Thursday, September 12, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Nearing October, code rewrite team admits difficulty with Council direction

Residents will soon be able to peruse the draft version of the new land use code, scheduled for public release in October, but the Land Development Code revision team says complications in the current code have made it difficult to follow the entirety of City Council’s direction.

In the latest update on the process Wednesday afternoon, staff members admitted their inability to follow Council’s wish to find a way both to preserve existing neighborhood conservation combining districts in the new code while simultaneously opening them up to broader zoning and map changes happening in many parts of the city.

Brent Lloyd of the Development Services Department said that the team’s attempt to apply new regulations related to preservation and affordability bonuses and changes in lot size without compromising the foundations of the special districts has been “technically, extremely difficult.”

“What we found was that, going through the NCCDs, because they use a sort of very granular lot-by-lot approach to regulation, that making those sorts of broad changes would really upset the delicate structure of the (districts),” Lloyd said.

To keep from disrupting the districts, staffers are proposing an incremental approach to bringing them closely in line with the new code and broader zoning strategies.

To begin, the draft code will largely carry forward regulations adopted in NCCDs, but will map portions of them within higher-density transition zones and designate some corridor lots as the new mixed-use Main Street district. In addition, areas that do not fall along a corridor or within a transition zone will be subject, per Council’s direction, to citywide adjustments to parking requirements and regulations of accessory dwelling units.

Greg Dutton of Planning and Zoning explained that non-transition zone portions of the special districts will mostly remain the same, keeping similar zoning entitlements under the new code. The adjustments to the accessory dwelling unit regulations are intended to simplify the permitting and building process, not to add any extra entitlements outside of transition zones.

Going forward from October, Lloyd said that the detailed regulations of the NCCDs will prevent staff from incorporating adjustments to lot sizes, preservation bonuses or affordability bonuses until Council provides further guidance, allowing staff either to remap the districts or encroach upon their lot-by-lot restrictions.

Like the NCCDs, Lloyd said the city’s generous use of conditional overlay districts has led to somewhere in the ballpark of 4,000 unique zoning classifications across the city that are not easily remapped under new general zoning categories. Staff’s approach, he said, has been to do away with those conditional overlays when they are consistent with new zoning districts, but carry them over under Formal Title 25 – the zoning designation for previous districts with no similar new category – when they were deemed unique or featured detailed regulations outside of the code’s purview.

While entitlements will largely remain the same in non-transition areas citywide, staffers said they are planning a big increase to the amount of land eligible to participate in an affordable housing bonus, currently accounting for under 3 percent of the city, or about 5,600 acres. Lots currently zoned for a maximum of two units, for example, would still be held to that limit but will also have the opportunity to build a third unit through participation in the proposed preservation bonus program.

Due to the speed of the rewrite effort, the team has not yet taken up the task of mapping the city’s affordable housing capacity according to Council’s specific geographical distribution goals. Dutton said the team is refining broader mapping strategies through help from planning and design firm Cascadia Partners, but hasn’t been able to take up the issue of capacity in each district at this point.

The firm’s feedback, Dutton said, has often been more general. For example, regarding the affordability goal, he said Cascadia has advised that “eliminating parking standards would go a long way to aiding development and getting those additional units.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she would like to see more detailed work on Council’s goals for distributing the Strategic Housing Blueprint target of 60,000 affordable units across Council districts and corridors.

“We’ve set goals by corridors and by Council districts,” she said. “Those are targets; they’re directional and I’m not suggesting that they’re exactly the number of units we need to see, but we did set them. I want to understand at the end of the day if we’re going to be able to see some kind of a relationship.”

Map by XIIIfromTOKYO [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

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