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Shoal Creek plan includes wins, losses for density advocates

Monday, August 27, 2018 by Jack Craver

On Thursday, City Council unanimously approved the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan, a document that outlines how the neighborhood, which is bound by MoPac Expressway, U.S. Highway 183, Burnet Road and Anderson Lane, will accommodate future population growth.

The plan does not put in place any new zoning regulations. Instead, it provides a framework that city staff is supposed to reference when considering requests for zoning changes.

Both city staff and neighborhood residents described the plan as balancing the desire to maintain existing character with the need to add housing.

“Our plan is a carefully crafted compromise between trying to preserve what we love about our neighborhood and making room for new Austinites,” said Kevin Wier, president of the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association.

Critics have said that the city’s neighborhood planning process is exclusionary and rarely reflects the interests of renters, young people and low-income residents. A 2016 audit of the neighborhood plan contact teams came to a similar conclusion.

Perhaps in recognition of those concerns, Wier emphasized that the North Shoal Creek planning process included homeowners and renters as well as a generational mix.

According to city staff, there were six meetings about the plan between October 2016 and April 2017 that between 33 and 49 people attended. An initial survey sent out to residents about the plan elicited 325 responses; two subsequent surveys received 162 and 72 responses, respectively.

Wier noted that the plan recommended allowing the addition of multifamily housing along the edges of the neighborhood. The neighborhood, which currently has 2,155 housing units, could add 3,802 more units according to the land use recommended by the plan, said Wier.

The total amount of housing that is produced almost never reaches the total amount allowed.

According to the plan, most of the interior of the neighborhood will be reserved for single-family homes. The language states that that type of residence should remain the “dominant building type.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan offered an amendment to allow more flexibility in the neighborhood interior. He suggested replacing the emphasis on single-family homes with “house-scale” buildings to encourage more “missing middle” housing, such as duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.

Such development is in line with the aesthetic character of the area but allows for greater economic diversity by providing smaller, cheaper units. Flannigan, the only renter on Council, noted at an earlier meeting during the week that he lives in a duplex in a neighborhood where he could not afford to buy a single-family home.

Mayor Steve Adler said that he wasn’t against the idea of encouraging more house-scale density, but that he didn’t believe the neighborhood plan was the appropriate context for debating the issue. That was better left for a comprehensive, citywide land use policy overhaul, he said, which Council has directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to put together.

Adler’s plea to wait for a more comprehensive planning solution comes only weeks after he successfully pushed for Council to abandon CodeNEXT, the proposed rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code that had been in the works for six years.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who represents the North Shoal Creek area, said that Flannigan’s idea had not been part of the “community discussion” and that springing the change at the last minute amounted to “randomly experimenting with our neighborhoods.”

Pool also referenced the aborted land use code overhaul in opposing the measure.

“The term ‘residential house scale’ comes from CodeNEXT, which we haven’t adopted,” she said. “It has no meaning in our current code, and it may not have any meaning in the code rewrite that we eventually adopt.”

Flannigan pushed back at the opposition, arguing that a neighborhood plan should reflect good planning practices whether or not a larger overhaul was in the works.

“We have an obligation as a Council to review every plan that comes before us and have it reflect the types of policies that we want,” he said.

Flannigan’s amendment elicited very little support, with only Council members Greg Casar and Delia Garza voting to back it. Even Council Member Pio Renteria, who signaled support at a Tuesday work session, abstained.

Another density-related issue that came up was accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats or garage apartments. About a third of the neighborhood’s single-family residences are currently zoned to allow for the addition of an ADU, while the rest are not.

The neighborhood association was friendly to the idea of allowing more ADUs on corner lots or large lots where they would not present a “privacy concern” to other neighbors, explained Jeff Engstrom, the city planner who led the neighborhood planning effort.

Garza pushed an amendment adding language to the plan to encourage ADUs throughout the entire residential area of the neighborhood. That language had been proposed by the Planning Commission when it recommended the plan.

Garza has described ADUs as offering both a lower-cost housing option for people who can’t afford or don’t want single-family homes as well as a way for homeowners to earn money to cover their increasing property taxes. Renteria frequently says that he would not have been able to afford to stay in his house in Central East Austin if he hadn’t built an ADU.

The ADU amendment passed, 6-4-1, with Adler, Pool and Council members Ann Kitchen and Ora Houston opposed and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo abstaining.

That amendment does not change the zoning for any properties. However, if homeowners whose lots currently do not allow ADUs want to have their property rezoned to allow an ADU, staff will likely cite the neighborhood plan as a reason to grant the rezoning.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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