Batten Down the Hatches, a New Land Use Code’s Blowin’ In!
Long-awaited draft of post-CodeNEXT revision to go live Friday
Sometime in the afternoon on Friday, Oct. 4 – and not, we are assured, at 4:59pm as planning staffers at One Texas Center rush down the street to ACL Fest – the city will, as promised, publish online the long-awaited new draft of a revised Austin land development code. The weekend's other events may delay a reaction from the many stakeholders who will devour the new code text and maps in states of hope or fear, but probably not for very long. As the Chronicle goes to press Wednesday, Oct. 2, staffers are doing final testing of their online products and reviewing the text materials – both the code language and the staff report – prior to showtime. That means most of the particulars are already done; while the city's newly revamped LDC website (www.austintexas.gov/ldc) states, "While our teams are writing the code, we likely won't be able to answer questions that are specific to a particular property," office hours will be announced after the code's release, during which you'll be able to schedule one- on-one visits with planners to talk about your own issues.
Many of those issues will certainly have to do with the new code's evolving definitions of single-family zoning, particularly in transition zones around activity centers and core transit corridors (as identified in the city's Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, adopted in 2012, and its Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, adopted this year) where higher density is encouraged. Much angst has been felt by those in neighborhoods who fear these zones – as yet undefined in size, location, or the code provisions applying within them – will inevitably swallow them up and spit them out, and much of the City Council's lengthy and painful public negotiation over policy guidance to the LDC planning team earlier this spring sought to capture and honor those sentiments.
However, many of those point-by-point conflicts saw the neighborhood stalwarts – Council Members Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Alison Alter, and (on some but not all points) Ann Kitchen – on the short end of 8-3 and 7-4 votes. A clear majority of Council, buoyed by last November's landslide reelection of Mayor Steve Adler and the defeat of the Proposition J citizen initiative, both inherent referenda on code revision, wants to move beyond the stopping point they felt was reached by the final draft of the late and lamented CodeNEXT effort 18 months ago. They want to see more assertive action on increasing housing density and opportunity, more "missing middle" housing types, better access to transit, less mandated parking, and other goals consistent with Imagine Austin's call for a "compact and connected" urban framework.
So the LDC revision that's dropping on Friday will be scored by how it responds to that political push and pull. For example, people will be watching the degree to which density increases are tied to affordability requirements or incentives. Despite loose talk from Adler and others about "every" additional unit allowed being tied to affordability, simply changing the definition of "single-family" to include not only duplexes but fourplexes or adding accessory units to every property – seen as low-hanging fruit by code-revision advocates – would be very different proposals in that context. We'll have our own first reactions in next week's issue.