Housing density, affordability, flood protection: council hashes out Austin land code priorities

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council members met Thursday at a special called meeting in an effort to iron out and sync up their priorities for another attempt to overhaul the city’s land development code. 

At Thursday’s meeting, council members worked from 1 p.m. to 10:40 p.m. fleshing out the guidelines by which city staff will use to rewrite Austin’s land development code. In an 8-3 vote, the council approved those guidelines which will now go to the city manager and his staff.  Council Members Alter, Pool and Tovo voted no. 

The council discussed and voted on amendments (not to mention amendments to amendments) to their list of guidance for city staff. This comes after several previous council discussions, work sessions, and public comment. 

The land use code shapes how Austin can grow and develop. With lots of growth and development expected for Austin in the years ahead (just this week the Downtown Austin Alliance explained that the downtown portion of the city alone is only about half as developed as it could be), the overhaul of the land use code has the potential to direct the look of the city’s future. 

Council members have spent the past few weeks combing through five questions from the city manager about what is most important to them during this code rewrite, filing amendments to their guidelines for City Manager Spencer Cronk.  During the first five hours of the meeting Thursday, the council made it through three questions and had started on the fourth. 

When the council members make their way through all these guidelines, they will be sent to Cronk who will create a proposal that should go before council in October.

In March, Cronk sent the council a memo outlining five policy questions he wanted feedback on in order to direct staff. His questions ask council members to weigh in on topics like how much additional housing should be provided, what minimum parking requirements should be, and how to deal with multiplexes, townhomes, and accessory dwelling units (ADU’s). 

In their discussions, council members have each indicated what their priorities are for Austin’s growth,  with some friction around flood protections.  The guidance from the council on the code rewrite currently states that the new code should reduce the amount of impervious cover (ground cover like cement which prevents water from absorbing).

At Thursday’s meeting, the council spent their time going through the details and amendments in the order in which they’re listed (documents linked at the end of this article). Each one was adjusted and discussed until it either got approval or was left by the wayside.

Sustainability

First, the council began talking about amendments that would reduce allowable impervious cover and would commit Austin to a future of growth that’s focused on improving sustainability.

Council Member Leslie Pool was able to advance her amendments (adjusted with a few amendments from her fellow council members) which lay out reductions for impervious cover and commitments to watershed protection and sustainability. 

“Sustainability is a concept for the city, it isn’t really a program or an operation,” Pool said.

“I think we all share a keen desire to make sure we’re improving in this code with where we stand environmentally,” Austin Mayor Adler noted. 

Water use and watershed protection

Many of the items council discussed Thursday touched on water use, watershed protection, or flood mitigation in some way. 

Representatives from Austin’s Watershed Protection Department spoke to council, explaining that there are ways to increase density in a city without increasing impervious cover (cement and pavement on the ground). Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza pointed out that the primary way of doing so is by adding height to developments.  

An amendment from Council Member Greg Casar asked that the rules as part of Austin’s 100-year water use plan, Water Forward,  be accelerated and implemented this year as part of the land development code rewrite. 

Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros told the council he had some reservations about that, making clear Austin Water supports a code rewrite, but that Austin Water was planning to roll out the Water Forward guidelines over the next few years — not in the next six months. 

“This is the water system and if we screw this up, people are gonna notice,” Meszaros said. 

Council Members worked to find a compromise in how they could put these new water goals forward without putting Austin Water in a pinch.

“We want the code done fast, by no means am I suggesting we endanger our water supply because of it,” Council Member Tovo said, saying she hopes that some parts of the code that work with Water Forward guidelines can be implemented by the fall. 

Council backed off their original language and agreed to look at Water Forward as more of a goal to roll out along with the new code. 

“I think that’s something we can advance over this code,” Meszaros said, explaining to KXAN that he was comfortable with the amended approach council has agreed to take related to Water Forward, 

When the discussion turned to building in between already developed urban areas,  Council Member Pool and Council Member Ann Kitchen expressed concern about infill building leading to flooding, but other Council Members including Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza countered saying that from what she’s seen recently, historic rainfall, as opposed to infill development, is what causes flooding. Kitchen pointed to a specific flooding instance in her district where infill building led to flooding. 

Amid the back and forth over amendments, city staff from the Watershed Protection Department offered insight, explaining that Austin has some of the strongest drainage regulations in the state, “but there are potentially other things we could do.”

Zoning and affordable housing

One of Council Member Ann Kitchen’s amendments, which seemed to receive support from the council, would require that new development be multi-family housing in areas already zoned for multi-family housing. 

This amendment would allow existing single-family homes in multi-family zones to remain as they are and be maintained, remodeled and expanded. However, if those single-family homes in multi-family zones are either demolished or substantially rebuilt, they would have to be replaced by multi-family housing.

Kitchen explained that this amendment was sparked by properties she’d seen in her district in multifamily zones where single-family homes are now sitting where affordable housing once existed. 

One property in the Zilker neighborhood, she explained, was built in the 1960’s and at one point had as many of 21 units of affordable housing on one lot. Since then the property has been redeveloped and now 3 units of housing (three single-family homes) sit on that same location. 

“This is an example of taking older, multi-family affordable housing and allowing it to be developed in a way that is at cross purposes– that serves less people and costs more,” Kitchen said of the redevelopment in that Zilker neighborhood which wound up leaving the area with less units of housing. 

Kitchen explained that if the council’s goal is to preserve more affordable housing for more people, the city should make provisions to keep multi-family housing in areas that are zoned for multi-family housing. She believes this will help to house more people. 

There was a lot of discussion Thursday relating to “missing middle housing” in Austin: what counts as missing middle housing and where to add it.  

Though several amendments related to missing middle housing failed, the council did pass an amendment to direct staff to map missing middle housing in high-opportunity areas not impacted by environmental concerns.

Council Member Natasha-Harper Madison brought up insights she’d gained recently about minimum lot size restrictions from a book she’s been reading called “The Color of Law.”

“Large minimum lot sizes are steeped in classism and racism and first gained widespread adoption during the Jim Crow era,” Harper-Madison told the council, explaining that  Austin’s current minimum lot size restrictions were established in 1948.
 
“This existing standard is a barrier to homeownership and exacerbates our affordability crisis,” Harper-Madison said, adding that Austin’s Strategic Housing Blueprint at the UT Austin Gentrification “Uprooted” study recommend allowing smaller lot sizes.

Harper-Madison went on to describe how eliminating minimum lot sizes could offer tax relief for homeowners by allowing for subdivisions and allow for “fee-simple ownership” which provides more tax revenue per acre. 

“Today, Austin has sprawled to the size of New York City at a tenth the population (300 square miles),” Harper-Madison said to her colleagues on the council. “Is a policy that supports and promotes continued sprawl into the hill country, increases our overall impervious cover, and perpetuates racial and economic segregation really appropriate today?”

Harper-Madison’s remarks sparked conversation about including reductions of minimum lot sizes in certain areas, though council members differed on where and how much of the lot size should be restricted. Ultimately the council passed an amendment which would include reducing minimum lot sizes in the city’s goals for this land development code rewrite. 

The outcome

Before the 8-3 vote to approve these guidelines, most of the council shared their thoughts about the process to get there. 

“I’m deeply concerned about the long term future effects of the framework we’ve set up here,” said Council Member Pool, “I also really do not degree with some of the core direction being given here, including how much transition zones will extend into our neighborhoods.”

Pool expressed fear that these changes would “eat up our neighborhoods,” and explained that she could not vote for these guidelines. 

Council Member Kitchen expressed concern that all the guidelines weren’t together in one cohesive document that the public or council could look at,  and that she hopes staff produces the document with the approved changes immediately. But she explained she would be voting for the guidelines, “there is a lot of good and a lot I agree with, she said.” 

Mayor Pro Tem Garza offered a reminder that the document they were voting on is not a final code rewrite, just guidance for city staff. 

Council Member Alter told the council that she was “very uncomfortable” with how they’ve decided to approach the transitions and planning “without a focus or understanding of what’s on the ground.”

Alter said that she will “hope for the best” when the proposal from the city manager returns to council in October, but that if that proposal does not demonstrate that it will benefit the most vulnerable Austinites, she will not support it. 

Council Member Pio Renteria gave a personal anecdote for his council colleagues, he told them about how he used to be resistant to the idea of change in Austin, but has since become a supporter of the idea of adding density.  He explained that the friends he grew up with in East Austin now no longer live in the city.

“If we don’t provide more affordable housing, we’re going to lose all the low-income people, especially from the middle of the city,” he said.  

“Now we have the opportunity that we can have a diverse, mixed-income, mixed-race city where everyone can live together in all parts of the city and not be excluded to one part of the town,” Renteria said. 

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan told the council he is “really excited” by what they’re doing, adding that he thinks Austin is taking on new approaches other cities haven’t.

“We are not doing everything I wanted to do in this document but we’re doing a lot more than we do now,” Flannigan said. 

Tovo expressed more reservation to her council colleagues about their guidelines. 

“I believe we need to revise our land development code, my vote tonight does not discount that,” she said.  Like some of her colleagues, she expressed concern about how the council has addressed transition zones in Austin. 

Then Tovo brought up the petition effort which opposed CodeNEXT last year. The petition effort was not without controversy, four council members called out the groups behind the petition, saying they were running, “campaigns of fear focused on maintaining the status quo.”

That petition effort ultimately resulted in a failed ballot measure in November of 2018 which would have required any future, major changes to the land development code to go before a public vote. 

“We have an opportunity with this process to build back the trust with the public,” Tovo said, referring to the people who opposed CodeNEXT. “I regret that we’re not providing direction that I think is a little more balanced and more responsive to those concerns.”

Mayor Steve Adler sounded generally pleased with the guidelines, telling the council, “I think this is a really good balance.”

“This is not easy, I think we got through it really well,” the mayor said. 

Moving forward

Council Member Tovo asked city staff during the meeting whether property owners would have valid petition rights once the council takes action on the land development code. 

City staff replied that they would not, adding that zoning protest petition rights are limited to individual properties or small areas — not a comprehensive revision and complete rewrite of the land code. 

Mayor Steve Adler spoke with KXAN earlier this week about why he feels these changes need to happen now. 

“I know that it makes people nervous when you start talking about doing big things but if we don’t do big things then we’re not going to be able to do something about gentrification, about the homes that are being torn down and replaced by big homes, losing people in communities and not having the supply of housing that we need,” Adler said. “We need to act in big ways.”

City leaders and developers in Austin have long bemoaned that the city’s land development code hasn’t changed in 30 years, leaving outdated policies that stifle certain types of growth. 

The city put in five years of work to create an update to the city’s land development code known as CodeNEXT, but that effort was scrapped last August after the process became too divisive and fractured.  At that time council called on Cronk to create a new process for overhauling the code, and Thursday’s meeting is one step in that new process toward an overhauled land development code.

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