Friday, February 14, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

With second vote, Council advances draft land use code

While City Council has not arrived at a consensus on the draft Land Development Code, members began a conversation that could lead in that direction during Council’s second reading this week.

Before Council approved the draft on second reading in a 7-4 vote Thursday night, some Council members who fall on the side of the majority expressed a wish to make amends and find a better compromise by third reading in late March or early April.

Based on the way things went this week, that seems unlikely. Even so, following Thursday’s vote, Council Member Kathie Tovo announced a joint effort with Council members Alison Alter, Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen to propose a new approach in the coming weeks, one that will focus more on small area planning and making significant reductions to the transition zones.

On Wednesday, Mayor Steve Adler attempted to feel out the terms of such a compromise by asking Tovo if a further reduction of the transition zones to a two-lot depth would be enough to get her support on a final vote. Following previous Council direction, the code rewrite team has already reduced the transition zones by one lot citywide, but Tovo has remained adamant that the proposed “missing middle” zones, particularly in the central core, are excessive and disruptive.

While Adler’s question initially caught Tovo off guard, she expressed interest in making the trade for Adler’s support. She then brought an amendment Thursday evening proposing the two-lot limit. The amendment failed, but Adler renewed his offer. Though he voted against the limit, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan also said he was open to having a conversation around transition zones in coming weeks.

Alter said transition zones alone aren’t going to be enough for consensus.

“I think if we’re going to have that conversation, it’s going to be more than just rolling back the transition zones by two lots,” she said. “I think when we begin to understand the choices that were made … there’s going to be a lot of concerns about the areas that are not in the transition zones.”

Adler urged those in opposition to articulate both what they would like to see and what they are willing to concede as they propose their alternate vision. “It’s going to be hard because you’re going to have to come up with a reason, or multiple reasons, for that majority to compromise in ways that they don’t have to in order to be able to pass a code.”

If the 4-7 divide is framed in terms of those wanting to preserve existing housing against those trying to make way for new housing, Council members made some compromises this week.

Council Member Greg Casar brought an amendment that builds upon a previous amendment by Tovo to preserve existing market-affordable housing. Tovo’s amendment aimed to preserve existing missing middle housing by mapping them equivalent to their existing use in the new code. Casar’s amendment expanded that direction to also include existing apartment complexes that are not part of a mixed-use site.

Council Member Paige Ellis gave the sole nay vote to that amendment and Alter chose to abstain, citing concerns about how it may impact housing goals.

“There’s a lot of unintended consequences here,” Alter said. “I think the intention underlying the amendment proposals is one that I agree with; I’m not sure that I agree with all of the logic that follows from it for what it’s going to do our housing capacity, and I don’t feel like in the time frame that we have that we are going to be able to fully understand what this means.”

As the code’s projected housing capacity continues to dwindle from its initial number, Flannigan made an amendment to try to get as much housing as possible out of each residential site.

The code draft contains a measure that would allow multifamily sites to appeal to the Board of Adjustment for relaxed height and setback standards in cases where non-zoning regulations over things like water quality ponds, tree preservation or utility easements are limiting housing yield. Flannigan’s amendment extends that option to residential house-scale zones. It also adds floor area ratio as one of the zoning regulations that can be relaxed.

Flannigan’s amendment passed, creating an avenue for any residential lot in the city to get more flexible zoning limits if the applicant can demonstrate that a non-zoning regulation is preventing them from getting as many units as the zoning would otherwise allow.

The details of the city’s non-zoning regulations will largely be determined by criteria manuals that will likely be complete sometime after the code is adopted.

Also noting the influence of those regulations, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison proposed an amendment that would create an interdepartmental process to review the criteria manuals for consistency with city goals and other regulations prior to their final adoption. She recommended the city form a committee to make the manual review, adoption and update processes smooth and transparent.

Brent Lloyd with the code rewrite team said that should not be necessary since each manual will be going to the Planning Commission for initial approval. City Manager Spencer Cronk, however, said he has committed to forming a group to evaluate the manuals and offered to meet with each Council member to develop a review process before third reading.

Harper-Madison’s amendment failed, but Adler passed a substitute motion asking the rewrite team to return with a proposal for a review process while Council members hold meetings on the issue in the coming weeks.

Photo by John Flynn.

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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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