Cracking the code: Development rules under review

In November, Northwest Austin residents walked the corridor at US 183 and McNeil Drive with city staffers and land development code revisors to provide input on future development.

In November, Northwest Austin residents walked the corridor at US 183 and McNeil Drive with city staffers and land development code revisors to provide input on future development.

As Austin’s population has grown, so have its rules and processes regulating development. The city’s land development code contains contradictions and hundreds of zoning combinations, making it difficult for developers to build and for residents to know what could be built in their neighborhood.

“It’s unnecessarily complex,” said John Fregonese, president of Portland-based planning firm Fregonese Associates, whose Envision Tomorrow computerized regional planning suite is being used to test development options in Austin.

The city is updating the code so future developments conform to the city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, which was adopted in 2012. The process of updating the land development code has been dubbed CodeNEXT.

CodeNEXT lead consultant Opticos Design Inc. is categorizing the different zoning areas in Austin using a rural-to-urban transect system. CodeNEXT lead consultant Opticos Design Inc. is categorizing the different zoning areas in Austin using a rural-to-urban transect system.[/caption]

Matt Lewis, assistant director of the city’s planning and zoning department, said CodeNEXT is a chance to go back to the drawing board and make Austin the city residents want it to be. The new code will provide a framework for future development, he said.

“This will impact how Austin looks, feels and functions,” he said.

Lewis said new zoning standards in the code would give people more of a choice in where they live by encouraging different types of housing in a variety of price ranges in urban, suburban and rural areas.

“This development code is not about development necessarily. It’s about people, and it’s about human lives and how they experience Austin,” Lewis said. “We’re a very segregated city, and we have the ability to make decisions in coding and development types to resolve those issues. We’ve designed our way into this mess, and we can design our way out of it.”

CodeNEXT In November, Northwest Austin residents walked the corridor at US 183 and McNeil Drive with city staffers and land development code revisors to provide input on future development.[/caption]

McNeil Drive and US 183

The corridor at US 183 and McNeil Drive is one of seven CodeNEXT focus areas that represent other similar areas throughout the city, including neighborhood centers, shopping centers and major corridors. On Nov. 10, about 20 residents walked the corridor with city staffers and code consultants to provide input and ideas for code revisions.

Several residents said traffic flow in the area was a problem. Others said they wanted the area to be more walkable and suggested adding more sidewalks, public transportation options, bike lanes and a pedestrian-friendly town center.

“Connectivity is a big thing that’s part of the code,” Austin Transportation Department engineer Scott Gross said.

Gross said the city was attempting to impose a grid pattern in the new code so residents could more easily navigate streets and sidewalks. He also said the new code would not apply to existing structures and developments, only new structures and redevelopments.

Between Nov. 16 and 21, the US 183 and McNeil corridor was used as a test site in a city-sponsored event called CodeNEXT Sound Check. Megan Reineccius, designer for Opticos Design Inc., the lead consultant for CodeNEXT, drew a concept map of the area with additional sidewalks, neighborhood blocks and connector roads to make the corridor more pedestrian-friendly.

The concept drawing also included more green space than what currently exists to mitigate stormwater runoff—an addition Reineccius said residents of the corridor requested.


By regulating details such as the number of parking spots per residential unit, the existing code encourages developers to build larger and fewer dwellings that are ultimately more expensive, said Opticos Principal Dan Parolek.

One of the intents of a form-based code is to encourage developers to exchange one or two larger residential units for three or four smaller units on the same lot, he said.

Most of the neighborhood and urban zones in the new code would also accommodate accessory dwelling units—secondary apartments on residential properties, he added.

Some residents and city officials see smaller and more numerous dwellings as a way to address affordability in the city. The Austin City Council committee on Housing and Community Development passed a resolution Nov. 18, sponsored by District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, to include as many affordable housing options as possible in the code update.

Other residents disagree with the trend away from single-family housing.

Sharon Blythe, who attended a Sound Check Q&A session, lives in the Mountain Neighborhood Association area, near Spicewood Springs.

Blythe said she does not want to see zoning changes that allow housing types such as fourplexes to be constructed on lots zoned for single-family residences.

“I like where I live,” Blythe said. “I am horrified that they’re talking about doing fourplexes and threeplexes on single-family lots. Where I live we don’t have a problem. They’re trying to make a problem for us by all this planning.”

Austin city staffers and Opticos Design Inc. consultants are in the process of drafting a new land development code. A final draft is expected to be ready for City Council approval by January 2017. Austin city staffers and Opticos Design Inc. consultants are in the process of drafting a new land development code. A final draft is expected to be ready for City Council approval by January 2017.[/caption]

Hybrid code

For the car-oriented, suburban areas of Austin farther from the city center, the existing code—which regulates land based on its use—will not change much, Parolek said.

But for walkable, urban areas, the city plans to embrace form-based zoning, a method that considers how buildings relate to streetscapes and the physical form and scale of the buildings, rather than their uses, Parolek said at a Nov. 17 Sound Check event.

“Different neighborhoods require different solutions and different rules,” he said. “Use is still regulated. ... It’s just not the foundation for the code.”

A form-based code categorizes different parts of a city—such as being undeveloped, rural, suburban or urban—and allows different types of commercial space and housing based on the character of each area, Parolek said.

The combination of conventional and form-based zoning will create a hybrid code for the city, he said.

Use categories in the form-based zones would be more general than in the existing code, which is specific in its categorization of zoning uses, Parolek said. For example, he said, the existing code has two separate classifications for Turkish baths.

The new code will also establish some predictability for residents and developers in terms of what can be developed, Parolek said.

“It’s kind of a win-win on both sides,” he said.

Thoroughfare network

The new code will take into consideration more than buildings, Parolek said. The function of streets surrounding the buildings, including sidewalks, on-street parking and bike lanes, will be included in a new Street Network Plan being developed in conjunction with CodeNEXT.

At a Nov. 19 Sound Check event, Gross said the existing code allows breakages in sidewalks and bicyclists on roads designed for only cars.

“We can do better than this,” he said. “It’s all about context. … That’s something that’s been absent from transportation planning going back to the post-war era.”

The Street Network Plan will replace the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan, which is auto-centric, Gross said.

“It’s ignorant of context,” he said.

The Street Network Plan will zone streets according to how heavily trucks, cars, pedestrians and bicyclists use the street, he said.

“We ensure our streets perform for us, rather than just for cars,” Gross said.

With CodeNEXT, the city wants to make commuting easier, public transportation more appealing, biking an option for all ages and abilities, and walking safe and accessible, said Katherine Gregor, consultant for Austin’s Complete Streets Program.

Transportation planning should go hand in hand with urban planning so the city can create more space in the public realm, Gregor said.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Curington and Kelli Weldon



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