead of trying to build three or four moderately priced housing units and going through the full site plan creation and approval process.

“Anything that facilitates the creation of other housing types … we’ve got to be able to meet the city’s housing needs in ways that work with transit solutions, or else some neighborhoods you’ll never get affordable,” he said.

Because of the document’s importance to everyone involved in the building and housing industry, Turner said it is important for RECA and other groups to keep members involved in the latest changes. He said Evolve Austin has become an important voice in matters related to the Imagine Austin plan, and said the testing of each draft of CodeNEXT by the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects has produced valuable data on the real-world application of the rules for adding housing stock to the Austin area.

Panelist Megan Wanek, a development associate with Endeavor Real Estate Group, said a frequent wish she’s heard for subsequent versions of CodeNEXT is for a group independent of specific technical sections of the document to oversee how all the pieces fit together.

“It’s a challenge for individual staff members who are working on their own pieces of the technical side to know what’s going on around them, and how what they’re doing affects everything else,” she said. “Everyone has the right intent and with staff writing their own sections, the umbrella effect of everything together is not being overseen.”

Wanek said she’d also like to see more consistency in allowing tall building heights around transit corridors.

“That’s the best way to decrease the impact on the interior neighborhoods and allow for better transit options and stormwater impact,” she said. “I don’t think the current version does that very well, and adding in the non-zoning components makes it seem like an overall negative.”

Photo by Randall ChancellorFlickr: Austin Skyline at Dusk, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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

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