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Land code heads to City Council with request to focus development on West Austin instead of East

Thursday, November 14, 2019 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Austin’s new land use code, which determines what can be built in the city and where, is one step closer to being finalized – but first, one city body is asking that the plan encourage development farther west instead of in gentrifying areas.

Members of the city’s Planning Commission signed off Tuesday on recommended changes to the new code, sending it along to the final voting body: City Council. The 9-3 vote came after nearly three weeks of discussion and late nights in City Hall chambers.

“It’s in Council’s hands, it’s not in ours,” Commissioner Conor Kenny said. “It’s time to love this code and let it go.”

A majority of the commission supported a proposal to limit transition areas – lots near busy streets and public transportation options where staff has proposed more housing – in gentrifying areas. Commissioners relied on a recent UT study that identified neighborhoods, such as much of Southeast Austin, as susceptible to gentrification.

Under the proposed code, landowners building in transition areas would be permitted to build more and to build higher in exchange for providing affordable housing – or they could pay a fee to the city. But in transition areas in rapidly changing neighborhoods, commissioners voted to require developers to build at least one income-restricted unit in exchange for loosened regulations.

At the same time, commissioners asked that more housing be allowed in so-called “high opportunity” areas, where residents have greater access to things like jobs and education. Many of these areas are west of MoPac Expressway.

City staff members, who wrote the code, already signaled an interest in making these changes in a report published in late October.

Before commissioners took a final vote Tuesday, the conversation spiraled into usual divisions over whether to slow the code rewrite process and gather more community input or whether to push forward. Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido brought an amendment to require a “planning” period between adopting the new zoning categories and deciding where they would apply.

Commissioner Awais Azhar responded by saying discussions about Austin’s future have been happening for some time now.

“This is not something that started even earlier this year,” he said. “We’re talking about a decade of work and commitment that this community has put into, and this is where we’re saying let’s implement the vision we had for Austin in our comprehensive plan.”

Council members passed that plan for the city’s future, Imagine Austin, in 2012. That document says one way of getting to the city’s goal of being more “compact and connected” is to redo land use rules.

But the process was derailed last summer when Council members voted to nix the code revision process, dubbed CodeNEXT. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it had been plagued by “misinformation.”

The city will host a public hearing on the code Dec. 7, two days before Council members are scheduled to take an initial vote on it.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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