Cracking the city's Land Development Code

Rewriting planning guidelines intended to shape growing city

As the city of Austin embarks on the process of rewriting its Land Development Code, Dan Parolek, principal at Opticos Design Inc., said it is important for residents to remember that the code is what will steer development in the city. Opticos is the firm that is leading the code rewriting process.

"This is really about coding for a compact, connected Austin, which is the goal that [residents] have established in the Imagine Austin plan," Parolek said.

As part of the implementation of the 30-year Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the city started the rewrite process in July, called CodeNext, and held a series of public meetings Sept. 23–25 in various parts of the city to help get a clear perspective on the unique needs of different communities.

The code rewrite process is expected to take about three years to complete, with the end goal being to align the code with the principles established in the Imagine Austin plan. Officials expect to have a revised code to City Council for adoption between October 2015 and June 2016.

George Zapalac, development services manager with the city's planning and development review department, said the city's land development code acts as a blueprint for development and can affect many in the city.

"It regulates what you can build, where you can build it, how much you can build, how you can use a piece of property and when you can use it," Zapalac said. "That's pretty broad, and it can affect everyone at one time or another."

The last time Austin's code had a comprehensive revision was in 1984. During a public presentation, city staff pointed out that Apple Inc. introduced its first Macintosh personal computer the year the city's code was last revised. The current code has grown to include more than 800 pages of information.

Because of its age and the amount of changes made, the code has become a challenging document for city staff to interpret, Zapalac said.

"Our existing code has been amended hundreds of times, in piecemeal fashion, but we've never taken a comprehensive look at how all those various amendments impact each other and whether they're helping to achieve the kind of community that we need," Zapalac said.

Zapalac said the code is overdue for a comprehensive rewrite. Some concerns that arise from a complicated code sometimes lead to confusion on the part of developers or residents looking to renovate or remodel their homes.

"Sometimes a person can prepare their plans, submit them to the city for review, be well along in the review process and then discover that a regulation they hadn't anticipated will apply. They will have to redesign, or they may not be able to do what they want to do at all," Zapalac said.

Zapalac also said there is an increase to the cost of development the longer it takes the city to approve plans.

Even though the rewriting process is in its early stages, officials have already identified a few broad areas the city may improve upon, including middle housing, such as row homes and bungalow courts, as well as affordability.

Parolek said after gaining a better understanding of Austin's communities, the rewriting team is going to determine if various areas in the city need to "maintain" their area with minimal refinements and improvements to the code, "evolve" with some development and public improvements or "transform" to be something completely different from what they already are.

"A lot of those decisions have been made in Imagine Austin and the neighborhood plans, and [the LDC] will be the tool to implement the Imagine Austin vision," Parolek said. "There's a lot of fear that the LDC process is going to propose changing every place throughout the city, and it's absolutely not. There will be large geographic areas in the city that the code will not undergo major changes. It's going to be simply cleaning it up, making the process easier and reinforcing much of what's there already."

Parolek said the central and downtown areas already use the Downtown Austin Plan, which the design teams will work closely with. The DAP was adopted December 2011.

"We'll simply use all that really great work and write the rules to make that happen," Parolek said. "The downtown is obviously prospering and will continue to evolve and even transform in good ways."

Another aspect of the Central Austin area the code will take into consideration is the neighborhoods.

"[We will need to] strike a delicate balance between maintaining the unique characteristics that are there but looking for opportunities for evolution," Parolek said.

Cory Walton, an Austin resident who lives in the Bouldin Neighborhood, attended one of the public workshops on the LDC rewrite. He said he sees the current complicated code as a positive development because the additional layers of complexity were necessary to address unforeseen problems in the code.

"Those are additional layers of protection that have come over the years because of past oversights or past loopholes or past abuses that had to be patched up," Walton said.

Walton also said he believes the current code, if built out to its maximum capacity, could accommodate the city's population growth. A city of Austin study on capacity cautioned that "properties are seldom built to their maximum capacities because of the property owner's intentions or market conditions."

Both city officials and the teams working on the code rewrite said public input is critical to the project and that public meetings will continue to be scheduled throughout the process.

"This process is more than about just creating a better code—it's really primarily about creating great places. That's what we really need to step back and continue to think about as we go through this process," Parolek said.

For updates on the project, visit www.austintexas.gov/codenext.

The three-year LDC revision process

  1. Listening and understanding, July 2013–January 2014: City and code development officials are talking to the public about their priorities and what they would want to see in a new, rewritten code. Officials will work to understand what is and is not working in the current Land Development Code.
  2. Diagnosis and approach, July 2013– July 2014: This step allows officials to understand what pieces of the code may be hindering development. Officials will take both a broad and narrow look at how the code can help nurture neighborhoods' character.
  3. Preliminary draft code, August 2014–September 2015: At this point in the process, officials will be putting together new and revised pieces of the LDC to see how they fit together and how they would affect existing areas of the city.
  4. Code adoption, October 2015–June 2016: A version of the newly rewritten LDC will go before Austin City Council for possible approval.

Code rewrite focuses on middle housing and affordablility

One area in which city and land development officials said a new code could have an effect is affordability and middle housing.

Dan Parolek, principal at Opticos Design Inc., which is leading the code rewriting process, said this kind of small-scale construction is critical in helping Austin provide affordability and housing choices for residents.

"These are a range of housing types that we feel really needs to be encouraged in the Land Development Code," Parolek said.

Middle housing consists of medium-density building types including duplexes, triplexes or row homes—which are homes of similar and often narrow housing plans—and bungalow courts, which feature small homes arranged around a shared garden. Parolek said middle housing promotes affordability by allowing people with less income to still purchase homes and build equity.

David Whitworth, president of David Whitworth Development Co., which is working on building row homes in the North Loop neighborhood, said a variety of housing types will help keep neighborhoods unique.

"I think some of this middle housing could be the missing link where young families could live there and older families could live there and turn over in a different way throughout the years that could help maintain a vibrant neighborhood," Whitworth said.

Whitworth said the Mueller development is one area of the city that provides various middle-housing options.



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