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Planning Commission offers solutions to missing-middle housing problem

Tuesday, October 22, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Transition zones continue to divide the city’s elected and appointed officials in discussions over the Land Development Code.

Several City Council members have already taken issue with the way the zones – meant to promote missing-middle housing types in Imagine Austin activity centers and along major transportation corridors – were mapped in the draft release early this month.

Citing some of the same concerns, the Planning Commission held a lively debate over the draft code last week, displaying a similar ambivalence over the best way to map missing-middle and get the transit-supportive densities needed to meet the goals of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan and the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint.

At the commission’s first code rewrite work session Wednesday, Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson echoed a complaint previously voiced by Council Member Kathie Tovo that several transition zones in Imagine Austin centers and corridors seem to have been mapped well under their full potential for housing capacity.

Tovo’s interest was in spreading density across the city to protect Central Austin neighborhoods, but Thompson took a different angle, questioning why transition zones in many activity centers are cut off by low-density residential zones immediately behind the corridor, despite Council’s direction to reduce the impact of compatibility standards in activity centers.

Laura Keating, with the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, said compatibility standards are still being triggered next to corridors and activity centers in some cases, keeping the transition zone from reaching its full depth. Low-density residential lots, for example, can be enough to stop a transition zone from extending into a neighborhood.

The Planning Commission’s transition zone working group, comprising commissioners Greg Anderson, Awais Azhar, Patricia Seeger, Todd Shaw, and James Shieh, made several unanimous recommendations meant to expand transition zones and increase missing-middle housing, but rejected a recommendation to map transition zones around activity centers in a 2-3 vote.

The group found more agreement on mapping transition zones in areas identified as “vulnerable” in the University of Texas’ “Uprooted” study on gentrification.

In line with Council’s direction to limit transition zones in vulnerable areas, staff members have not mapped transition zones any deeper than two lots in those neighborhoods. The group suggests going against that direction to make exceptions in vulnerable areas that border Imagine Austin corridors or the Transportation Priority Network where transit investments are planned or have already been made through bonds.

The recommendation provides other context-sensitive criteria for transition zone mapping like roadway capacity, bus routes and stops, pedestrian and bike facilities, and proximity to other activity centers or corridors. Those in favor agreed that the “Uprooted” study is of limited help with mapping, since it offers no information on where vulnerable neighborhoods transition into high-opportunity areas.

The affordability working group also took aim at delicate missing-middle mapping in vulnerable areas. Its members, commissioners Carmen Llanes-Pulido, Patrick Howard, Anderson, and Azhar, recommended in a 3-1 vote to map transition zones five lots deep in areas identified in “Uprooted” to be in either the “late” or “continued loss” stages of gentrification.

Azhar said the idea is to get as many affordable and income-restricted units as possible in those areas by creating more opportunities for missing-middle housing and participation in density bonus programs. According to Azhar, the authors of the “Uprooted” study also now agree it’s crucial to secure income-restricted units in those areas.

Llanes-Pulido, who voted against the idea, said that would be tantamount to throwing East Austin residents, already in the grip of gentrification, “to the wolves.” No matter the intention, she said, upzoning parcels in this fashion makes displacement worse. “The whole concept of backing off on transition zones in ‘vulnerable areas’ is an admission that they have a gentrifying effect.”

Shieh agreed that mapping the transition zones deep into neighborhoods could have serious adverse effects on vulnerable residents by rapidly increasing the cost of land. He suggested protecting residents by maximizing density along corridors, securing income-restricted units and taking full advantage of transit investments while keeping transition zones short, only on the edges of vulnerable neighborhoods.

Anderson defended the group’s recommendation, arguing that deep transition zones are important for adding affordable housing supply in addition to the income-restricted units, noting that there are homes in those vulnerable areas being sold for over $1 million. Deeper transition zones, he said, would allow for smaller, more affordable units for a wider range of incomes.

Commissioners failed to reach a consensus on the issue Wednesday, but Azhar said the affordability working group still has a lot of work to do before a final set of recommendations is ready.

Council’s direction requested that housing capacity consist of 30 percent missing-middle type housing, but current maps reached only 18 percent.

The commission will be discussing further recommendations at its meeting this evening and will hold a public hearing on the Land Development Code rewrite at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26, at City Hall.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge made available through a Creative Commons license.

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