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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Austin's rewrite of land use rules enters homestretch with upcoming vote

Seven years have passed and at least $9 million has been spent since a comprehensive plan called for an overhaul of Austin’s antiquated land development code.

The effort has faced numerous challenges, both self-inflicted and from fierce opposition groups. Skepticism also continues to swirl around the latest effort to rewrite city rules on what can be built and where.

But like it or not, the Austin City Council is a week away from its most crucial vote to date on the massive change to the city’s land use code and zoning map.

The council will consider what critics have dubbed the “Son of CodeNext” for the first of three required approvals Dec. 9. The members will decide what recommendations from the Planning Commission should be included in the next draft of the proposed code as well as the staff revisions report issued Nov. 25.

The main goal of the rewrite is to encourage the construction of 135,000 housing units in the next decade without triggering rapid redevelopment of neighborhoods or furthering gentrification.

To achieve that, the proposal before the council would broadly ease restrictions on the size and number of housing units built near high-traffic streets on the edges of neighborhoods, areas known as “transition zones.”

The council has been in the driver’s seat for the overhaul for less than three weeks, but it already appears poised to make some significant changes. Mayor Steve Adler recently floated the idea of allowing for three housing units on all residential lots, and it garnered some support.

The speed at which the land development code has evolved in the past few weeks has left some worried. Austin Neighborhoods Council President Justin Irving told the American-Statesman that many people he has talked to feel left out of the conversation.

“Most of the communities we represent do not have the time or the bandwidth to follow what the council is doing day to day,” Irving said. “It is really impossible both on the timeline and on how this process is working to be a community participant. I don’t think that is what council wants.”

Council Member Delia Garza recently proposed an “equity overlay” that would apply a University of Texas study on gentrification in Austin to the proposed zoning map by carving out areas identified as susceptible to gentrification. Under Garza’s proposal, the identified areas would have limited transition zones, stricter rules on the redevelopment of existing multifamily developments and increased affordable housing requirements, Garza wrote on the City Council’s online message board.

Portions of that idea have already been included in the city staff’s recent revision report as well as the Planning Commission’s recommendation to the council.

“I think that the comments coming from the community are being taken seriously, and a lot of the suggestions are helpful,” Adler told the Statesman. “Some are pointing out real areas that need additional work. So it continues to evolve. It will continue to evolve even after we approve something on first reading.”

The Austin Board of Realtors underscored the urgency of moving forward with some version of an update to the land development code recently in the release of a home sales report. The influential group, after reporting record-breaking sales, stated that Austin’s lack of available housing inventory is making the market unsustainable.

But the land development code’s troubled past, coupled with the divisive nature of the issue and the general speed of government, means the rewrite’s future remains unclear.

The overhaul inched closer to approval most recently when the city Planning and Zoning Department released its recommendations for revisions to its latest draft of the code. Many were in response to community input, the city’s lead code writer, Brent Lloyd, told the Statesman.

The most noticeable change proposed in the city’s recommendations amounted to taking away some capacity for greater housing density from areas of East Austin considered vulnerable to gentrification. Conversely, Lloyd said, they are proposing more housing density in the western reaches of Austin.

The code team also recommended altering an incentive program to encourage the preservation of older homes in Austin. The draft code allows for more housing units to be built on a lot with an existing older home with very few restrictions on size.

Lloyd said the rules might preserve a home, but they also could encourage the creation of large, expensive homes as a new housing unit on the same lot.

“That is not what we are trying to encourage,” Lloyd said. “Broadly speaking, we are proposing stricter limits on the types of structures that qualify for preservation incentive.”

The staff’s latest recommendation would hem in the size of an additional structure by placing limits on the amount of floor space for a new unit. The amount of floor area allowed could increase based on the number of new housing units produced, Lloyd said.

On Tuesday, the council will take up the land development code during a work session. The group will hold a public hearing Saturday related to the overhaul.

By Philip Jankowski

Austin-American Statesman

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