Austin @ Large: Painting by Numbers

Design standards turn out to be (maybe) more than just skin-deep

Austin @ Large: Painting by Numbers
Illustration By Doug Potter

Throughout the last 18 months of running battles over big boxes and small businesses, the effort to create new (or, more properly, any) commercial design standards in Austin has been treated too often like the bastard dwarf stepchild of the Keep Austin Weird movement. Making new retail projects prettier is nice and all, the argument goes, but it's (literally) a superficial response to the deterioration of the local economy, standard of living, cultural vitality, and public fiscal health. The fact that stricter design standards were actually endorsed by some in the real estate business, and that they were championed by reputed big-box sellout Council Member Brewster McCracken, only reinforced the politics here.

That's as may be, but it does little to explain the breadth of what the "design standards" handle now refers to. The draft standards produced by McCracken's task force, now queued up in the city approval pipeline, would require (if approved as proposed) more than 40 amendments to the city Land Development Code. Some of these would fundamentally transform the way Austin development works; in terms of the underlying premises involved, this is the closest we've come to actually "rewriting" the much-reviled code, despite a decade of talk in that direction. Obviously, the challenges facing citizens and policymakers stuck in the path of Wal-Mart go beyond land use and urban design. But the land-use response itself goes – or should go – a long way beyond dictating the color of the brick.

The standards, a year in the making, actually say very little about the color of the brick, and make no effort to legislate an "Austin look." They do, however, say a lot about what the urban fabric of a major world city should look like, and how it should function. While the attention of many politicos and partisans was focused elsewhere, McCracken's task force has endeavored to do something that really needs doing: crafting a way to make the progressive planning and land-use principles and models that characterize our high-profile master-planned showpiece projects (like Mueller and the Triangle) the default model for all commercial development, everywhere in town. If it works, that's quite an achievement – and one that, if you believe in the import of those principles, will create social benefits that go far beyond the aesthetic.

The Good, the Bad, and –

The scope of change being proposed here is probably more apparent if you've spent time wrangling with Austin planning and development, and the code that makes it all so special and entertaining. The new perspectives start, literally, at street level; right now, most development standards for commercial projects are tied to the base zoning, which is supposed to be what regulates the uses, not the buildings. In other words, if you want to build a Walgreens or a Chili's, you need GR zoning. And when you get it, you can build (and in many ways are encouraged or even required to build) the same Walgreens or the same Chili's on a ped-friendly street in a funky urban-core neighborhood as you would erect on I-35 at Parmer Lane.

The draft standards put an end to that, tying most site-development standards (except height) not to the zoning but to the roadway type, which – except for designated "highways" and Hill Country scenic roadways – would all be "urban roadways," on which developers would have to build up to the street, eschew front-yard parking, have a proper front door, and make sensible choices about landscaping, signage, and the like. A big building – like, say, a grocery store – on an urban roadway would have to locate (along with its big front parking lot) behind other structures that present the proper street frontage.

Nor do the standards let any project completely off the hook – regardless of zoning or size or roadway type, and including both greenfield projects and redevelopments. Only remodeling projects – anything that doesn't involve replacing or relocating the front or side walls of a building – would be grandfathered. Some of the new minimum standards do tend more toward the aesthetic, or at least toward the small stuff – like requiring clear glass windows on the ground floor or prohibiting vinyl siding or mandating "visible street address numbers." (Or doing away with one of the current code's silliest provisions, requiring owners to pay a license fee to put up an awning – you know, to promote the ped-friendly environment the city really wants – over the Downtown sidewalks.)

But other changes are far more big-picture – like creating maximum parking requirements for commercial projects, requiring open green space within large projects, moving cars around and between those projects via actual streets (well, "streetlike" systems), shortening allowable block lengths, tightening up landscaping requirements, and creating a new zoning category for "vertical mixed-use." This would allow developers of such buildings to have one set of site standards for all the different uses in the building, which – baffling as it may seem after years of hype about the beauty of urban mixed use – is not currently the case.

And there's more. In addition to meeting the minimum standards, both the site and building plans for all commercial projects would be evaluated against a matrix – earning points for better-than-minimum design features and losing points for undesirable features – and would have to earn a certain number of points to actually get approved. (The actual point totals are still being worked out.) Big-point-earning best practices include things like burying overhead utilities, providing underground or structured parking, redeveloping blighted brownfields, or incorporating dwelling units into your "vertical mixed use" project. Big negatives include branded architecture, cul-de-sacs, and auto-oriented uses at the corners of urban roadways.

The Habit of Design

Lest this all seem like typical anti-bidness Austin meddling, the point-system component of the proposed standards was borrowed from that well-known hotbed of social engineering, the Mid-Cities (Colleyville, to be exact). And design standards – some more strict than those proposed, some less so, but all more strict than what Austin currently has – already exist in Round Rock, Georgetown, Cedar Park, and San Antonio, as well as from sea to shining sea. As McCracken and his task force see it, the standards will create virtually no impact on our beloved small businesses, nor will they put an undue burden upon the national chain retailers and their developers who are already complying with such dicta all across the land. The standards will, however, make it easier and more profitable, the task force hopes, to build the kind of infill mixed-use development the city has wanted so much and seen so little.

Such outcomes are long overdue in Austin, to say the least. And to the degree that a progressive planning model simply makes for better civic life across the board – for a city where people can walk places, know their neighbors, and know where they are in vital neighborhoods – better design is of course to be encouraged. But even the less starry-eyed among us may be persuaded to think that a more assertive approach to urban design would help Austin grapple with its pervasive resource gaps and equity shortfalls. If we can make it easy for developers to get into the habit of building housing instead of parking, planning projects to cut down on needless auto dependence, and taking advantage of existing infrastructure serving infill sites, we'll have done a lot to make positive changes to Austin that are more than just skin-deep. end story

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design standards, Brewster McCracken, big box, Wal-Mart, land development code, urban roadway, site development standards, zoning, vertical mixed use

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