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CodeNEXT: Council agrees on big things but disagrees on key details

Thursday, June 7, 2018 by Jack Craver

During their first day of deliberations on CodeNEXT, City Council members signaled agreement on a number of high-level statements about encouraging the construction of more housing along transportation corridors and not adding significant density to the interior of neighborhoods.

And yet, the consensus only related to vague statements proposed by Mayor Steve Adler to guide future deliberations. The apparent agreement could very well mask significant divisions over the details.

Council Member Greg Casar, for instance, said that he was willing to support the statement in favor of prioritizing density along the corridors over interior neighborhoods, but he noted that there would likely be differences of opinion about what level of density should be allowed in different neighborhoods. He added that there were a variety of multifamily housing types in “many of our most beloved” neighborhoods.

There are likely some instances, he said, when he would like to see higher-density zoning that allows three or four units per lot, “near the center of the neighborhoods.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan similarly said there might be disagreement over what constitutes the “core” of a neighborhood, highlighting a recent online debate he had with Zoning and Platting Commissioner Jim Duncan over whether Flannigan’s duplex is in the interior or outskirts of his neighborhood.

Other Council members signaled that while they generally supported the idea of density along corridors, they might not support it all the time.

“Not all corridors are created equal,” said Council Member Leslie Pool.

Adler repeatedly stressed his support for balance and tried to steer the discussion away from disagreements when they emerged, saying that the topic would be “parked” for the time being.

Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan, identified 35 corridors and 50 activity centers as areas where the city should aim to foster mixed-use development. While many of them are already home to bustling activity, others are little more than “hayfields,” explained Jerry Rusthoven, assistant director of the Planning and Zoning Department.

He highlighted an activity center dubbed Rio de Vida, which is located on State Highway 130, about halfway between FM 969 and State Highway 71. The CodeNEXT consultants and city staff had not proposed applying high-density zoning to that area yet, he explained, for fear of “artificially inflating” the value of the land.

If area landowners receive greater entitlements, they will often react by demanding more for their property, said Rusthoven, even if buyers aren’t willing to invest that much yet. Paradoxically, he argued, allowing greater entitlements before there is a market demand for greater density can inhibit development.

“Am I right to say that zoning can inflate land prices?” asked Council Member Alison Alter.

“It can cause property owners to think the land value has increased,” replied Rusthoven. “We feel that it’s the market that determines price.”

The second major discussion centered on accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats or garage apartments. The Planning Commission recommended allowing property owners to add them to their parcels in every residential area of the city.

Nearly three years ago, four members of the current Council voted against an ordinance to open up more properties to ADUs, but on Tuesday everybody suggested they were open to an even more radical change.

However, evidence of division emerged over the size of the units. The current draft of CodeNEXT would allow ADUs to be up to 1,100 square feet if the overall lot is over 7,000 square feet. On smaller lots (between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet), the unit size would be capped at 975 square feet. On the smallest lots, the maximum ADU size would be 750 square feet.

Alter suggested she might support smaller maximum sizes for secondary units. They would be cheaper that way, she said.

“There are families that can live in an 800-square-foot apartment just fine,” she said, pointing out that many of the houses in Central Austin neighborhoods are not much larger.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo also worried that allowing ADUs to be too large could incentivize the demolition of the primary residence.

Finally, some Council members were skeptical of a recommendation from the Planning Commission to allow property owners to add two ADUs to the lot if one of them is leased at a rate affordable to a tenant with an income at or below 60 percent of the median family income and it’s within an eighth of a mile of either a school or an Imagine Austin corridor.

Pool suggested that allowing two additional units on single-family parcels was “extreme,” a comment that earned a rebuke from Flannigan.

“I take issue with describing the work of our volunteer commissioners as extreme,” he said.

Casar encouraged his colleagues to look into the idea, saying that what he had heard from members of the Planning Commission was compelling and could help build much-needed affordable housing stock, although he noted it would likely require some type of city subsidy.

There were varying degrees of enthusiasm for the discussion format of talking about the high-level concepts without diving into specific proposals and taking potentially tough votes. Council Member Delia Garza signaled her discontent by not returning to the meeting after lunch, while Flannigan said he was happy to start proposing amendments and debating the specifics.

Council Member Ann Kitchen emphasized her support for the discussion-before-debate style.

“I think that we did make progress today,” she said. “I really am not concerned about how slow or how fast we do it.”

Council will jump back into CodeNEXT discussions on Monday and Tuesday.

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

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