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Commission demands more precision in CodeNEXT land uses

Friday, December 1, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

It’s easy to get lost in the new CodeNEXT zoning categories and their form-based considerations without keeping in mind their underlying purpose: setting the standards for how properties in Austin can be used. At the Nov. 28 joint meeting of the land use commissions, the CodeNEXT team explained how the list of uses had been made more flexible in draft two to facilitate compatibility. In response, some commissioners feared that liberating the uses too much could undermine the planning process in general.

CodeNEXT does not intend to fundamentally overhaul land uses, although it does plan on cleaning them up and making them more context-sensitive. Certain standards for uses, conditional use permits and accessory uses will all remain in the rewrite, but there are specific items that need updating. Project Manager Jorge Rousselin cited out-of-date uses that still exist in today’s code like Soda Fountain, Reducing Salons and Telegraph Service Offices. He emphasized that while changes are being made, the commissioners and the public should understand it as a modernization of the land uses as opposed to uses being deleted.

Despite this assurance, following the presentation commissioners began to home in on the key differences in uses between the two drafts of CodeNEXT. The original draft had proposed two different zoning categories, transect and non-transect, whereas the current draft combines them into a single spectrum of zones. Consequently, land uses that had been prescribed to the various original zones have also been amalgamated. Rousselin said that the uses were being tailored to fit the new model, but commissioners found the reconfiguration of the land uses half-baked.

Theoretically, keeping uses consistent along a single spectrum of zones furthers the goal of enhanced contextuality, but it also means that there’s a wider scope of uses that can be applied by right. In draft two, for example, restaurants/drive-throughs are permitted in all the main street zones, but community gardens aren’t. Planning Commissioner Trinity White felt like these broad brushstrokes, among others, contradicted the overarching goals of the code rewrite, especially connectivity.

Planning Commissioner James Shieh agreed that there needed to be more attention to detail as to where and how each use would be assigned on the ground. “I don’t see any criteria on these just yet. They are just kind of pretty pictures,” he said.

But sometimes less is more. Planning Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza pointed out that the distinction between cottages and houses was not clear in draft two, but Zoning and Platting Commissioner Jim Duncan said that defining both wasn’t necessarily the answer. Cottages, in his opinion, might be different from houses in that they hearken back to a particular picturesque type of house popular in the 1920s, but they are still categorically the same.

“Why are they here? If we can’t define them correctly, then they shouldn’t be here,” Duncan said. “If it’s not important, get rid of it! I think we keep adding to this code, and there’s two ways you can go. You can keep adding, or you can take away. I think it’s time for us to reverse gears.”

Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey said that he expected the third draft would bring clarity to commissioners’ concerns, although they will have to wait longer for the release due to the recent postponement to Feb. 12 of next year. Planning Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart took the opportunity to express her disapproval with the last-minute nature of that 60-day delay and requested a milestone report at 30 days into the final stretch to update the commissions.

“Keep us in the loop going forward if you can,” she said.

Image courtesy of the city of Austin.

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

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