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Planning commissioners spar over reduced lot sizes in CodeNEXT

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 by Jack Craver

The 13 volunteer citizens appointed to the city Planning Commission spent eight grueling hours Monday night proposing and debating changes to CodeNEXT.

It was a stark contrast to the the treatment the proposed code overhaul received from the city’s other land use panel, the Zoning and Platting Commission, whose final recommendation last week was simply that the city give up on CodeNEXT.

While there were a number of issues that all or nearly all of the commissioners agreed on, the recurring division emerged between those pushing for more urbanist planning, notably smaller lots and more multifamily housing, and those defending larger lots and single-family zoning.

The division was most visible over a motion proposed by Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart to set aside all proposed amendments that would increase the minimum lot size, reduce the number of units allowed on a lot, decrease allowable height, increase parking requirements or otherwise run against a series of zoning recommendations that the Obama administration unveiled in 2016 aimed at encouraging economic integration and housing affordability.

“Those are five principles that I’d like to go ahead and vote on,” said Hart.

Commissioner Karen McGraw was incredulous: “We can only vote to make the code looser now?”

Hart later told the Austin Monitor that she wanted to set aside discussion of those amendments until the very end of the CodeNEXT discussion, but that she recognized that Chair Stephen Oliver, a swing vote, would only support setting them aside until the end of the discussion on that chapter of the code.

Hart’s motion passed 7-6, with Oliver and commissioners Greg Anderson, Fayez Kazi, James Schissler, Conor Kenny and Jeffrey Thompson joining Hart in support, while McGraw and commissioners James Shieh, Trinity White, Todd Shaw, Patricia Seeger and Tom Nuckols voted against.

A subsequent motion by Hart that removed a reference to compatibility in the code elicited a similarly hostile response from McGraw, who described it as “another effort to take out compatibility” as a stated value in the code.

“I will very transparently agree,” replied Hart to a visibly flummoxed McGraw.

Nuckols described the amendment as entirely “symbolic” and a “waste of time.” It ultimately failed on a 6-7 vote; the tally was the same as the previous motion except for Oliver, who voted against.

A proposal by Kazi called for reducing the minimum lot size for the R2C zone (which allows for single-family homes or a duplex) that covers much of Central and East Austin. In written comments, Kazi reiterated that small lots allow for cheaper units and described large minimum lot sizes as “a product of Jim Crow laws.”

McGraw denounced the amendment as “chopping everything into small pieces” and said that the city needed to “leave something” that resembled traditional single-family home neighborhoods.

White said that reducing minimum lot sizes would lead to displacement.

Anderson said that smaller lot sizes would absolutely not lead to displacement. “It’s just not true. I understand that some people don’t want new neighbors.”

In a comment ostensibly directed at McGraw and Anderson, Oliver asked commissioners to tone down the rhetoric, describing the debate as “We’ve either blown up Austin, or we’re blocking everybody” from living here.

The reality, suggested Oliver, is “in the middle.”

In a twist, Kenny said that he would oppose the amendment “reluctantly,” reasoning that much of the east side is zoned R2C. Citing rampant “misinformation” about CodeNEXT, he wanted to make clear that the commission was not endorsing what would appear to be a radical zoning change in parts of town experiencing gentrification.

In the end, only Hart and Anderson joined Kazi in support of the measure.

Another Kazi amendment proposed allowing day care centers with fewer than 20 children in all residential zones. Many of the commissioners framed it as a useful mechanism to address a key affordability pain point for Austin low- and middle-income families by allowing more day cares throughout the city, while others said that such a use should not simply be granted by right without consideration of the specific setting, including the availability of parking.

“I live down the street from a day care with 117 children,” said Thompson. “It has no parking. It causes no problem at all.”

Anderson ridiculed the opposition: “If kids aren’t compatible with our neighborhoods, I don’t know what is.”

McGraw disagreed. “I think a day care with 19 kids is pretty intensive,” she said, adding that she has seen other day cares that cease operations and later become illegal multifamily residences.

The day care measure fell short by one vote. Hart, Thompson, Kazi, Anderson, Schissler and Kenny voted in favor.

One measure that elicited very little controversy was the “anti-McMansion ordinance” that Kenny, Hart and Kazi unveiled in a press conference before the meeting. The proposal reduces the percentage of a lot that a newly constructed single-family home can cover if it is replacing a demolished single-family home. It also allows for more of the lot to be covered, however, if the demolished home is replaced with multiple units.

McGraw was the only opponent, saying that by limiting the size of single-family homes, “you’re sending more families to the suburbs.”

Others wholeheartedly embraced the notion of incentivizing smaller homes.

Hart summed up her position thus: “I support small houses on smaller lots for smaller incomes.”

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

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