Council Previews Fall's Main Event: A Land Development Code Revision

A code, foretold

Conceptual view of the new Dougherty Arts Center, as seen from Toomey Road

As the Chronicle goes to press, City Coun­cil offices are getting one last look at the "policy guidance" memo wrought over the last two months, mostly on the dais, to shape Land Development Code revision (what was once CodeNEXT). At its special called meeting May 2, Council ultimately voted 8-3 to approve memo language that, on the whole but not without any restraint, calls for a new code supporting more housing (specifically, more affordable housing) citywide, increased density in and around urban neighborhoods, and land use planning to support transit.

That final vote saw Council's established loyal opposition on land use questions – Council Members Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, and Alison Alter – on the short end. Throughout the nine-hour meeting, the three had regularly been joined by CM Ann Kitchen on votes on individual provisions, but Kitchen ultimately endorsed the final product, which she described as "going beyond suggestions [to] being more prescriptive than I think is prudent ... but there is a lot that is good and that I agree with, and I do share the overarching goals."

Kitchen and her colleagues emphasized that, through multiple sessions of wordsmithing and deliberating and amending, the document that Council was voting on was still a draft, not yet final, of a "direction" to city staff to create a process that will, prospectively in October, bring back a draft of how Austin might revise its code. "There is no final decision being made tonight," said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza. "There will be time for all of us to, once again, likely have very similar discussions that we had tonight, when we see that draft."

Tovo, who proposed the lion's share of the amendments considered at the meeting, concurred. "I'm going to work just as hard [when the draft code returns] to propose amendments and collaborate with my colleagues," she said, "to see if we can get to a place, with code and a map, that I think represents a balanced approach" – more balanced, she made clear, than what Coun­cil had produced – "and also achieves our goals of Imagine Austin to increase the density along the corridors and in the activity centers. I think that we have an opportunity with this process to build back some trust with the public."

Despite these caveats, most members agreed with Mayor Steve Adler that this exercise was valuable and needed to be done to avoid the uncontrolled communal strife that doomed CodeNEXT. "This was not easy. And I think we got through it really well," he said. "I think it does reflect the general will of our community ... [and] this is really good work."

On today's agenda (Thu., May 9), Council will work through a relatively light 43 Items. CM Greg Casar's "Affordability Unlocked" program – introduced as a resolution in Feb­ruary – is set for a public hearing and possible passage into city ordinance. At Coun­cil's Tues­day work session, Lauren Avioli with the city's Neighborhood Housing and Commun­ity Development Department explained the ordinance as a density bonus program targeted at affordable housing. Developers would be allowed to waive minimum parking requirements and other code standards in exchange for adding more affordable housing units to a project.

A plan to redevelop the Dougherty Arts Center at a site on Butler Shores is set to be discussed as well. The aging facility on Barton Springs Road is prone to flooding during heavy rains. Tovo noted that the existing building was not a safety risk yet, but that "we could do better" by the artists and youth who regularly use the space.

Another item that would establish a small area plan along North Lamar is set to be postponed indefinitely by staff, following concerns from several CMs at the work session. Casar and others said embarking on a land code revision outside of the big Next CodeNEXT project could be confusing, and he recommended scuttling the issue for now. Elsewhere, zoning cases off Manchaca Road (from residential to office) and on Dessau Road (upzoning the Pioneer Hill Apartments) will be heard, with some expected concerns from nearby residents.

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land development code, CodeNEXT, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza, Imagine Austin, Greg Casar, Affordability Unlocked, Lauren Avioli, Dougherty Arts Center, Dessau Road, Manchaca Road, Pioneer Hill Apartments

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