One Size Doesn't Fit All

City Land Code Revisions

by Alex de Marban

John Castellanos finally had enough money to incarnate his dream, or so he thought. With help from a benefactor, the 36-year-old pastor planned to purchase and renovate an abandoned tract in the southern, gang-infested reaches of Austin. In the largest and most prominent of three derelict buildings overrun by underbrush, Castellanos envisioned a chapel for his growing congregation of 80 members, who were holding makeshift worship services out of living and dining rooms. In the remains of another building, the one next to the trash heap that is the local junkyard, he saw a classroom for the at-risk youth who sought his ministry. The proposed project, near Ditmar and South First, had the support of nearby residents, who despise the eyesore that exists there now. City staff promised to put Castellanos' project on the fast track. Architect Ben Heimsath would offer pro bono services. Even Councilmember Jackie Goodman, a South Austin resident, visited the site and expressed enthusiastic support.

In fact, the only resistance came from one colossal body of regulations called the Land Development Code, the city's prescription for all matters affecting development. The code, infamous for its unforgiving complexity and "cookie-cutter" requirements, has lately been the subject of intense scrutiny from the Citizens' Planning Committee (CPC). The diverse, 22-member committee, created by Goodman and headed by Heimsath, has begun carrying out a city council directive to essentially create a new code. While revisions to the code itself won't be realized until next summer, the CPC is already offering numerous suggestions to amend the land development process (see sidebar).

The current code and process, complain everyone from developers to conservationists and even city planners, follows suburban precepts formulated in the post-World War II economic boom, when large and virgin tracts of property were the norm. As available land diminished, contentions over its use arose, resulting in quick fixes that left "scar tissue" in the form of stringent rules that intensified the code's suburban inclinations. The effect is visible even in many parts of the inner city, in which the places where people live are greatly separated from the places where they work or shop or play.

"If you did everything according to the code, you'd have the kind of suburban development we have now," says Goodman. "Isolated neighborhoods that are empty during the day, and non-residential areas that are empty at night. And between them you have major roadways that require you to get in your car. The code doesn't encourage pedestrian or alternative modes of transportation. It feeds into the car culture, and that's suburbia."

Urban revisionists like Goodman are calling for a flexible code that grants neighborhoods and developers equal input into the development process, and increases the options for the development and redevelopment of small inner-city tracts. The result, hopefully, will be something akin to a "neo-traditional" neighborhood, where neighborhood businesses sprout alongside homes, creating an around-the-clock community favorable to pedestrians. As an example, they point to Hyde Park (built out before the current code was created), where a retail area centered in the neighborhood receives as many bikes and perambulators as it does cars.

"The code is built for large-tract development and is based on expansionist development philosophies," says Tracy Watson, head of the city's Planning and Development Department. "We need to look at what kind of development is really required inside the city and we need to look at alternative standards to the current regulations."

To Castellanos, any alter- native would have been a godsend. In his case, the code mandated a subdivision permit. That meant approval from the City Planning Commission, plus curb, gutter, and sidewalk additions, and numerous city fees. The code also required an asphalt parking lot, not a gravel one, thus increasing the impervious cover on the land. That, in turn, triggered a need for a water-quality filtration pond and a detention pond to prevent rapid run-off during storms.

Because the property on the north and south is zoned for residential use, a 25-foot swatch along the flanks of Castellanos' lot could not have been developed. There would have been plenty of buildable land since the lot is two and a half acres, but the front of the tract along the road, tapered like a bottleneck, presented a problem. There, the lot was less than 75 feet wide, leaving less than 25 feet for a driveway after subtracting the "setbacks." But the code dictated a driveway at least 26 feet wide. An exemption to the setback requirements may have been in order, meaning a trip to the Planning Commission, or even the city council, for approval.

By the time he would have gotten his final development permit, Castellanos would have needed an attorney, an architect, a civil engineer, a structural engineer, an electrical engineer, and a mechanical engineer. He would have needed approval from at least four city departments and would have spent upwards of $40,000 and waited at least nine months. Lacking the time and money, Castellanos threw up his arms in defeat after only a few weeks.

"It's a shame," he says. "Here's a prime piece of property that needs development in a high-risk part of town. Something can be done to provide a service there, we're ready to renovate it, but we didn't have a green light from the development code unless we had tens of thousands of dollars. All the human resources were there, but the laws were just an obstacle."

Still, Castellanos' troubles pale in comparison to development attempts closer to the city core, on smaller land located in more densely populated areas. In a May 30, 1995, report titled "Land Development Process Reengineering," the city acknowledged that those projects may require 63 authorizations or permits, from as many as 49 sections in 12 city departments. Steve Wilkinson, a city staff liaison to the CPC and a contributor to the report, describes the city's development process as "organizationally fragmented, geographically separated, and informationally isolated."

On a tiny 100' x 200' tract squeezed between two houses, for example, timely and costly variances from the code are often the only option. "Setbacks" and on-site parking are out of the question, as are space-consuming water-quality and detention ponds. Landscape requirements are rigid encumbrances that just take up more buildable land and offer no aesthetic options.

"The regulations are additive and just totally blow away any inner-city activity," says Watson.

He, like almost anyone else who's witnessed the development process in action -- or perhaps more appropriately, in inaction -- isn't short on ideas. There are so many out there, in fact, that it's somewhat surprising that the current code has been tolerated for so many years. Watson points to special zoning categories in the downtown district as viable options for inner-city development. Called Downtown Mixed-Use or Central Business District, the zoning categories encourage mixes of residential and commercial uses, and require less parking spaces by considering proximity to a bus line, and the availability of off-site parking. Setback requirements are less stringent, allowing for more dense development. Detention and water-quality ponds can be waived for a fee. Though years will pass before downtown's full potential is realized, the result for now is less asphalt, more compactness, and an increasingly occupied community.

In the same vein as specialized downtown zoning, Wilkinson suggests special categories tailored to other parts of the city. "What we need are different regulations for different parts of town, which speak to different design standards for an area. To do that, we'll really need more neighborhood planning."

Bringing neighborhoods to the planning table with landowners and developers will be key to a rewrite of the code that encourages "neo-traditional" neighborhoods, say members of the CPC. Heimsath envisions a code that creates broad guidelines for development, within which the "stakeholders" at the planning table can cultivate a design that meshes well with the character of the surrounding neighborhood. Exemptions and variances will be uneccessary if the stakeholders find common ground within the guidelines. Heimsath says such agreements could even help eliminate major parts of the development process, like getting a subdivision permit from the Planning Commission. "Based on a plan, and overall guidelines about how a development should work, the owner and the developer and the neighborhood representation should work everything out," says Heimsath. "It should be the city staff's responsibility to make things happen right there at the local level, and the council and the Planning Commission would never have to see it."

If such precedence had been given to Castellanos and residents near his proposed development, the time-consuming and costly variances and exemptions could have been avoided. If the stakeholders were able, within prescribed guidelines, to allow a smaller driveway or to permit off-site parking, Castellanos could have averted the "additive" nature of the code. And above all, the neighborhood would have seen positive growth.

Before such a planning process is possible, a reorganization of the city's crazy quilt of neighborhood associations will be in order (anyone can register as a neighborhood association, which has led to overlapping neighborhood boundaries of authority). By next summer, the CPC will have completed "facilitating a process so neighborhoods can reorganize themselves" says Heimsath. The next step would be for those reorganized, established neighborhood associations and the development community to create regional growth plans, with all development outlines, goals, and regulations included therein. According to the CPC, the city staff will coordinate the regional plans, of which there may be as many as 21.

In total, the regional plans will serve as both the land code and the "master plan" for the city. "We already have a fantastic base with the city's grid layout, the lake, and all the natural surroundings," says Miloslav Cecik, private architect and CPC member. "Now, we just need a layout."

If all goes according to schedule, that will be available as early as 1997, says Heimsath. But of course, the real test will be whether the then-council executes the concept, or shelves it alongside the city's myriad past master plans. If it does that, Cecik warns, there will be no end to the haphazard development that punctuates Austin's landscape with sprawling, suburban-type districts. And of course, this would continue the decline of the inner city, more congestion, and the resultant big-city problems of high crime, air and water pollution, and the loss of community, to name a few. But perhaps, as the CPC members hope, the council and the rest of the city will realize that Austin has reached critical mass and simply can't afford to waste any more time planning for a sustainable and livable city. n

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