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Council lays out compromise for more density along major streets

Wednesday, May 18, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

As Austin’s housing crisis deepens, City Council is pushing to relax two major constraints on development – compatibility and parking requirements – for properties along busy streets, in hopes of increasing the supply of housing.

“We believe there is consensus on this Council to increase housing capacity on our corridors to meet our housing goals and to support our transit investments,” a group of five Council members wrote on the City Council Message Board Tuesday following a discussion earlier in the day. The group includes Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter and Council members Paige Ellis, Leslie Pool and Vanessa Fuentes. 

Alter outlined the proposal at Tuesday morning’s work session. The plan, she said, is to divide corridors into two new types – large and medium – and create different parking and compatibility rules for properties along each type. 

Large corridors include ASMP Level 5 streets (highways like MoPac Expressway and Interstate 35); streets with Project Connect rail lines (North Lamar Boulevard, Guadalupe Street, South Congress Avenue, and Riverside Drive); and streets with MetroRapid bus service, including planned MetroRapid and Gold Line routes in the first phase of Project Connect.

Medium corridors include Imagine Austin corridors and streets slated for improvements through the corridor construction program.

A map of where exactly the changes would apply is still in the works. 

Compatibility compromise

Properties along both types of roads would see changes to compatibility, a rule that limits building height within 540 feet of single-family homes. The changes depend on the proposed use, type of corridor and inclusion of affordable housing.

For any property along the selected corridors, compatibility regulations would only extend 300 feet from the nearest triggering property. For residential or mixed-use properties, the following regulations would apply:

  • At 15 feet or 25 feet of distance, increase the 30-foot height limit to 35 feet
  • At 50 feet of distance, increase the 40-foot height limit to 45 feet
  • At 200 feet of distance, increase the 50-foot height limit to 55 feet

For properties that build on-site affordable housing through a density bonus program, compatibility depends on the type of corridor. For larger corridors, buildings can reach 65 feet in height at 100 feet away from single-family homes and 90 feet of height at 200 feet away. For medium corridors, buildings can reach 65 feet tall at 150 feet of distance and 90 feet tall at 250 feet. The base zoning will dictate maximum height, meaning most properties along corridors won’t be able to reach 90 feet of height.

Single-family homes would not trigger compatibility for properties on the other side of the corridors, as is currently the case. Compatibility would also only be triggered by zoning, not what’s actually built on the land. A single-family home on land zoned for multifamily, for instance, would no longer trigger compatibility. Adler said the 5-foot height increase mainly allows for taller ground floors. 

Housing advocates and Council members alike have assailed compatibility, saying it hurts housing construction by limiting the number of units that can be built or by making projects infeasible altogether. According to the proposal, Austin has greater compatibility restrictions than peer cities and it still would, even with the reduction.

Less parking along transit lines

Minimum parking requirements, which some point to as a major constraint on housing production and a threat to the city’s mobility and climate goals, would also change. While the group of Council members did not find consensus on parking, they arrived at a range of potential parking reductions:

  • Larger corridors
    • Allow properties to build only 20-50 percent of the parking currently required
  • Medium corridors
    • Allow properties to build only 50-75 percent of the parking currently required

Within 300 feet of schools, however, the group proposed maintaining existing parking requirements. Alter said that reducing parking requirements near schools would create “havoc for our older schools throughout the city who were not built with expansive parking.”

‘We’re not going to make everybody happy’

The large and medium corridor designation still leaves out many busy streets, which led some members to question the categories.

“Even in this first pass, I’m detecting some pretty severe inequitable distribution,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said, pointing out that West Austin has fewer medium and large corridors than East Austin. “I’m also concerned that we are leaving out the possibility of new housing along corridors in some of our more privileged parts of town.” 

Alter responded that West Austin streets like Medical Parkway, Lake Austin Boulevard and Jollyville Road are included because they are Imagine Austin corridors.

In the spirit of consensus, Adler urged members to exclude “roads or streets that are going to gum us up in a way that stops us from being able to move forward.” As an example, Adler pointed to streets like 45th, Koenig and Speedway as places where residents and some Council members might oppose increased density. 

“This exercise is about trying to get as much done as we can get done, to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Adler said, adding, “We’re not going to make everybody happy.”

Following court rulings on the right of property owners to protest zoning changes, most Council members have committed to pursue only land use changes that can pass with a supermajority vote and therefore avoid petitions from property owners.

Council Member Pio Renteria argued the proposal does not go far enough. He also expressed disappointment about the lack of land use changes in recent years, describing how rising housing costs – due in part, he said, to Council’s inaction – have led longtime homeowners in his district to cash out and leave the city. “You’re making us a lot of money by not doing anything, so congratulations.”

The goal is for Council to adopt the changes into code by September. Meanwhile, separate changes to Vertical Mixed-Use (VMU) zoning are scheduled to be discussed in June. Other proposals from last year, such as allowing residential use in commercial zones and making accessory dwelling units legal in more places, have been delayed.

“We recognize the urgency, but we also recognize that we don’t want to … act in haste and repent at your leisure,” Pool said.

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