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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Rifts widen as City Council nears vote on zoning overhaul

Updated: May 8, 2019

As the Austin City Council moves toward a critical vote to restart an overhaul of the city’s decades-old land development code, rifts continue to widen between council members, who are drilling down into what they want to emerge from the rubble of CodeNext.

During a work session Tuesday, Mayor Steve Adler attempted to usher the council toward consensus regarding a policy framework that City Manager Spencer Cronk has requested in advance of the latest attempt to rewrite Austin’s land use rules. It took more than six hours, but the council worked through the five policy questions posited to them by Cronk.

The disagreements came on a range of issues, such as whether the city should allow for three housing units to be put on every residential lot, whether housing density should be aimed at the city’s center, how to define “missing middle housing” and whether certain neighborhood districts should be exempt from zoning changes.

“I think we need to recognize that it’s not as black and white as passing our priorities one day and the next day rezoning the entire city,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said.

The council will vote Thursday on the guiding policies and set in motion a new effort to rewrite a land-use code that has been tied to institutional racism, gentrification and displacement of low-income residents. The previous $8.5 million effort, CodeNext, ended in failure after the City Council voted in August to halt the increasingly contentious effort.

As a starting point, Adler’s office has created a base document that calls for:

* A vast scope to the rewrite that includes reworking the code and creating a new zoning map simultaneously. Both would be ready for adoption by the council on first reading in October. The starting point for the latest rewrite attempt would be the third draft of CodeNext.

* A revised code that allows for an increase of more than 287,000 new housing units over 10 years. Zoning changes allowing for larger developments would be tied to the creation of either affordable housing or so-called missing middle housing. The new code also would apply density bonus programs to more of the city.

* Changes to the code that boost the potential for increases in missing middle housing, broadly defined as smaller apartment developments, such as garage apartments or four-plexes. These revisions would ease regulations surrounding the creation of accessory dwelling units.

* Reducing compatibility standards that often restrict building heights and other characteristics beyond the guidelines in the third draft of CodeNext.

* Lessening but not eliminating parking requirements to a greater extent than was proposed in CodeNext. Americans with Disabilities Act requirements would remain for larger developments, but other parking requirements would be eliminated in areas a quarter-mile from spots designated as activity centers, activity corridors and transit stations.

Council members likely will have more than a dozen amendments Thursday during what should be a lengthy debate.

The amendment that garnered the most attention Tuesday came from Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Natasha Harper-Madison and Sabino “Pio” Renteria. In general, it calls for the yet-to-be-written code to go further than Adler suggested, including eliminating parking requirements, and possibly eliminating specialized neighborhood land-use regulations that exist for some neighborhoods, including Hyde Park and Travis Heights.

Council Member Kathie Tovo in particular bristled at the amendment’s suggestion that two-thirds of new housing be built in the city’s urban core, which encompasses a large majority of her Central and East Austin district.

“To achieve this in the urban core will mean the demolition of likely lots of the existing middle missing housing,” Tovo said. “So we really need to be more thoughtful about this conversation, about how we move forward.”

By Philip Jankowski

Posted Apr 23, 2019 at 6:27 PM

Updated Apr 23, 2019 at 7:42 PM

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