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For CodeNEXT, signs of changes to come

Tuesday, July 24, 2018 by Ryan Young

CodeNEXT, Austin’s attempt to reform and simplify its Land Development Code, has been a lightning rod for controversy. Activists see the code, which controls everything from how high buildings can be built, how far back their foundations must be from the street and how much parking is legally required, as the solution to myriad big-city problems, such as congestion, affordability and displacement – and routinely fight over how CodeNEXT should tweak these rules.

But the July 9 presentation on CodeNEXT to the Board of Adjustment was less of a life-or-death struggle for the city and more of a mundane discussion of something else CodeNEXT would affect: signs. At the meeting, Christopher Johnson, Development Assistance Center manager for the Development Services Department, summarized the changes to sign regulations proposed by CodeNEXT.

First, the names of sign districts would be changed to more closely correspond with the new names of zoning designations in CodeNEXT. So, for example, the “Low Density Residential” sign district would become the “Residential House Scale” sign district, and the “Multifamily” sign district would become the “Residential Multi-Unit” sign district. And the “Neighborhood Sign District” would be dropped in CodeNEXT because it has no equivalent zoning designation in the code rewrite.

Second, the sign rules would be updated to accommodate new technology. “Our current regulations are so old the technology for signage has changed significantly,” Johnson said. He pointed to electronic message signs as an example, saying they did not exist when the current sign regulations were drafted. So, CodeNEXT proposes new rules that would govern how bright such signs can be, and how frequently their messages can change.

For example, electronic message signs would be required to be darker when it gets dark outside. They would also have to be turned off at night, either when the business closes or beyond a certain cutoff time. CodeNEXT would also prohibit “full-on animation or lighting techniques that mimic motion,” Johnson said.

Other changes are aimed at simplifying the sign regulations and making them easier to understand. “There was ambiguity in (the current code) that led some folks to believe they were entitled to more signs on scenic roadways than they would have been allowed … on an expressway or commercial district,” Johnson said, so CodeNEXT would clarify that you can’t have any more signs on a scenic roadway than you could on an expressway.

The “University Neighborhood Overlay Sign District” would also be renamed the “Pedestrian Sign Overlay District,” but the actual regulations would remain “generally unchanged.” The University Neighborhood Overlay, better known as the zoning mechanism that enables the construction of multistory housing in West Campus, has special sign regulations that have been adopted by other neighborhoods since the creation of UNO.

“When someone’s in a transit-oriented development and you tell them they’re subject to the University Neighborhood Overlay, they kind of question that, because they say, ‘I’m not anywhere near campus,’” Johnson explained, so CodeNEXT would change the name to reflect the district’s broader applicability.

“I’m not going into great detail, but just identifying the major differences that are proposed,” Johnson told the board.

Photo by Joe Wolf made available through a Creative Commons license.

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

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