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Changing Codes, Not Minds

By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Nov. 7, 2003

With a not-so-resounding thud, the other shoe is dropping on City Hall's effort to make Austin's development review process "faster and friendlier," especially for small business. After City Manager Toby Futrell streamlined and downsized the city's development-review operation as part of the fiscal 2004 budget, the City Council will this week consider several proposed changes to the Land Development Code itself that will allow more projects to avoid site plan review entirely -- along with, in some cases, opportunities for public input that exist under current code.

The proposed code amendments were drafted by staff in response to the work of the Mayor's Task Force on the Economy earlier this year, and a formal resolution by the City Council in June, and have already made the rounds -- generally favorably -- of the city's boards and commissions. Of the changes, the most keenly sought by small business interests, and the most controversial among neighborhood groups, have to do with parking. Right now, the amount of off-street parking required by a business is contingent on the square footage of the business -- according to a ratio that varies depending on the commercial use. (For example, a restaurant will require more off-street parking than will a retail boutique of the exact same size right next door.)

Since there are 55 different parking ratios in city code, and since a change of use that increases the parking requirement can trigger the entire lengthy and expensive development review process, businesses and property owners have complained that redeveloping existing commercial space -- like in aging in-town strip malls -- is next to impossible. Staff has proposed amending the code to reduce the number of different parking classes to 31 and to further reduce (by 20%) the parking requirements for most locations in the urban core -- roughly between MoPac, Ben White, and U.S. 183 (plus Tarrytown and its environs west of MoPac). This reduction would not apply to properties with CBD or DMU zoning, since those downtown sites already have reduced parking ratios. However, smaller sites would be required to also provide bicycle parking, which they aren't under current rules.

Another proposal of similar intent would make it easier for small businesses to expand by effectively raising the square-foot limit above which a new site plan is necessary. Right now, any addition, and its additional parking, and the surrounding construction work area all must fit within 1,000 square feet to avoid site-plan review; the amended code would allow the actual addition to go up to 1,000 square feet, with an additional 2,000 square feet for ancillary work areas and the like.

Further amendments on the council's plate would allow more properties to avoid the platting process, broaden the definition of "limited restaurant" -- a currently unused zoning category -- and allow city staff to grant waivers to businesses seeking to build in a floodplain, instead of requiring a full-on set of public hearings and approval by the council. This last change was strongly opposed by the city Environmental Board, which pointed to the city's 40-year backlog of urban flood-control and water-quality problems. "Construction in flood plains, in virtually every instance, exacerbates these problems to some degree," wrote board Chair Lee Leffingwell. "Therefore, such construction should be a matter of public policy to be directly managed by elected officials."

Making life easier for small (funky local urban core) businesses would seem a popular idea in the midst of the big-box wars -- a philosophical point made by Mayor Will Wynn earlier this week -- and few observers expect too much trouble for the proposals at the City Council. Still, neighborhood groups remain wary of any code change that limits the public role -- since seemingly minor parking or floodplain requirements are sometimes the only things that provide neighbors with notice of, let alone input on, projects going in next door.

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