City Council Shapes Land Use Overhaul on Second Reading

Debate continues as Austin learns to code

Natasha Harper-Madison (Photo by John Anderson)

City Council was in the middle of more debate on the Land Development Code rewrite on Wednesday, Feb. 12, as the Chronicle went to press, and expects to vote on approval of the new code on second reading (out of three) later today, Thursday, Feb. 13. As with the first-reading vote in Decem­ber, each member is trying to bend the unwieldy code to their will through amendments – both specific changes to the latest code text and directions to staff on how to refine the document ahead of its third and final reading, tentatively scheduled for early March.

Debate began late in the afternoon on Tuesday, Feb. 11, after members of the public were afforded another opportunity to weigh in. Unsurprisingly, the arguments voiced during that two-hour session generally reflected what LDC activists have said for years: one group urging Council to restrain the LDC's proposed entitlement increases, especially in the central city where Austin's historic neighborhoods are already dense; another insisting Council must upzone those neighborhoods and all parts of the city if the code is to bear the golden fruit both sides agree they want – affordable housing.

One amendment offered a clear example of the central tension on the dais: a desire among the majority to use the code to create as many opportunities as possible for more housing units throughout the city, and a fear among the minority that that approach will lead to an exploitation of the code that creates fewer and more expensive housing options.

Unfortunately for us on the News desk, that public comment period was followed by another two hours of executive session, meaning Council did not actually begin working through amendments until 3pm, with a 5pm hard stop (some on the dais are parents, and finding childcare outside of regular business hours ain't easy). So they didn't get much work done on Tuesday, but the few amendments they did debate are substantive enough to examine here; we'll have more to say online on Friday, after the second-reading vote.

As of press time, council members had submitted 85 total amendments – compared to 140 or so at first reading. By adjournment on Tuesday, four had been withdrawn (one from CM Greg Casar and three from CM Jimmy Flannigan). Two were set without debate for approval at second reading: One from Casar changes uses in higher-density zones to "only allow a portion of the pedestrian-oriented uses to be a residential lobby or resident-only uses, unless staff grants a waiver." The other, from Mayor Steve Adler, directs staff to revise the text to "include a stand-alone definition for Live Music Venue use," distinct from the existing defined uses for Performance Venues and Bars/Nightclubs. The other 79 were all pulled for further discussion by one or more of the CMs.

That left enough time for Council to debate three of those amendments – two set for approval, one rejected by an atypically split vote. The first came from CM Natasha Harper-Madison, directing staff to increase the allowable floor-to-area ratio (FAR) for duplexes to 0.5 in residential zones where the FAR is currently set at 0.4. That means that people building duplexes would be able to use half of the square footage of the lot for the structure, up from 40% in the current code. (In much of the central city, the real FAR is actually less than 0.4 due to McMansion Ordinance restrictions on building size.)

Alison Alter (Photo by John Anderson)

The amendment was approved on familiar lines: seven votes in favor, with CMs Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, and Alison Alter opposed, CM Ann Kitchen abstaining. The disagreement over the amendment offers a clear example of the central tension on the dais: a desire among the majority to use the code to create as many opportunities as possible for homeowners and developers to create more housing units throughout the city, and a fear among the minority that taking that approach will lead to exploitation of the code in ways that create fewer and more expensive housing options.

The premise of Harper-Madison's amendment is that a greater FAR might make larger duplex units more attractive and profitable for a developer to build and market than a single home. But the fear, as expressed by Alter, is that owners would instead exploit that increased FAR allowance for their personal use. "I just think we're getting bigger and bigger units and disincentivizing a larger number of units," explained the District 10 rep, adding that the new code does not require duplexes to be physically connected. She cited a hypothetical property owner using the increased FAR to build a single-family home, a pool, and then a pool house – gaming the code to get a larger house. "Pool houses are not a [District 1] problem," Harper-Madison responded. "A lack of housing supply is."

Another amendment from Harper-Madi­son to incentivize more units failed 4-6-1, with Casar and Adler joining the minority in rejecting it (Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza abstained). The opponents concluded that the amendment language could result in "missing middle" housing in zones (R2B) that were not mapped for that use.

Finally, Casar's amendment to modify the LDC's preservation bonus was approved 8-3 (Alter, Pool, and Kitchen voting against, with Tovo only voting in favor of some of the amendment provisions). The amendment brings several changes to the bonus, most notably reducing the age of a qualifying structure from 30 years to 15 years. As Casar explained, a homeowner who built their house in the early 2000s should be allowed to take advantage of the bonus, which can permit up to three units on a lot if the original structure is at least partially preserved. Other changes would reduce the minimum lot size where the bonus can be applied, and let owners move their home within the lot. Opponents argued these changes to the bonus – which as currently drafted require only 50% of the original structure to remain intact – will incentivize partial teardowns rather than protecting existing affordable housing stock.

Casar passed a similar change to the bonus on first reading, which staff chose not to implement. This time, as lead code writer Brent Lloyd explained, "We are just going to defer entirely to Coun­cil's wishes on this. If they want to lower [the age] to 15 years, we can work with that."

Council also met last Thursday, Feb. 6, and approved two notable contracts – one, regarding Austin Police Department's body cameras, drew attention from criminal justice reform activists both on and off the dais (see "Activists, Council Push APD On Body Cam Video Policy"). The other authorized City Man­ag­er Spencer Cronk to contract with Mat­thew Doherty, head of the U.S. Inter­agen­cy Council on Homelessness until being forced out by President Trump, to provide consulting services on homelessness policy.

Despite a 10-1 vote in favor, some CMs were concerned that the proposed contract, for eight months at a cost of $95,000, was vague and the work he would be doing unclear. Flannigan, who voted against the contract, said he was not "sufficiently educated" on what Doherty would be doing and preferred staff spend more time examining the fallout from the short tenure and abrupt departure of Homeless Strategy Office chief Lori Pampilo Harris. Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter, who oversees the newly created Homeless Services Division, said the contract would be "tailored and very strategic," but acknowledged that Doherty's scope of work had not been fully sketched out. Meanwhile, Shorter explained, the city will seek a new full-time leader for the HSD.

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