Now in City Council's hands, land code rewrite debate heats up with first vote less than 3 weeks away

Downtown Austin facing northwest
(Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

After almost seven years of community engagement, debate, drafts, redrafts, millions of dollars spent, starts and stops, Austin’s effort to rewrite its outdated land development code now sits solely in City Council’s hands.

The Austin Planning Commission recommended the latest draft code—which governs, among other things, what type of development can be built—and the new zoning maps—which govern where specific types of development can be built—on Nov. 12, and with the torch now in its hands for final approval, City Council took up its first discussion Nov. 18, a discussion that resurfaced some long-held differences in opinions among council members.

The look of transition zones

Transition zones have been a point of contention since the first draft of the land development code rewrite was released in 2017. In Austin, transition areas allow up to six dwelling units per lot and sit between the less dense centers of residential neighborhoods—areas that allow up two dwelling units per lot—and highly dense transit corridors, where one could find high-rise apartment buildings. Many areas proposed to be transition zones in the new code have traditionally been mapped to only allow up to two units.

Transition areas have been pegged as crucial to Austin’s goal of creating more housing types besides detached single-family structures and high-rise apartments, such as townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, quads—referred to as "missing middle housing." City Council has also set a goal of building 145,000 new housing units by 2027 to curb its rising housing affordability and availability issues. To do this, council said the new code should create enough room to realistically reach that goal, and the areas along corridors and transition zones, staff said, are where most of that room is going to come from.


During the City Council’s Nov. 18 discussion, Council Members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen raised concerns over the depth of some transition areas in their districts—Central and Central South Austin, respectively. In May, City Council directed staff to create transition zones, generally, that extended two to five lots deep from the city’s corridors. In some areas in Tovo’s and Kitchen’s districts—such as off South Congress Avenue, South First Street and Manchaca Road—transition zones extended up to 11 lots deep.

Annick Beaudet, a lead staffer on the rewrite, said her team used context-specific criteria to map the transition areas. For instance, they looked at whether an area was high-opportunity, its walkability to the corridor, and whether an area was experiencing or susceptible to gentrification; however, Beaudet’s team is reviewing the zoning maps, and she expects it will result in the reduction of depth in many transition areas. This aligns with a dual guidance from Mayor Steve Adler and District 10 Council Member Alison Alter in a Nov. 18 post on the City Council message board, which directed city staff to review and reduce transition zone depth along transit corridors in primarily residential sections of town and those where transit demand is not expected to be very high.

In a message board post, District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison pushed back and said the city should expect to see transition zones stacked along the city’s transit corridors.

“[This would] help distribute our growth more evenly than in previous drafts that left out major arterials in Central and West Austin,” Harper-Madison said. “If we fail to more evenly distribute housing capacity across the city, East Austin will continue to bear the brunt of our city’s growing pains.”

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said the zoning maps should align with the city’s strategic mobility plan, which aims to reduce the rate of single-occupancy vehicle commutes from the current 75% to 50%. The “whole purpose,” she said, is to put people closer to transit, grocery stores and parks. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said the goal of equity was not to make every corridor’s transition area look the same, but rather to work to make “everyone’s lives better.”

Full steam ahead

City staff published the latest draft of the land development code Oct. 4—the first draft since City Council temporarily stalled the project in August 2018. The planning commission approved the code and zoning maps by Nov. 12, and City Council is expected to take its first vote of three votes on the code and maps by Dec. 9.

Some City Council members said they were uncomfortable with the speed at which the process was moving.

“I’m still trying to completely understand what it is we’re doing and the impacts it will have on our community,” District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool told Community Impact Newspaper. Pool said she and her office are working diligently to hold meetings in her district to keep the community involved as much as possible, something she said has been lacking.

Alter said she feels no better about the latest draft of the code and zoning maps than back in August 2018, when City Council voted to stall the process and reassess its priorities. She said she was uncomfortable with how quickly City Council was moving on such a gigantic product.

“I still don’t know what I’ll be voting on on Dec. 9,” Alter said. “I don’t know what the planning commission came out with ... and don’t know what the staff’s changes are in terms of [suggested edits] to the 1,300-page code and a zoning map that covers the whole city. It’s hard to feel like we’re going into this with our eyes wide open. The details really matter, and I don’t think there is very much planning going on.”

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who represents North and Northwest Austin, said he felt confident in how the process was moving.

“I think it’s great; I think staff has done a great job,” Flannigan said. “Some folks in the community who are frustrated, some have legitimate concerns, and we’re working through them.”

Council members are still working out the process for its first vote Dec. 9. Adler said he wished to keep the first vote at a high level, with City Council getting into the nitty gritty of the code and parcel-by-parcel edits to the zoning map ahead of its second vote, which is likely scheduled for February. However, some council members wanted the first vote to allow room to recommend specific changes. City Council is still working out the process.

City staff will release an updated report Nov. 25 that proposes further edits accompanied by explanations for the edits.
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