Council approves first reading of Austin land development code revision

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — After three days worth of detailed and at times tense policy discussion, Austin’s City Council has moved to approve the first reading of an overhaul of the city’s land development code.

Doing so is the first of three steps that will be necessary to finalize the revision of the city’s land development code. 

The vote was approved 7-4 with Council Members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter, and Leslie Pool voting no.

The code defines the rules for what and where you can build in the city. It has not had a major overhaul in three decades. This current process is the city’s latest attempt to overhaul the code. The land development code revision is extremely long, more than one thousand three hundred pages, and covers a huge range of topics around the city — from affordable housing, to flood prevention, to parking requirements, to building “granny flats” and everything in between.

“This code is a really big deal, this day getting past first reading is a really big deal,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler just before the vote was taken. “I pledge to work collaboratively toward completion.” 

Others, like Council Member Kitchen, were not as sold on the changes council worked on this week.

“There are too many basic issues that are not done yet that are not finalized yet,” said Kitchen, who described herself as one of the earliest proponents of overhauling the city’s land development code.

“I am not actually convinced that we are going to get affordability,” she said.

Monday began the start of the council’s process to inch toward with a “first reading” of the city’s land development code. The eleven members of Austin’s council are going through the steps of proposing and approving amendments to the draft of the Land Development Code. The council met again Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening.

Once that vote happens, the council will need to have second and third readings of the draft code before it becomes official.

City of Austin staff explained at Wednesday’s meeting that they believe the council will be able to have a second reading of the code revision in early February and a third reading happening as soon as the last week of March. That pushes the date back a little further from the city’s initial timeline for finalizing the code changes, the second and third votes will need to happen for the changes to become official.

Austin’s City Council has the final decision on the approval of the land development code changes. 

City staff said at the meeting Wednesday that they plan to create three maps to help visualize the changes to the code. All of the changes council members discussed and approved Wednesday will help create the first of those maps, which city staff expects to be viewable to the public by the end of January.

“This is going to change a lot, which is cool,” said Annick Beaudet of the Austin Transportation Department, speaking about the recommendations council made during this first reading. Beaudet is one of the city staff members leading the code rewrite effort.

Staff will also be working to create an “atlas” of suggested changes based on information from each of the council members. The best way for the public to give input on how to further refine the proposed code is working with their council member, staff said, because the constituent feedback to council members will be what the atlas is based on.

Some of the proposed revisions to the city’s development code focus on slowing gentrification in east Austin, and adding more housing density near central and west Austin, and increasing affordable housing stock across the city. The discussion Tuesday morning largely focused on affordability and how what the best strategy would be to guarantee that affordable housing units are built in the city.

Council’s deliberation this week follows Saturday’s 10-hour hearing where hundreds of people showed up to hear and speak about recommendations.

What city leaders are saying

The vote Wednesday followed many days of long work and impassioned debates for each of the council members.

While Council Member Kathie Tovo did not vote for the code revision on first reading, she noted, “I am absolutely committed to working toward a community consensus.”

“I think we should go back to the community, I’m hopeful that we can, with more conversation,” Tovo said. “I think we need to construct a process
allowing the community to co-create this plan.”

Tovo had tried to get several amendments passed which would have addressed some of her concerns about transition zones proposed in the draft code, but her amendments did not pass.

Transition area zoning is being added with this land code rewrite and means that areas between single-family homes and main transportation corridors where denser development and a variety of housing types are located.

Tovo said that transition zones are the part of the proposed code that has prompted the most public concern in her district She explained that her staff has received hundreds of emails from constituents with concerns about transition zones,

CM Tovo noted called on the council to signal to the public that they hear the concerns about transition zones, noting that there are people in Austin so concerned over these zones that they feel they need to take legal action.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said that she has heard from many constituents about transition zones as well, but Harper-Madison said that the feedback she’s been getting is divided with some constituents worried about the zones and others excited to have them.

Harper-Madison did not vote for Tovo’s transition zone amendments, noting she had received a text from an 87-year-old constituent minutes earlier which had said, “Honey, don’t you let them downzone me.”

She expressed optimism for how the council has handled the land development code discussion, noting, “I feel wholeheartedly that we all genuinely have a vision for a better Austin.”

Council Member Pio Renteria, who grew up in Austin, talked to the council about his experiences growing up as a person of color in the city.

“If you were black or brown it wasn’t that great, believe me, ” he said. “What we are doing here is trying to change that.”

“We need to integrate Austin, not just have a wealthy neighborhood and everyone around it is poor,” Renteria said. “The only way we are going to do that is through density and relaxing our zoning so we can create more housing.”

Leading up to this point

In May, Austin City Council gave city staff direction on what to prioritize with this overhaul of the city’s land development code.

On October 4, city staff published a draft of the code overhaul as well as interactive maps of the proposed zoning changes. City staff proposed more revisions in a report on October 25.

The city says they got public feedback via open houses, office hours, public testing, town halls, but that they can’t quantify exactly how many people weighed in on the draft. Based on what the public said and based on the Planning Commission’s recommendations, city staff crafted a report to guide council.

In the report, staff recommends more strategies to reach the city’s goals for this land-use code revamp. The goals touched on by the recommendations include adding density, boosting affordability, curbing displacement/ gentrification, adding density near transit “high opportunity areas”, and incentivizing the creation of “missing middle housing” (multi-unit housing, anything from duplexes all the way up to apartment buildings).

City council members explained during Monday’s discussion that the recommendations from the Planning Commission which city staff agreed with have been included in the base document that the council is voting on.

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