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North Shoal Creek plan prompts debate over density

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 by Jack Craver

City Council may have given up on CodeNEXT, the proposed comprehensive rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code, but the debate over growth and development is certainly not going away.

On Thursday, Council will take up the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan, which lays out the principles of development for the area bounded by U.S. Highway 183 on the north, MoPac Expressway on the west, Burnet Road on the east, and Anderson Lane on the south.

The proposed plan has prompted familiar divisions on Council over the amount of density that should be allowed in certain neighborhoods. In particular, the plan declares that single-family homes should remain “the most dominant building type” in the interior of the neighborhood.

At Tuesday’s work session, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that he would seek to change the wording. He is not opposed to the plan emphasizing that the neighborhood would be dominated by “house-scale” buildings, but he does not think that the buildings should have to be single-family homes. They should also include other types of “missing middle” housing, he said, such as duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes.

Flannigan, the only renter on Council, noted that he lived in a “house-scale” duplex himself.

“It looks like a single-family home that I frankly couldn’t afford to live in, in the rest of my neighborhood,” he said.

Flannigan was supported in his comments by Council members Pio Renteria, Delia Garza and Greg Casar. Those four teamed up during the CodeNEXT process to push for a significant overhaul of the land use code to support more multifamily housing in Central Austin.

Casar said that while he believes single-family homes will likely remain the most common use in that neighborhood for many years to come, he thinks the neighborhood plan should be “helping folks understand that when redevelopment does happen, having house-scale missing middle housing is a good thing.”

Garza went further, calling the current language “very exclusionary.”

“Not everyone can afford a single-family home in many parts of this city,” she said, arguing that missing middle housing can help to bring economic diversity to affluent areas, such as a triplex that could house “a college student and a single mother and a service worker.”

Renteria wandered into a more general discussion of density, including in his Central-East Austin district, saying that more housing would be needed if the city is going to address declining enrollment in Central Austin schools.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo pushed back on Renteria’s argument, saying that if the city wants to keep schools from closing, it should do everything in its power to encourage developers to build “family-friendly” housing and sometimes say no to developments that are dominated by efficiencies and one-bedroom apartments.

Garza objected to the notion that only multi-bedroom units should count as “family-friendly,” again pointing out that not every family could afford a larger unit but might be happy with a smaller unit that is near their place of work or good schools.

Mayor Steve Adler tried to stake out a middle position. He suggested that he supported approving the neighborhood plan as proposed and that the debate over density might be more appropriate for a “much longer conversation” about citywide changes to the Land Development Code that he has asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to consider in the wake of CodeNEXT’s demise.

Flannigan expressed confusion. The crux of the neighborhood plan, he noted, was the “Future Land Use Map,” which lays out how the neighborhood should develop in the coming years.

“I struggle approving something called a Future Land Use Map and then also saying that we’re postponing that conversation (over future development),” he said.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who represents almost the entire neighborhood, did not respond to Flannigan’s proposed change. She said she wanted to wait to hear residents of the area speak about the plan at the Council meeting on Thursday.

Council Member Alison Alter, whose district includes the westernmost sliver of the neighborhood, urged Flannigan to post his proposed change online as soon as possible so that it could be considered by the neighborhood activists who had spent “a lot of hours” crafting the plan over the past three years.

“I know that the language in the plan was vetted by stakeholders through open houses and surveys, so I’m sure they would want an opportunity to weigh in on that,” said Jeff Engstrom, a senior city planner who has led the neighborhood planning process in North Shoal Creek.

City staff has collaborated with neighborhood activists since 2014 on developing the plan.

Later in the afternoon, Flannigan posted his two suggested amendments to the City Council Message Board.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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