Council Prepares for Round 2 of the Land Use Rewrite
Calm before the code
The City Council will take up a light agenda on Thursday, Feb. 6, as members and their staff spend most of their energy on preparing for the second (of three) required votes to approve the Land Development Code revision next week (see "When Did the Single-Family Home Go From Being the American Dream to an Urbanist Nightmare?" and "What's New in Draft Two."). At the meeting, Council is set to approve an eight-month contract with Matthew Doherty to provide consulting services on homeless response policy at a cost not to exceed $95,000. Doherty recently resigned as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness after he disagreed with the direction of President Trump's homelessness policy. Another item will combine contracts with Axon Enterprise Inc. to provide Austin police officers with Tasers, body cams, and the software to manage them for three years at a cost not to exceed $48.2 million.
City Hall's focus this week has already shifted to the LDC, with work sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 4 and 5, where CMs had an opportunity to discuss the latest version of the code text and zoning map, and to ask staffers from the rewrite team about new and old concerns. Meetings are scheduled each day Tuesday through Thursday (Feb. 11-13) to allow for debate on amendments to the second draft of the code, which was released on Friday, Jan. 31; Thursday's expected second-reading vote will propel the years-long LDC rewrite effort into its home stretch, with third and final reading later this spring.
The Tuesday session was dominated by discussion of revised housing capacity figures, which have been greatly reduced from the first draft of the LDC, released in October, primarily as a response to Council direction asking for reduced upzoning in parts of Austin vulnerable to gentrification.
Using the Uprooted study conducted by University of Texas researchers as a guide, the code rewrite team downzoned all transition zones that aligned with areas identified in the study as being "susceptible" to gentrification or in the "early" stages of it to R2 – the equivalent of single-family zoning in the new code. Transition zones that overlap with "late" and "dynamic" areas in Uprooted were zoned R3 and R4, respectively, only the latter of which is considered a transition zone. (For a deeper dive into these changes, and a refresher on the specifics of each proposed new zone, see "What's New in Draft Two.")
The effect of these anti-gentrification measures, combined with other directives from Council that more generally reduced the size of TZs across the city, amounted to an estimated reduction of about 5,000 "missing middle" housing units – the house-scale structures (townhomes, fourplexes, etc.) that are bigger than single-family homes, but smaller than apartment complexes. A chart shared by staff shows little change in the extent of TZs (referred to as "Missing Middle Zones") in Council Districts 7, 8, 9, and 10 – those that encompass most of the city's central and western neighborhoods. At the same time, the missing middle capacity in Districts 1 and 3, primarily east of I-35, were reduced by about half or more. Overall, staff estimates the second draft's total housing capacity at somewhere between 351,000 and 410,000 units (of all types, not just missing middle), compared to 397,000 in the first draft of the code.
The high end of that range presumes the success of proposed density bonus programs – incentives for developers to create affordable housing units in exchange for reduced parking requirements and greater height allowances. The new draft introduces a new bonus, dubbed by staff the Equity Area Bonus Program, in areas identified as "vulnerable" to gentrification in Uprooted. Developers there will have to set aside at least 10% of their units at affordable rates – without the alternative of paying a fee-in-lieu to the city instead. Council will have to approve redevelopment of any site in these areas that already contains multifamily housing.
One fear is that reducing future housing capacity in vulnerable areas will actually exacerbate their gentrification. Mayor Steve Adler gave voice to the predicament at the Tuesday work session: "Do we make a choice that has an impact on people living there now, even though it means you're losing an opportunity to have more people there 10 years from now? This vote done to further equity could have the opposite impact," Adler said. "There is no right answer to this question; both are born of trying to create equity."
Where and how intensely the new code should map transition zones is critical, although they account for a geographically small percentage of the city. A planner with Cascadia Partners, one of the consultants hired to work on the LDC rewrite, put it simply: "We don't think that there's capacity for change in most of the city," Alex Steinberger said. "It's really confined to corridors and centers."
Most of Council appears to approve, if reluctantly, of staff's new mapping of TZs. But Kathie Tovo – whose central-city District 9 includes the largest proportion of TZs – is still pushing for a reduction in the depth of these zones, pointing to the policy guidance adopted by Council last May that indicates TZs should extend into neighborhoods by about two to five lots. Some in District 9 extend much deeper than that: "The feedback from me has not changed," Tovo told staff on Tuesday. "It's still unclear to me why the mapping is triple [that depth] in some places in my district and that's not happening in other parts of town."
Annick Beaudet, co-lead of the rewrite team, explained that all TZs started with a two to five lot depth, but some were expanded after staff took into consideration the configuration of lots on each street, and the use of their "planning judgment" to determine where deeper TZs made more sense. Tovo acknowledged that some D9 corridors were downzoned* in the new draft, but said the staff's effort "hasn't resolved what is a substantial issue in the neighborhoods I represent." As we went to press, Council was in the middle of a briefing on environmental impacts in draft two of the LDC. We'll have more on that and other changes, online and in print next week.
This story has been updated to clarify CM Tovo’s characterization of the downzoning that occurred in D9.