Rethinking Downtown Zoning

Proposed changes address sustainability, mixed uses, and urban design

New Downtown development regulations – proposed code amendments that would give the Downtown Austin Plan legal "teeth" – were circulated around town in draft form in March. Proposed zoning changes have been developed by consultant ROMA Austin, recently rechristened McCann Adams Studio by principals Jana McCann and Jim Adams. They said the new rules (and incentives) are intended "to guide the private sector" in achieving three key community goals: sustainability, the promotion of mixed uses, and urban design.

Perhaps the most sweeping change recommended: allowing mixed-use projects throughout Downtown. (The only exception would be in areas zoned "single family.") The goal is to create a more vibrant urban experience and street­scape for shoppers and pedestrians, with rede­vel­oped properties transforming dead zones – such as drive-through banks, parking garages, or big office building facades. Down­town mixed-use zoning would feature different heights matched to specific districts.

At a March 17 presentation to the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urban­ism, McCann said developers, owners, and the real estate community want a simpler code. Discussion focused on whether the new rules move the city far enough toward a form-based code – an approach that regulates building form and streetscapes to ensure compatibility but doesn't dictate uses. "We feel like current zoning standards do a really poor job of providing for compatible buildings," said McCann. But the draft regulations do limit uses – for example, a ground-floor architectural office wouldn't be allowed in a historic building on Congress Avenue or Sixth Street. Several CNU members advocated that if the code gets the building form right, the market should be free to generate the uses.

The same issue was raised March 25, when McCann Adams presented the proposed regulations at a Downtown Austin Alliance "Issues and Eggs" breakfast. "On non-core retail streets, you ought to allow more flexibility, rather than specify allowed uses at ground level," suggested real estate analyst Charles Heimsath. "If you require height and transparency, then you ought to let the market determine what locates there." Adams responded, "Other cities incent desired uses, from an economic development standpoint."

"Are you going to compensate private property owners for rights you take away?" asked appraiser Leroy Eide. To which Adams replied: "We're not down-zoning any properties. We are trying to increase the value, across the board." He noted that public-sector investments, such as those recommended in the Downtown Austin Plan, consistently are shown to increase property values, by about 15% to 20%. To implement the plan successfully, the consultants recommend formation of a Downtown development corporation that could create investment partnerships. In addition, said Adams, "Retail recruitment has got to continue in a really vigorous way." The draft regulations and presentation are at

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Downtown Austin Plan
Downtown Austin Plan: Why Do It?
Downtown Austin Plan: Why Do It?
Developing Stories

Katherine Gregor, March 20, 2009

More by Katherine Gregor
Climate Protection: City in No Hurry To Cool It
Climate Protection: City in No Hurry To Cool It
Checking in on the Climate Protection Program's progress – or lack thereof

Aug. 6, 2010

Climate Change Crosses County Lines
Climate Change Crosses County Lines
Study predicts how climate change will affect Texas' future water needs

July 30, 2010


Downtown Austin Plan, McCann Adams Studio, Congress for the New Urbanism, Downtown Austin Alliance

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle