Council takes on second reading of Austin’s land development code overhaul

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Austin residents address Austin City Council ahead of the second reading of the proposed changes to Austin’s land development code. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — What can be built and where? That’s the question as Austin City Council members launch into the next step of a long process aimed at overhauling the city’s land development code.

Wednesday marks the second of three straight days discussing the land development code’s second hearing.

The code defines the city’s building and zoning rules, but it has not had a major overhaul in three decades. This current process is the city’s latest attempt to overhaul the code.

At more than 1,300 pages, the land development code revision is extremely long but it covers a huge range of topics — affordable housing, flood prevention, parking requirements, “granny flats” and everything in between.

The council has set aside time for this discussion to continue until as late as Thursday. At the end of the discussion, the council will take the second of three necessary votes required to pass the code overhaul.

It took the first of those votes in December when City Council approved the first reading of the draft in a 7-4 vote. Council Members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter, and Leslie Pool voted no.

More than 80 Austin residents signed up to speak with the council Tuesday.

Too much density or not enough?

Among them was James Howard, with the North Loop Neighborhood Association. Howard hopes the council revisits the proposed zoning in the North Loop area, specifically on Duval and 53rd 1/2 streets, which he says will be “uniquely impacted” by the proposed changes.

Currently, along Duval between 51st and 56th Streets, most of the surrounding lots are zoned SF-3 or Family Residence, which is intended for moderate density single-family residential use. Under the proposed changes, most of the surrounding lots would be re-zoned to RM1, a residential multi-unit zone, allowing for what the city calls “missing middle” housing that allows six units on a property and up to ten units if the complex includes affordable housing.

Howard wants to be clear, he and others in his neighborhood group support adding density and support the general idea of what council is trying to do with the code rewrite. But he thinks his area faces some particular hurdles because 53rd Street is designated as an activity corridor and nearby Duval is designated as a Transit Priority Network (TPN), designations that mean added density in the form of “missing middle housing” under the code overhaul.

Proposed and current zoning under Austin’s land use code. Yellow signifies SF/ Family Residence Zoning. Orange signifies RM1. Data from City of Austin interactive.

Howard said he worries that under the current proposal, streets in those areas would be packed with more cars attempting to park on the street and that existing infrastructure may not be able to handle the demand of the number of additional people who could be housed under the new zoning.

A city spokesperson explained to KXAN that under the proposed changes, it would be possible (though not probable) for a ten-unit development to be built along that section of Duval, but it would need to participate in the affordable housing bonus program to build the full ten units and it would need to meet certain criteria to have parking waived.

He mentioned how sidewalks are not fully built out in the North Loop neighborhood. And Howard added that he is concerned that the proposed zoning would allow a ten-unit complex to be built along Duval that would have no requirements to build parking.

“That’s gonna create problems for street parking, which could impact local business in the area and it will create a strain on our infrastructure,” he said.

Proposed zoning and current zoning under Austin’s land use code. Orange signifies RM1, yellow signified SF/ Family Residence. Data from City of Austin Interactive.

Howard made two suggestions to the council to address this: either downzone Duval Street from 51st through 56th Street from RM1 to R4, or create an exception that would mandate parking requirements for new developments. He’s not certain that either of those two suggestions will be the perfect fix, but is hopeful that the council can make changes within the existing draft to minimize potential parking issues or impact to existing homeowners.

“We’re not trying to keep North Loop 100 percent single-family [homes], we are trying to avoid a disproportionate impact,” he said.

Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district covers part of the North Loop neighborhood, said that she has heard concerns like these about potential changes to Duval before.

“I would certainly support and have been advocating for changes [to the proposed code] along Duval,” Tovo said. “Duval is one of the areas that has caused the most concern because it is a residential corridor, for the most part.”

“The proposal would really rezone, quite a few residential properties in the interior of neighborhoods,” she said of the current draft. “These aren’t insignificant rezonings, these would take properties from two units up to potentially ten or eleven.”

Tovo also noted that developers in the area have the potential to get an exemption from parking requirements.

Kevin McLaughlin with AURA, a membership-based urbanist organization in Austin, noted that just because areas under the code revision might not have parking minimum requirements, that doesn’t necessarily mean there wouldn’t be parking built.

“It would just mean that there wouldn’t be a requirement to build a certain number of parking spaces per room,” he said.

McLaughlin lives near North Loop and feels differently from Howard about the proposed changes for Duval Street.

“That is the area I would like to see zoned higher density the most. It would make it so there would be a lot more bars, coffee shops, restaurants that all these people could walk to,” McLaughlin said.

He referred to Duval as a “bike highway” that lots of people, including UT students use frequently.

“We have limited land in Austin, especially in central Austin neighborhoods. We can either use it to build more housing or we can use it to build more parking, but we can’t do both,” McLaughlin added.

Members of McLaughlin’s group shared their thoughts with the council Tuesday, as well. McLaughlin explained that AURA felt this second draft took steps backward from the first draft by doing things like decreasing transition zones. But he thinks that with some amendments AURA could support the draft currently before council.

Addressing affordability

Kendra Garrett with Austin Justice Coalition’s housing and community development group had a rosier view of this second draft of the code rewrite.

“This second reading draft is much better than the first one in terms of uniformly distributing housing across the city, in terms of what’s already existing and proponents for new units, particularly affordable ones,” she said.

Though Garrett worries the conversation about the code is heavily molded around Austin’s homeowners, leaving out input from renters.

“Our main concern is making sure that people in east Austin are not being displaced so soon,” she said.

Garrett said she feels the new draft is better than Austin’s current code in terms of supporting a more equitable Austin.

David King, who spoke before Council Tuesday in his capacity as a Zilker resident, worries that the new code doesn’t go far enough to prevent people from being displaced.

“I think one of the main issues and concerns is displacement mitigations are inadequate and we really need to ramp those up before we start implementing the new zoning across our city,” King said.

“I do think we need some changes in our code, no doubt, and a lot of the work that’s being proposed in the new code are good changes,” King added. “My biggest concern is the broad-based upzoning, where you can have smaller lots through most of the city and in each one of those smaller lots you can have more units. To me, that’s a big change.

What happens next?

  • On Wednesday and Thursday, council members will continue working through their amendments to staff’s recommendations.
  • In late March or early April, City Council is expected to vote on a third and final reading of the land development code based on a timeline produced by the city. Council has the final say on whether or not these changes are passed.

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