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In Hyde Park, urbanists say they’re the ones defending neighborhood character

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 by Jack Craver

In Austin’s ongoing battle over development, it’s generally the traditional neighborhood associations that talk about defending “neighborhood character” and developers and urbanist activists who argue that a growing city needs to accept change, whether that is taller buildings or reduced parking.

In Hyde Park, however, urbanists are trying out the neighborhood character narrative to push for greater residential density.

That narrative was on display in a letter sent last week to Mayor Steve Adler by the Friends of Hyde Park, a group that is part of Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, a fairly new federation of neighborhood groups founded by urbanists as an alternative (or rival) to the traditionally anti-development Austin Neighborhoods Council.

“Most people think that Hyde Park is full of what’s called missing middle housing or middle income housing,” the letter begins. “This may have been true at one time, but that’s no longer the case.”

Specifically, argues the group, there are only nine triplexes and seven fourplexes left in the neighborhood, a fact that it attributes to the adoption in 2001 and 2005 of neighborhood conservation combining districts that put in place stricter limits on the number of units on parcels.

“The NCCDs made almost all of Hyde Park’s missing middle housing illegal and also made it illegal to add any new missing middle housing by restricting all single-family zoned lots under 7,000 sqft to only one unit,” says the letter. “In order to have two units (such as adding a garage apartment), a lot size of more than 7,000 sqft would be needed. The NCCDs also downzoned almost all of Speedway and Duval from multifamily to single-family housing, altering the original character of those streets.”

As a result of the NCCD, parts of Hyde Park are exempt from an ordinance approved by City Council in 2015 to allow the construction of accessory dwelling units, also known as garage apartments or granny flats, on lots of 5,750 square feet.

If the NCCD is maintained as part of CodeNEXT, as the current draft proposes, Hyde Park will become a neighborhood composed of “only large single-family homes that only the wealthy can afford,” says FoHP. The remedy to the situation, it argues, is for the NCCD to be scrapped.

Reid Long, co-president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, contested the way FoHP framed the issue. Fourplexes and triplexes are only one type of “missing middle” housing, he said. Furthermore, many of the parcels that were rezoned as part of the NCCD were historic properties downzoned at the request of the property owners in order to prevent them from being demolished and replaced with other types of structures, he told the Austin Monitor.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, a former vice president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council whose Central Austin district includes Hyde Park, also disputed the idea that her neighborhood is lacking a diversity of housing options.

The great majority of the dwellings in the neighborhood are occupied by renters, not owners, Tovo pointed out. According to the most recent data, none of the three census tracts in the neighborhood have owner-occupancy rates higher than 30 percent.

Hyde Park and the rest of District 9, which includes much of Central Austin, also has a much higher percentage of impervious cover (53 percent) than most other Austin neighborhoods, Tovo said.

“Existing data does show that Hyde Park is a dense neighborhood and that the majority of its housing units are rentals,” she said.

Indeed, most other Council districts have substantially lower impervious cover rates, although for many of them it is partially explained by the fact that they include large swaths of land on the periphery of the city that is undeveloped. District 2 in Southeast Austin, for instance, is only 20 percent impervious cover but a third of the land is undeveloped, compared to only 5 percent of District 9.

District 10, which includes many of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods in West Austin, is only 6 percent undeveloped but is only 23 percent impervious. District 10 has been host to a number of contentious battles over development in recent years, notably the Grove at Shoal Creek PUD and the Austin Oaks PUD.

Pete Gilcrease, president of FoHP, said that Hyde Park is dense only by Austin standards. And the NCCD has prevented the neighborhood from absorbing the type of density that it is designed to accommodate, he said, given its proximity to downtown and transit access.

“We’ve been constantly decreasing in density since the NCCD went into effect,” he said. “That’s the opposite of the way we should be going.”

Jeff Jack, president of Austin Neighborhoods Council, said he didn’t think the NCCD had anything to do with developers replacing smaller homes with large ones. There is no NCCD in Zilker, he said, “Yet we have tear-downs of older small homes on almost every block in our neighborhood – most of which will be replaced by larger, much more expensive homes.”

While Zilker may not have an NCCD, it does have restrictive zoning that designates much of the area for single-family homes. And according to the Friends of Austin Neighborhoods affiliate in Zilker – Friends of Zilker – the proposed changes in CodeNEXT make the situation worse, not better.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo lives in the Heritage neighborhood, not Hyde Park, as was originally reported. She was also never the president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council; she was the vice president. Photo by Matthewrutledge (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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