Public Notice: A Tale of Two Processes
Council shoots from the hip, promises better later
It was not City Council's finest hour Thursday, as they shoved through a compromise ordinance easing restrictions on building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) – mostly to the good – but in such a clumsy fashion, and with such clumsy late amendments, as to virtually epitomize the bad planning practices that city leaders say they're trying to get away from. Meanwhile in a thunderbolt of irony, city planning leaders were gathered that same day across town to talk about the CodeNEXT process to rewrite the Land Development Code, largely designed to avoid City Council making the kinds of decisions they were currently making, and instituting the sort of code they were currently instituting.
Just to be clear, "granny flats" were already allowed in SF-3 zoning throughout the city; the proposal that came through the planning process expanded this to SF-2, and added several other provisions which will make it easier to build ADUs – mostly supported, and some in fact initiated, by the neighborhood associations. [Ed. note: the previous sentence is changed from the print edition, which mistakenly said that granny flats are allowed in every residential zoning category.] The major point of contention remaining on Thursday concerned parking requirements: Should each secondary unit be required to have one off-street parking space, or none? Everywhere in the city, or in certain neighborhoods, or in accordance with pre-existing neighborhood plans? What Council came up with Thursday, in their infinite ... whatever ... is this:
• They took all the SF-2 properties – a large chunk of all the residential properties in the city, including primarily the wealthier outlying western and southern precincts – and exempted them from the ordinance altogether. This was the grand compromise between Mayor Steve Adler and CM Greg Casar, after it became clear that Council could not muster six votes for pushing ADUs into Allendale and Slaughter Lane.
• They lifted parking requirements for ADUs on all properties within a quarter mile of an "activity corridor," as defined in Imagine Austin, and allowed that provision to override existing zoning and neighborhood plans. Now, that's the sort of compromise that sounds good when you're shooting from the hip on the dais, but it's exactly the sort of broad-brush solution that the planners across town were bemoaning, and promising wouldn't happen under the new way of doing things. The promise at CodeNEXT was for "fine-grained" solutions: block-by-block, lot-by-lot standards instead of one-size-fits-all dictates.
In taking those actions, Mayor Adler and his Council not only blew up over a year of public process – the commission and Council Committee process he so often lauds in theory – in favor of provisions first proposed out of the blue on the day of the meeting. They also created a blanket standard, in the quarter-mile provision, that produces an odd new patchwork of zoning overlays, and clearly not a "best practices" zoning map.
For example, the house where I live, just over a quarter-mile from an activity corridor, will still be required to provide a parking space for an ADU, though in reality it wouldn't really need one, because on-street parking is readily available in the immediate area. My neighbors a few doors down, in identical conditions, will be exempt from that requirement (which is fine, if totally arbitrary) – but so will properties in virtually every area of town where on-street parking is a problem, because such areas lie along activity corridors.
Now, I'm not a big fan of parking requirements – I tend to think they should be reduced in every category of zoning through most of the city – but it's obvious that conditions differ, and need to be addressed differently, in different areas. (Duh!) So I'm okay with Council deciding that only 20% of my neighborhood is going to have parking required for every new unit going forward. But I'm not okay with them deciding, on the dais, with no prior consideration, that that area should be an arbitrary rectangle in the middle of the neighborhood, rather than, for instance, in the blocks around the local public school, where there's currently no available street parking, and cars are double-parked for hours at a time. Those are just the sort of fine-grained considerations that are already included in existing neighborhood plans, but were absent from the Council dais on Thursday.
The result is a not-awful ordinance. But it was an ugly process, and a depressingly familiar example of this City Council doing its planning business in the bad old way, while giving only lip service to a new day.
Closures and Celebrations: The Austin Animal Center and Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center will be closed Thanksgiving Day, and all city libraries, recreation centers, nature centers, cultural centers, and museums will be closed Thursday and Friday. On the other hand, the ThunderCloud Subs 25th Annual Turkey Trot (www.thundercloud.com/turkey-trot) takes place Thanksgiving morning at the Long Center, UT football has their home finale hosting Texas Tech that day at 6:30pm, and the Chuy's Children Giving to Children Parade is Saturday, Nov. 28, beginning at 11am at the State Capitol. And then ...
Join the Global Climate March. On Sunday, Nov. 29, the day before the Paris Climate Summit, people will gather on the State Capitol grounds to demand that our global and local leaders take action on climate change, climate justice, and environmental racism. Speakers, organizational tables, kids' activities, music, and a march down Congress Avenue. Starts at 1pm; march at 2:30pm. See www.gcmaustin.com for details, or www.globalclimatemarch.org/en for a broader view.
The Foundation Communities Holiday Assistance Program helps make the season a little brighter for residents who struggle to fulfill their holiday wish lists on their own. You or your team could sponsor a family (complete a sponsor form by Friday, Dec. 4); donate gift items like books, toys, gift cards, canned goods, or school supplies to the Holiday Drive for residents; or donate money online. See www.foundcom.org for info.
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