Long-awaited draft code affecting what can be built in Austin released

Austin skyline (KXAN Photo)
Austin skyline (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — City leaders are releasing their development plans that will impact what can be built in Austin, once adopted.

The plans are called CodeNEXT. It is the city’s land development code, which hasn’t been updated in the last 30 years. Following four years of work, city leaders released the draft version today, which determines what can be built, how much and where.

Top 10 issues identified regarding the current land development code:

  • Ineffective base zoning districts
  • Competing layers of regulations
  • Complicated “Opt-in, Opt-out” system
  • Lack of household affordability and choice
  • Auto-centric code
  • Not always in line with Imagine Austin
  • Lack of usability and clarity
  • Ineffective digital code
  • Code changes adversely affect department organization
  • Incomplete and complicated administration and procedures

The release of the draft will kick off several months of the city trying to get the community involved, starting with a public event at Palmer Events Center from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, which will include an open house and overview by the project team.

If you can’t make it to Palmer Events Center, there will be Council district-based meetings in more easily accessible locations around Austin.

“This is a big focus of what we are doing this year,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “The code will last for many years, and how we do our work this year on the Council will have a lasting impact. If we treat each other like we’re on the same team, we can all win by both protecting neighborhoods and building the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable.”

Here’s a breakdown of just some of the challenges identified under the current code, and potential solutions via CodeNEXT:

WALK TO SHOPS AND SERVICES
Challenge: Small neighborhood shops found historically in urban core neighborhoods are discouraged by the current code, and are rare in urban neighborhoods located further from the urban core.
Solution: The new zoning code allows small neighborhood shops, in many more Austin neighborhoods, to provide these amenities within walking distance. It also reduces the number of parking spaces required for most land use categories to allow for better use of land.

ANTICIPATE FUTURE GROWTH
Challenge: Over the last 30 years, Austin has faced increasing population growth, much of which has been accommodated through sprawl that strains infrastructure and exacerbates traffic and mobility challenges.
Solution: The new code encourages compact growth along corridors and centers, allows neighborhoods to grow intentionally while maintaining their distinct character, and creates walkable places where new development occurs.

FLOOD MITIGATION
Challenge: Projects that do not increase impervious cover are generally not required to provide flood mitigation, even if the site contributes to flooding downstream. This can perpetuate flooding problems.
Solution: Projects are required to contribute solutions to address downstream flooding. Providing flood mitigation for redevelopment reduces flooding and addresses longstanding problems due to insufficient flood controls or drainage.

Council Member Ora Houston spoke on behalf of her district when she told KXAN she wants the land development code to afford east Austin the same protections as areas to the west. Right now, the rules are different.

“The watershed protections that are available in west Austin, we want those in east Austin because we don’t have those. When we talk about infill and housing that is built on a hill or a slope and how that water is then diverted into communities, we don’t have those kinds of protections,” Houston said.

MORE UNITS BY RIGHT
Challenge: Housing supply has fallen well short of demand, due in part to cumbersome and unnecessary regulations. Much of the new housing that has been built caters only to specific market segments.
Solution: By allowing more units and incentivizing a range of unit sizes, the new code makes it easier to develop more housing to suit a range of space and economic needs while ensuring it is built in a context-sensitive manner to work within the character of the neighborhood.

SIMPLIFIED PERMITTING
Challenge: The old code includes permitting procedures that are incomplete and hard to follow, which makes them difficult for staff and the public to understand and apply.
Solution: Permitting processes and procedures have been updated to reflect current City practice and State law, and, where necessary, they have been simplified, streamlined, and reorganized to ensure consistency and ease of use.

SITE PLANNING PROCESS
Challenge: Current planning processes emphasize either small projects, such as single-family homes, or large commercial projects, and do not work well for fine-grained infill projects at neighborhood scale.
Solution: A new simplified site plan review process provides faster review for projects with 3 to 9 units, which will increase feasibility.

“In Austin, we go straight from large lot single families to large apartments,” David Whitworth, with the Austin Infill Builders Group told KXAN. “If we could have triplexes, fourplexes, small lot homes, there are other options – housing products that are available that are not allowed in Austin that we’re hoping CodeNEXT will resolve.”

During Monday’s news conference, Adler said, “In vast parts of this city, nothing will change. But in some parts of the city, we really have an opportunity to protect our neighborhoods and the quality of life we have in this city.”

A final version of the code is expected to go to City Council for adoption in 2018. For more information on the CodeNEXT outreach efforts and upcoming meetings, visit austintexas.gov/codenext. 

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