Naked City

Duplex or Not Duplex?

It's big, much bigger than the average central Austin house and often as pretty as a Wal-Mart tilt-wall box. Sometimes it's set on stilts or has an odd (for Austin) name like "The Beach Houses." It accommodates many residents, usually students. And in many center-city neighborhoods -- particularly those near UT -- it's provoking fear and rage among homeowners. It is the "superduplex" or "megaduplex" -- the opposite of the cherished and, neighborhood leaders worry, increasingly endangered single-family house.

The SF-3 zoning common in Central Austin neighborhoods forbids apartments but allows duplexes if the lot is at least 7,000 square feet. Traditionally, these duplexes are more-or-less the size of a single-family house; in fact, many are converted single-family houses. Recently, however, residents north of UT have decried a wave of superduplexes, each with room for a dozen or more residents, going up on lots once occupied by single-family homes -- "a perversion of the zoning process," in one North University resident's words. A duplex can have up to six bedrooms per unit and still be legal in SF-3. Campus-area neighbors -- many of whom are currently going through the city's neighborhood-planning process -- are worried that developers will rush, before the plan is finished and adopted, to clutter their 'hoods with superduplexes.

Since they don't require multifamily zoning, these duplexes don't have to conform to the city code requirements (parking, impervious cover, compatibility with neighboring structures, and so on) that apply to apartment buildings. "There seems to be a feeling among the people doing these things that the way to profit is build the most offensive possible building, aesthetically and functionally, while refusing to speak to the neighbors," says Gary Penn of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. "That is why we have sought intervention from the [City] Council."

This week, the council will take up an item, sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, instructing city staff to explore a moratorium on duplex construction. Goodman says recent changes in state law prohibit the council from simply declaring a moratorium from the dais. In March, the city Board of Adjustment, which grants variances to city code, will consider a resident-filed appeal against a duplex under way near Red River and 32nd, which if sustained could discourage further supersized development.

But the moratorium idea doesn't sit well with everyone in River City -- especially if it leads to a blanket ban on all duplexes. Developers hoping to build such structures include nonprofits trying to create more affordable housing, and community advocates suggest a moratorium would harm neighborhoods that need more housing options. One solution would be to exempt SMART Housing duplexes from the ban or to allow neighborhood-planning areas to address the duplex issue individually.

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