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Design Commission work group starts process to revise Urban Design Guidelines

Monday, September 28, 2020 by Savana Dunning

The Design Commission’s newly formed Urban Design work group has begun talks to revise the city’s Urban Design Guidelines, which are more than 10 years old.

Unlike Austin’s zoning code, which contains the city’s building and construction requirements, the Urban Design Guidelines are a set of recommendations for developers to follow that focus mainly on the public-use elements of projects, such as streetscapes and plazas.

The guidelines were originally developed in 1997 as part of Austin’s Downtown Initiative. When the guidelines were last revised in 2009, the commission expanded the scope of the original guidelines, then called the Downtown Design Guidelines, to apply to all areas in Austin where the city wanted to increase density. Urban Design Division Manager Jorge Rousselin said these guidelines no longer reflect the city’s current design needs.

“The context of those guidelines were still primarily in an urban context, so it makes it somewhat difficult to apply to other contexts – suburban contexts, for example,” Rousselin said. “We’re due for an update to consider these new contexts of how they can apply citywide.”

Since the 2009 Urban Design Guidelines are primarily public-use focused, they feature recommendations on improving the pedestrian experience, such as installing lighting, adding street trees and enhancing walkability. Several guidelines also involve preserving the appearance of the city, by forbidding older building styles that “might confuse the historical record” and obscuring public views of downtown.

Although the guidelines are not required for most buildings, builders are required to comply with them in order to be approved for the Downtown Density Bonus Program, which allows buildings to exceed the city’s height and density requirements in exchange for compliance.

Rousselin said the Design Commission had been receiving a lot of applications for the program, which began in 2014.

“They realized, as more projects came in, they needed to reevaluate the efficacy of these guidelines since the last revision was made over 10 years ago,” Rousselin said.

Design Commission Chair David Carroll, who proposed the working group for the project, said the guidelines need to be updated to incorporate recently adopted ordinances and policies that impact city development, including the Community Climate Plan, Vision Zero and the Downtown Austin Plan.

“Austin has experienced tremendous growth and rapid change,” Carroll said via email. “The city has adopted many new policies and plans that have influenced the vision of our urban core and now the Urban Design Guidelines no longer reflect Austin’s current values.”

At the work group’s first meeting on Sept. 18, they outlined the overall process for how the group would proceed. Rousselin and Carroll said the group plans to present their finished work early next year, but Melissa Henao-Robledo, an alternate for the working group, said they might discuss an update at the upcoming Sept. 30 meeting.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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