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The next CodeNext is here: Austin release first draft of overhaul to land development code

October will be a busy month for those on both sides of pivotal issue

By Daniel Salazar- Staff Writer, Austin Business Journal

Oct 4, 2019, 3:06pm Updated Oct 4, 2019, 7:14pm EDT

Draft day has arrived.

The city of Austin on Oct. 4 released the first draft of revisions to the land development code, which determines what can be built where across the city. The rewrite has major implications for Austin's biggest issues, such as affordability and mobility.

"We are looking to simplify how we regulate how we're growing and guide growth where it can do the most good," said Annick Beaudet, assistant director at Austin Transportation Department and one of the leaders on the code revamp.

For some light weekend reading, here's the 1,366-page draft text, which would govern how the city approaches everything from building permits to transportation regulations. The map portion with proposed zoning for parcels across the city can be found here.

The city has envisioned updating its land development code in earnest since its 2012 Imagine Austin comprehensive plan.

With the last major rewrite in 1984, Austin's land development code has decades of amendments layered on top of each other, creating a jumbled mess that can make building in the city more difficult.

"Our code has been around a while," said Brent Lloyd, another leader on the code overhaul and a development officer in the city's Development Services Department. "It's kind of like a house where somebody's built a bedroom off of the kitchen and you've got to walk through the kitchen and the laundry room to get to a bedroom.

"[So] we've taken this opportunity to substantially remodel," he added. "We've tried to structure the code in a way that makes it more user friendly."

If this sounds familiar, it's because several draft versions of a rewrite effort called CodeNext were released over the course of 2017 and 2018. Officials marketed CodeNext as a way to achieve a more compact and connected city, one of the chief aims of Imagine Austin.

But CodeNext became a political punching bag by mid-2018. Urbanists and housing advocates felt it didn't go far enough to boost the city's housing stock, while neighborhood preservationists feared single-family residential areas would be hurt by unwanted density.

CodeNext was ultimately abandoned by city leaders last August — bogged down by community divisions and by what many felt had become a broken process.

So City Manager Spencer Cronk was tasked with picking up the pieces for a new rewrite effort. He kicked it off this spring by polling Council members on hot-button issues such as compatibility and parking regulations.

Council members responded in May with wide-ranging goals, signaling a desire for substantial increases in potential housing and limiting the effects of non-zoning regulations on development.

A team of city staff and consultants put together the draft over the summer months, previewing various provisions to Council in the lead up to the Oct. 4 release.

Staff members said zoning provisions for transition areas between major corridors and residential neighborhoods will boost housing diversity while protecting homeowners' rights.

"Fourplexes, six-plexes [and] cottage courts are a type of housing that used to exist on a much broader scale," Lloyd said. "It's something that people want to see more of — it helps to provide housing for a range of income levels."

"We're really trying to take care of who's here today, but also plan for the future," Beaudet added. "It will be an incremental approach to accommodating the growth that we anticipate."

But the same fights of the CodeNext era are poised to resume.

Urbanist group AURA said in a statement it was pleased that the new code could lead to more accessory dwelling units and fewer parking minimums along central corridors.

"We encourage [Council members] to continue to listen to the truly progressive voices that elected them and deliver a code that meaningfully increases the supply and diversity of housing, particularly in central Austin," AURA said in the statement.

Meanwhile, Community Not Commodity, a group that opposed CodeNext, has been stirring fears that the land development code revision will be "worse than its infamous predecessor."

No matter your opinion on land use, October is shaping up to be a busy month with open houses and meetings across the city. Council could take its first votes on the revisions this December.

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