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CodeNEXT may separate land use commissions from connectivity oversight role

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

If it seems like there hasn’t been much talk about how CodeNEXT deals with connectivity, it’s because the latest draft has largely sidelined the land use commissions’ participation in that process. Uncomfortable being benched, some commissioners at their Nov. 20 joint meeting called for staff to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to better incorporate planning in the endeavor to integrate the city’s transit systems.

Imagine Austin, the comprehensive planning document CodeNEXT is based on, made connecting Austin’s streets not only the task of the Transportation Department but also a planning project. In dissecting the drafts of the new land use code over the past year, land use commissioners have factored connectivity concerns carefully into their deliberation, in particular by scheduling their modified timeline for the final stretch of their review in part around the anticipated release of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan.

In the time before CodeNEXT, the commission regularly honored its responsibility to evaluate connectivity on a case-by-case basis as stipulated by the city code.

Despite this consideration, the second draft of CodeNEXT does not propose any new involvement of the Planning Commission or Zoning and Platting Commission in the pursuit of connectivity. Under current code, the city only sets a maximum block length of 1,200 feet and requires developers to connect with any street stub adjacent to their property. Draft two introduces a more specific tier system.

“The idea is that the more urban, more dense zones will have greater connectivity, and shorter block lengths,” said Steve Hopkins, a senior planner with the Development Services Department. “The commercial and industrial zones will have a lot longer block lengths, and the residential zones will vary.”

The revision that caught the eyes of commissioners, however, was the land use commissions’ oversight of connectivity concerns being reallocated strictly to the Development Services director. “We have been removed from the conversation,” Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver said. “I don’t see how we have a role in this anymore. That’s a major change.”

The exclusion of the land use commissions, if it remains in the draft, could have immediate consequences for development around the city, especially for the bigger planned areas like the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan.

The logic behind the revision is the fact that plats are not discretionary according to Texas state law. Under the current code, connectivity standards are only triggered for subdivisions and site plans over three acres (with room for exception), but CodeNEXT seeks to widen that scope by consolidating street connectivity regulations into its own section in the transportation chapter. Hopkins explained that the intention behind the draft two language was to compel compliance with connectivity goals.

Still, staff acknowledged the limitations of this approach. “If properties aren’t being resubdivided and combined into a higher intensity, you can’t really require these smaller lots to piecemeal create a new roadway,” said Cole Kitten, a planner at the Transportation Department.

The hope is that the mobility plan will go further than the new code itself would be able to. The current draft of that plan has identified over 100 opportunities to facilitate connectivity from a transit perspective, with the expectation that CodeNEXT will be able to build on that jump-start.

That plan is scheduled to be released early next year, unless it gets postponed like the CodeNEXT draft.

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