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Land development code rewrite: Council works through responses to Cronk’s memo

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

According to Brent Lloyd, development officer at the Development Services Department, Austin City Council has already provided the “raw material” that will be necessary to guide city staffers as they begin to take up the task of writing a new land development code this year.

Council members have been drafting their responses to City Manager Spencer Cronk’s five questions and discussing them on Council’s online message board in preparation for Thursday’s public hearing and discussion. Prompted by an initial joint response by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Member Greg Casar, nearly all of the Council members had drafted an initial response to each of Cronk’s questions prior to Council’s Tuesday morning work session.

On the first question, concerning the scope of the code revision, each of the Council members agreed that a new code would be preferable to amending the existing code. With a few exceptions, most also agreed that a development code text and map should be developed at roughly the same time, providing that parts of the mapping could be postponed so that the initial zoning process would not be held back by a few areas where Council members would prefer more detailed plans.

The question of mapping, more than the text part of the code, quickly led Council into the weeds as members discussed the issue at the Tuesday work session. Objections to a thorough remapping process ranged from the insistence by Council Member Ann Kitchen that a number of areas will need greater “context sensitivity” than a zoning map could provide, to the concerns of Council Member Kathie Tovo that the four neighborhood conservation combining districts, like Hyde Park in her own district, would lose their hard-fought battles to preserve special zoning designations.

Admittedly already frustrated by the conversation, Garza said that insisting on “context sensitivity” was shortsighted because “context changes over time.” She added it wasn’t so long ago that context sensitivity led to the city plan that racially segregated Austin.

To Tovo’s point, Council managed to find agreement that special zoning districts from NCCDs to transit-oriented developments could be carried forward with their existing requirements under a new code to avoid the complications involved in reopening each zoning case to reconsider their status under the new code standards. While such districts would initially be left alone, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan noted that the new code could simply adopt the preferable entitlements of such special districts so that areas beyond the city core with fewer resources could share the same benefits.

Mapping will also require the city to geographically define what it means by terms like “corridor” and “transition zones,” which will have implications on how far into a neighborhood the city will allow more dense housing options or commercial businesses like restaurants or child care centers. Using the half-mile figure employed by the Federal Transit Administration when measuring density along transit corridors would mean letting duplexes, accessory dwelling units and even some multifamily units into the interiors of many overwhelmingly single-family home neighborhoods.

Raising that concern, Council Member Leslie Pool said a better alternative to reach the city’s housing goal of adding 135,000 units as laid out in the Strategic Housing Blueprint would be to maximize the number of vertical mixed-use developments along the corridors that have room to grow. In addition to adding housing capacity, Pool said concentrating development along those corridors would be superior to “giving away entitlements” across the city to developers that would currently be required to provide community benefits like affordable housing units when constructing tall, densely populated buildings.

Framed differently, Mayor Steve Adler argued that allowing for denser development improves affordability by increasing housing capacity and making it possible for families to live in smaller spaces. Flannigan added that the majority of landowners never build to the full extent of their entitlements, making it necessary to increase zoning capacities throughout the city well beyond the numbers of affordable and market-rate units desired.

In contrast, Council members Kitchen, Pool, Tovo, and Alison Alter all highlighted affordability over density in response to the questions of housing capacity, “missing middle” housing and compatibility requirements. Given Cronk’s proposed options of A, B and C – with B roughly equivalent to the CodeNEXT Draft 3 and C going beyond that document – Kitchen created a general stance of “B Enhanced,” beginning with CodeNEXT and allowing for expansions, which Pool, Tovo and Alter each adapted in their own responses, with Alter reinforcing her stance that the market would not be able to provide the kinds of housing Austin needs, regardless of supply.

There was more agreement on the issue of compatibility requirements, with nearly all Council members choosing an option somewhere between B and C. Council seems to agree that there is a place in the code for compatibility requirements of some kind, whether that is to ensure adjacent buildings are somewhat similar in form, as Flannigan proposed, or to prevent a car dealership from setting up in the middle of a residential neighborhood, to use Alter’s example.

Lloyd told Council that staff members are recommending an emphasis on some sort of compatibility standards as they relate to loosening restrictions on how developments can be used but not related to dictating their physical form.

Finally, all of the Council members agreed that a reduction in parking requirements is in order. Making exception for ADA-required parking spaces, there was general consensus that parking minimums could be entirely eliminated at least in some parts of the city. Taking everyone’s comments together, Casar proposed eliminating all parking minimums in areas within a quarter-mile of activity centers, corridors and high-frequency transit stops, which, as Flannigan noted, would still not stop many developers from overparking their buildings.

Council will be taking up the discussion again after a public hearing Thursday morning that will continue after the lunch break.

This story has been corrected to reflect Brent Lloyd’s current job title. Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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