Tuesday, December 10, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Council sets off on long journey to code adoption

City Council took its first go at a first reading of the draft Land Development Code on Monday. Due both to the scope of the issue and scheduling conflicts, that attempt will now be spread out over today and Wednesday, but Council members managed to get through most of the amendments directly related to residential zones, transition areas and Imagine Austin activity centers and corridors.

That leaves the affordable housing, non-zoning, process, and programmatic amendments to be taken up starting today at 9 a.m.

Tensions rose early Monday over the value of going back and forth on amendments that may or may not have the support on the dais to be included. And indeed, a number of amendments failed in the end. In many other cases, though, Council members were able to get clarity over their concerns and find compromise.

As a whole, the amendments that were rejected were among those seeking to edit the draft code to bring it closer to the city’s current code. And of those not included, over half were from Council Member Kathie Tovo.

Tovo’s effort to give teeth to the proposed preservation bonus was deemed a worthy goal with the wrong solution by Mayor Steve Adler. It would have added a number of restrictions to the bonus that Tovo said was intended to guarantee homeowners preserve more than “two walls of studs” when trying to take advantage of the bonus’ additional units and entitlements. Had it passed, one of the measures would have required preserving much of the home’s original roof configuration and angle.

Several of Tovo’s other amendments took aim at the mapping of transition zones. In a bold, if unsurprising move, she sought to remove transition zones entirely from residential corridors that are surrounded on both sides by house-scale neighborhoods. She said staff’s proposal to address her concerns by subtracting one lot from each transition zone was inadequate.

That attempt failed, but Council tabled a related amendment from Tovo that is meant to address and undo the mapping in areas where staff mapped transition zones deeper than five lots from a corridor. Council Member Ann Kitchen defended the amendment, agreeing with Tovo that staffers’ explanation for these instances is only partially true. Tovo plans to bring examples to show cases where transition zones are mapped well beyond five lots without any reasonable explanation before Council takes a vote.

With quite the opposite objective, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison put forward an amendment to revoke the exemption of Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts – special zoning districts in the house-scale neighborhoods Tovo intends to protect – from being mapped under the draft code. Tovo rejected the idea that the districts are currently exempt, noting that transition zones have been mapped there as well and members of the Land Development Code revision team added that it would be difficult to make general changes to those districts without remapping them entirely.

Harper-Madison criticized the continued preservation of NCCDs through the city’s Former Title 25 zoning provision and noted the special zoning districts’ ties to de facto segregation. Seeking compromise, Adler drafted an amendment to remove the remapping concept but to direct staffers to make sure the code’s general policies on issues like parking or accessory dwelling units are applied in the zones as much as possible without substantially altering the districts. It was included as amended by Adler.

Harper-Madison also had success with a proposal intended to help more residents find a path toward home ownership. In “missing middle” housing zones, the amendment would reduce minimum lot size so that lots could be subdivided and sold off with smaller, more affordable housing types at lower prices. Responding to a number of questions from other Council members, Brent Lloyd of the code revision team said staffers would try and “balance the letter and spirit” of the concept so that lot size reductions are weighed against practical needs and environmental protection.

Addressing the preservation bonus from a different angle, Council Member Greg Casar put forth several modifications from increased floor area ratio, increased impervious cover, waived parking requirements, and waived minimum lot sizes upon subdivision for lots adding more units under the bonus. To mitigate the increased impervious cover, the amendment proposed a 5 percent reduction in Residential 2 zones. As a whole, the amendments are meant to encourage adding units under the preservation bonus.

Kitchen took issue with the increases in impervious cover, even though they may be mitigated by an equal decrease in the Residential 2 zones. Matt Hollon with Watershed Protection told Kitchen that staff couldn’t model the impact of that shift without knowing how many residents would make use of the preservation bonus and in what areas. Following other questions over the entire amendment, Lloyd requested that Council add a caveat that any numbers aren’t prescriptive and can serve as starting points for exploration. The amendment passed, after being edited so that neither numbers nor specific methods are set in stone.

Casar also cut away at Residential 2 zones’ impervious cover in another amendment to increase impervious cover in Residential 4 zones from 50 to 55 percent in order to make higher densities more feasible. Again, to compensate for that change, impervious cover in lower-density Residential 2 zones would be reduced. That amendment was also included in the base motion.

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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.

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.

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