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Commission debates neighborhood planning and housing equity under code rewrite

Friday, October 25, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Planning Commission is divided over the role existing neighborhood plans should play in the new Land Development Code.

Residents who benefit from neighborhood plans defended their merits Tuesday and urged commissioners to do more to help preserve those plans in the new code, but the commission itself was torn over whether such plans work in service of or in opposition to racial and economic equity.

Daniel Llanes, chair of the Govalle-Johnston Terrace neighborhood contact team, argued the former case. Llanes said neighborhood planning has helped Austin’s minority communities organize in the past and that the plans can still be a tool of resistance against white supremacy and the displacement that may occur under the new code.

“The notion that we call neighborhood plans come from the principle that the population can participate in government by assembling and petitioning,” he said. While level of success varies from plan to plan, Llanes said his neighborhood has continued to update its own plan over the years to build “something that would not run over the neighborhood.”

Commissioner Carmen Llanes-Pulido said her correspondence with representatives of neighborhood plan contact teams suggests a similar legacy of time-consuming, complex work. She briefly outlined the conversations she’s had with contact teams, many of which indicated frustration at the city’s attempts to minimize their efforts.

One resident, she said, a representative of the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan has been exhausted after four years of work to see the draft code’s “blanket upzoning in single-family” areas, which she said “flies in the face” of their entire planning process.

Commissioner James Shieh sympathized with many of the objections of the neighborhood contact teams and proposed that staff consult the future land use maps included in neighborhood plans for guidance before mapping those areas.

Shieh’s suggestion received applause from some neighborhood representatives, but Commissioner Conor Kenny pushed back against the notion that the neighborhood plans have not been part of the draft code mapping process.

Neighborhood plans dictate zoning regulations under the current code, Kenny said, and the draft map reflects a rough equivalent of the entitlements in the current code, with the exception of a substantial increase in density bonus program opportunities and the application of transition zones along transportation corridors and some high-opportunity areas.

Greg Dutton, a principal planner with Planning and Zoning, said that’s largely the case, adding that the new draft also creates an affordable housing bonus for commercial properties.

“I just want to be clear then,” Kenny said, “that the basis for everything that we’re doing is the existing zoning that by definition complies with neighborhood plans, and that we’ve applied specific treatments at the specific direction of Council to those, but that by and large, everything that’s on there is the existing zoning, which is in compliance with the neighborhood plan.”

At this, neighborhood plan contact team representatives called out from their seats, rejecting the claim. “Absolutely not true,” Llanes shouted.

Mary Ingle, former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said the code maps are sharply out of sync with neighborhood plans, which she generally defended as innovative and context-sensitive tools for striking the balance between density and neighborhood preservation.

A neighborhood plan created the 2004 University Neighborhood Overlay in West Campus, Ingle said, which protected the surrounding residential areas from density and launched the most successful affordable housing program in the city to date. The code maps, on the other hand, place a transition zone along Duval Street, a “fake corridor,” currently comprised of single-family homes and duplexes. Ingle urged staff to study the neighborhood’s future land use map and to “back off.”

Noting frustration that neighborhood plans were subsidiary to zoning under the previous CodeNEXT drafts, Commissioner Todd Shaw said he anticipates an opportunity to incorporate neighborhood plans into the corridor-level planning process that staffers have proposed as a way to do small-area planning in the future.

Pointing to a 2016 study by the city auditor’s office, Commissioner Greg Anderson said that despite the great amount of work done, the city’s attempt at neighborhood planning has lagged behind the growing demand for housing, and has “failed in so many ways it’s not even funny.”

The audit found that the city’s 30 neighborhood plans help too few people, are mostly out of date, and have been shaped without adequate public participation and even less engagement with renters. Additionally, the study found that only half of the plans included affordability as a desired goal and that many of them lacked important infill provisions to promote a diversity of housing types.

Anderson said some of the speakers defending the neighborhood plans emphasize preserving single-family zoning, which he said tends to produce expensive homes 90 percent of residents can’t afford. “I’m not sure who that helps or how that helps, but I don’t understand trying to fight for that.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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