The city of Austin took a half-step forward in creating a more progressive land-use code after City Council spent hours debating and reaching some agreement April 25 around the more contentious aspects of the city’s land-development policies.
City Council worked to meet the request from City Manager Spencer Cronk, who asked the elected representatives in March to guide his staff through what he considered the five most polarizing issues related to the city’s land code—the scope of the rewrite, housing supply and typology, building compatibility standards and parking requirements—in order for his team to move forward on a code proposal. Austin has been struggling to overhaul its code since 2012, when the community agreed a major revision was needed to manage the city’s rapid population and development boom.
However, after a 12-hour stretch of deliberation—broken up only by lunch and dinner breaks—City Council was unable to reach a final consensus on policy positions and agreed to call a special meeting next week to finish what was started. No date was immediately set.
The April 25th meeting was vintage Austin City Council, reminiscent of the long, late and laborious meetings that were common over the last few years, but have recently been rare. As City Council members worked to find agreement on the five questions, the dais saw roughly 50 pages worth of policy amendments, testy and impassioned exchanges between representatives, in-the-weeds wordsmithing and an adjournment just shy of 12 a.m.
Council’s goal at the start of the day was to author, amend and agree on the contents of a foundational document that outlined their majority positions on the various policies. Staff from Cronk’s office and the planning and zoning department would then use that document to guide them through some of the more controversial aspects of overhauling a city’s land-use rules.
For the mayor and council members, who represent diverse geographies and neighborhoods across the city, coming to consensus on those issues was at times difficult. Although the task was left incomplete, Mayor Steve Adler said he was proud of the progress made.
“I think this was incredibly good work tonight,” Adler said as he adjourned the meeting.
Tentative agreements reached
Much can change between now and when City Council takes a final vote next week, but there were significant, though tentative, agreements reached by a majority of the dais at the April 25 meeting. Almost no votes on major items were unanimous.
Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts, or NCCDs, which are special zoning classifications for specific areas of town, such as Hyde Park, survived an attempted ax swing from council members Jimmy Flannigan and Natasha Harper-Madison. Council voted to preserve existing NCCDs in the new code but called for staff to re-evaluate them; their place in the code; and to make necessary changes to rules regarding accessory dwelling units, parking requirements and transition zones.
A majority of council members agreed the new code should provide for housing capacity three times as great as the 135,000 units Austin has committed to producing by 2025. Although a testy vote, council also agreed that 75 percent of the new housing capacity should be within a half-mile of transit corridors and activity centers.
Missing middle housing, which is typically characterized as house-scale and small apartment projects with between two and 10 units, received support from City Council as well. A majority of council members said the new code should provide entitlements to build missing middle housing in transition zones—areas between neighborhood cores and transit corridors—where a density bonus programs were not feasible. A density bonus program is a tool used by City Council to bargain with developers to build income-restricted housing in exchange for extra building entitlements.
Council also agreed for the most part that transition zones should be between two and five properties deep throughout the city. Some council members contended they could not support this as transition zones likely represented an increase in density over what currently exists, and there were no existing standards to tell which parts of town would receive deeper or more shallow transition zones.
Although agreement was reached on some of these items, it all remains open to amendment before council takes its final vote. City staff say they will aim to publish the 15 amendments council postponed discussing by April 26, but said synthesizing all of the discussed amendments and intelligibly reflecting them in a single document would take more time.