Tuesday, October 29, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Taco trucks, booze and day care: Commission talks site use in code draft

The current Land Development Code rewrite is usually discussed in either the big-picture abstractions of elected leaders or the detailed, close-up focus of city staffers. Yet more practical questions tend to get little public attention. But at its meeting last Tuesday, the Planning Commission took some time to think about concrete concerns like where a taco truck can set up shop, whether a neighborhood restaurant should serve beer and wine, and how many hoops a person needs to jump through to open a child care center.

To the first question, Commissioner Conor Kenny shared his personal motto: “A taco truck on every corner!” Kenny is part of the commission’s non-residential working group, which studied the code draft and was disappointed to find that food trucks are allowed in all “main street” zones, but not in any residential multi-unit zones or in the two lowest-intensity mixed-use zones.

The working group, which also includes commissioners Yvette Flores and Jeffrey Thompson, proposed a more generous policy on food trucks that would still welcome them in the main street zones, but designate them as a permitted use in lower-intensity mixed-use and all categories of residential multi-unit zones as well.

The group also found the code’s policies on restaurants too conservative for its taste. The current draft limits restaurants that serve beer or wine and are open late at night to the three most intense mixed-use zones and only the most intense main street category. At the same time, restaurants not open late and not serving alcohol are permitted in all mixed-use and main street zones. The group suggested a simple fix that would also allow restaurants serving beer or wine in those zones and could loosen restrictions on operation hours to some extent.

Compared to a typical fast-food joint without an alcohol permit, Kenny said, these restaurants, which are not bars or cocktail lounges, are actually the kinds of places many people would want in their neighborhoods.

Continuing on in this vein, the group took issue with the draft code’s restrictions on child care centers, which are determined by the number of children enrolled. Not only is the criteria somewhat arbitrary, group members found the thresholds themselves too low, limiting centers in residential mixed-use zones to no more than 24 kids. Going beyond that number would require obtaining a conditional use permit, which Kenny said has been a complicated process in the past, involving a full site review of things like parking, landscaping and drainage, even when no new square footage has been proposed.

Flores agreed, saying the review process could be more “palatable” for people if it were triggered at a higher number – over 30 children, for example. Kenny also suggested simplifying permitting in cases where a site would simply change uses without changing any structures themselves, ensuring the code doesn’t discourage those uses by requiring conditional use permits.

The commission’s residential working group also requested loosening restrictions around use, as in the case of properties with manufactured homes.

The draft code sets the minimum size for a manufactured home park at 90,000 square feet and minimum unit count at 20, but Commissioner James Shieh said the city currently has lots that are much smaller than that, around 10,000 square feet, with manufactured homes.

Instead of putting these property owners in a predicament by deeming them noncompliant with code, the residential working group suggested making a new zoning category for manufactured homes on smaller lots. The new category would help owners remain in compliance and would even allow them to add new, small-scale manufactured homes to their lots that could be sold at affordable prices.

The commission will continue to propose edits to the Land Development Code in the coming weeks. City Council will also be holding a public hearing on the code in November leading up to its initial vote on the code draft on Dec. 9.

Photo by Wally Gobetz made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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