Public Notice: The Devil’s in the Details

And of course, no one wants to wrestle with the Devil

Public Notice: The Devil’s in the Details

AIA Austin, the local architects' association, released their CodeNEXT Charrette 2 Report last week: 92 pages of very detailed analysis of the code's impact on seven specific sets of properties around Austin – ranging from Low-Density Residential through Mixed-Use, Corridors, Regional Centers, and up to Downtown – testing what the draft two code would mean on the ground for those sites. Bear in mind, these are architects, so their inclination is going to be that they get to build whatever they envision, with as few restrictions as possible. So it's not surprising that the large majority of their recommendations (and there are almost 200 of them in all) pertain to loosening restrictions, and doing away with what they see as overly prescriptive standards on building design and placement.

Repeatedly, the AIA testers point out provisions of the code text that could create problems, or undesirable outcomes, when applied to lots with non-standard shapes or natural features such as trees and slopes. Those are the sorts of issues, of course, that require waivers and variances and City Hall meetings – and as you may recall, one of the very specific goals of the code rewrite was to simplify the code, and reduce the need for such exceptions. In the end, they conclude that, "Much like the first draft, … the second draft proved to have many limiting and confusing regulations. … Ultimately it was unclear how these would effectively meet the goals and priorities of Imagine Austin." Still, they look forward to "a third draft that we can all champion. AIA Austin continues to support the CodeNEXT process and we appreciate the opportunity to provide input."

Regarding one issue that's going to be contentious, the AIA report notes that its members don't like compatibility standards on principle, and that they "strongly believe that the compatibility of scales and uses could be satisfied by thoughtful, context sensitive mapping in lieu of code." That's almost certainly true, but on another front this week, Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oli­ver stated in no uncertain terms that he wants his team to have no part of that sort of context-sensitive mapping, saying they're "doomed" if they get into that level of detail (see "Quote of the Week," p.6, and "CodeNEXT," p.10). So, what's it going to be? The PC and Zoning and Plat­ting Com­mission appear to be under strict orders to deliver their recommendations to Council in pretty short order. And to do that, as Oliver says, they're going to have to punt the hard decisions upstairs to City Council. At which point … what? Do we think Council is going to want to wrangle with the hand-to-hand, block-by-block combat that is context-sensitive zoning? To debate whether the vegetative buffer on a particular size of parking lot, opposite a particular width alley, ought to be two feet wide, or perhaps two and a half?

Those are rhetorical questions. The answer is: No, they are not.

So does that really mean that we're going to live with a half-baked land development code for the next 50 years, because city leaders lack the political will to add another six months of actual useful work, onto a process that they've ignored and allowed to spin its wheels in a ditch for most of the last three years? Indeed, that's the way it appears at the moment. Happy New Year.

There's been a lot of talk in Austin about missing middle housing, such that it has become shorthand for all of the things Austin is missing in its housing market. In fact, however, Missing Middle Housing is a proprietary term, coined by the CodeNEXT consultants as a marketing tool, shortly before they landed Austin as a client. The phrase was "coined by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design, Inc. in 2010 to define a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living." The market demand web page at defines the market as "Singles, childless couples, and empty nesters," and goes on to define the market segments as "Millennials, Baby Boomers, Diverse Households, and Unsat­is­fied Suburbanites."

Confidential to City Manager-elect Spencer Cronk: Ever heard of the Zucker Report? You should read it.

Subject Lines So Good, You Don't Want to Spoil Them by Opening the Email: "TX: Driving study finds Texans like to honk, throw objects."

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CodeNEXT, Stephen Oliver

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