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CodeNEXT targets major obstacle to density: Compatibility standards

Tuesday, July 3, 2018 by Jack Craver

One of the major divisions over CodeNEXT was brought into sharp relief during a Wednesday City Council special called meeting. The issue: compatibility standards and transition zones.

Currently, what one can build on a property is based not just on how the lot is zoned, but whether it is within a certain distance of a single-family home. Therefore, an empty lot may be zoned to allow a tall commercial or residential building, but if a single-family home is built within 540 feet, the property owner no longer will be allowed to build such a tall structure. A structure within 25 feet of a single-family home can be no taller than 25 feet, for instance. A 50-foot-tall building must be at least 200 feet away from the nearest single-family home.

As a result, explained Peter Park, one of the CodeNEXT consultants, there are large areas even along the city’s major corridors – planned locations for additional density – that are not able to develop to their full capacity. Park called Austin’s rules “uncommonly suppressive” of development.

Under the system proposed in the most recent draft of CodeNEXT, the compatibility standards with which a given property must comply would be based on how the properties near to it are zoned, rather than how they’re being used.

Ideally, under this system, properties that are closer to the corridors would be zoned for uses that are less intense than the corridor but more intense than the interiors of the neighborhoods, creating a “transition zone” between the two. Those uses would likely include types of “missing middle” housing, such as triplexes, fourplexes or small apartment buildings.

Some Council members, however, are worried about what will happen to people who live in single-family homes in what will likely become transition zones. Their houses will no longer guarantee that tall buildings won’t be built nearby in a corridor.

Council Member Alison Alter acknowledged that the concept of transition zones made sense “if I was starting from scratch” in planning a city. Of course, she noted, the city cannot start from scratch.

“The reality is that we have single-family homes right next to the corridors, and our compatibility standards are what has provided some protections for those single-family homes,” she said. “We are now trying to find a trade-off in order to build more on the corridors.”

Council Member Greg Casar suggested that the trade-off was necessary in order to create the necessary housing.

“We can’t get the kind of housing density that we’ve planned for on the corridors and not make some kinds of changes,” he said. “To do this, that might mean that some folks will have a change in development patterns near them.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she was uncomfortable with what was proposed in CodeNEXT and suggested that there could be a middle ground that is more “context-sensitive.”

“There may be areas where you can’t achieve that full height but you likely can achieve more than you can with the current code,” she said.

Alter pointed out that the compatibility standards recommended by staff in the third draft of CodeNEXT are different from the recommendation put forth by the Planning Commission, which was slightly more lax. Alter reiterated her concern about which recommendation Council would be basing its work on.

Alter repeatedly referenced fears in “the community” about what the changing compatibility standards might mean for people’s neighborhoods.

Council Member Pio Renteria made it clear he didn’t believe those fears should be Council’s top priority.

“Let me talk about my community. In my neighborhood – and I’m not talking about y’all’s neighborhood – the fear is the reality. Low-income people are not going to be able to live in my neighborhood,” he said. “We’re just going to have wealthy people in my neighborhood. They’re buying these homes up left and right. The only (low-income) people who are going to be able to live there are the people who live in the (public housing) projects. Unless we start bringing in more density, apartments with two and three bedrooms, we’re going to be gone.”

Photo by daryl_mitchell made available through a Creative Commons license.

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