A streamlined city code in Austin, Texas, will allow for more housing types and appropriate density
“Keep Austin Weird.” It’s the Texas city’s long-standing slogan. Even older is the city’s Land Development Code, which has been around since 1984 and many say is long overdue for an overhaul. CodeNEXT is Austin’s first revision of the that code in more than 30 years. While CodeNEXT is specific to Austin, Texas, many communities have a similar struggle—a burdensome and overly complex code process regulating zoning, subdivisions, transportation, and all development permitting.
Why is this new code a big deal in Austin? A major tenet of the rewrite is to streamline the code for a simple and predictable process. An effective and flexible code is necessary for the utilization and implementation of what has become a broken development process. The first draft of the new code was released in early 2017, a second draft in September, and a final draft is to be released this November. Final adoption by the Austin City Council is scheduled to occur in the first half of 2018.
CodeNEXT has five major objectives that aim to impact future development in the City: mobility, community, environment, housing, and permitting. The new code will encourage planning as a community by promoting development that is consistent with the surrounding built environment instead of the historical approach of lot by lot.
The rewrite process to date has been controversial and contentious, as various stakeholders petition for the issues they feel to be most important. The result has been several major revisions of the drafts. The second draft of the code appears to be trending away from a form-based code originally proposed to regulate the physical form of a structure as opposed to a traditional separation of land uses. Despite the combative process and diluted observance of responsible planning in the latest draft, I’m happy to say that some encouraging elements have survived the rewrite progression.
A major weakness of the existing code was an overreliance on compatibility standards to limit the height of new development near residential structures. While it is appropriate to safeguard against incompatible uses adjacent to single-family houses, it has unintentionally limited the availability of diverse housing and neighborhood-friendly commercial development, ultimately contributing to an affordability crisis in Austin. In addition, current standards rely on distance to determine compatibility, regardless of topography, form, design, or other mitigating opportunities.
CodeNEXT is proposing a more thoughtful approach to compatibility standards that will allow for more housing types and appropriate density along commercial corridors. The revised proposal for compatibility standards incorporates the regulations in to each base zoning district, allowing a predictable development product for both developers and adjacent residential areas. The new standards are designed to accommodate infill projects where growth is encouraged and will create new opportunities for sites that were previously constrained by size, geography, or uncompromising compatibility standards. Ultimately, CodeNEXT has created a way to retain protection for neighborhoods while enabling growth in appropriate areas.
Recently, a high-profile property entered the market in Austin generating much conversation about compatibility standards and the ultimate effect that redevelopment will have on the neighborhood.
My Stantec team and I performed a comparative development analysis on the property of how the CodeNEXT compatibility standards will impact the site. As you can see below, CodeNEXT 2.0 would allow for a superior redevelopment on the property through a form-based approach.
In this example, the proposed zoning change would yield approximately 5,400 additional square feet to the building and require 55 fewer parking spaces.
CodeNEXT provides an important opportunity to address the flaws of our current code while encouraging responsible planning to help further a sense of community in Austin. My team and I are taking an active role in the shaping of the Austin land development code rewrite process as it will affect development and our local communities for many years to come.
About the Author
Stephen brings more than a decade of experience as an urban planner. He’s passionate about sharing market analysis, economic development, development regulations, and legislative policy changes knowledge with his clients in and around Central Texas.More Content by Stephen Rye