CodeNEXT, Austin’s long-awaited rejiggering of the land development code, is dead. Mayor Steve Adler was the first politician to acknowledge the reality that “something has gone horribly wrong” and the project had been “poisoned” by “misinformation, hyperbole, fearmongering, and divisive rhetoric.”
The news cycle moved from breaking news to roundups and roundups of takes, and now we’re at the part where journalists make jokes on twitter:
True fact: "Tom Marvolo Riddle" is an anagram for “CodeNext."
— Phil Jankowski (@PhilJankowski) August 2, 2018
Holy god, I forgot I tweeted this a year ago. https://t.co/K81xvirGJb
— Caleb Alan Pritchard (@cubbie9000) August 3, 2018
So, while the king lies in state and folks argue over who killed him, we find ourselves moving on to questions of succession. What comes next for the efforts to reform Austin’s land use code? A hunger for something new is still strong, both at City Council and among the population — but at least for now, a comprehensive reform seems far out of reach. It’s too fraught both legally and politically, and there’s little reason to think that whatever issues prevented CodeNEXT from succeeding are fixed.
It appears that small, discrete reforms are the order of the day, so let’s sift through CodeNEXT’s ashes and find ourselves some simple, comprehensible, concrete issues an enterprising City Council could take up today.
These ideas are too small to have a city-wide effect on rents or mobility because they only apply in specific places, but nevertheless, they could make a lot of people’s lives better.
1. Reduce parking requirements in transit areas
Austin has a number of different zoning categories designated for making it easier to get around without cars: There’s walking-oriented West Campus, Transit-Oriented Development zones like the area around Plaza Saltillo or Crestview Station, Core Transit Corridors, and Activity Centers. Yet every area outside downtown requires new or revamped developments build at least some expensive, unsightly parking — even though many garages can’t sell the parking they have! Cutting parking requirements in these zones is a no-brainer.
2. Mixed-use throughout Downtown
When people think of downtown Austin, they usually think of about the big towers in our Central Business District. But in addition to the CBD, Austin has another zoning category: Downtown Mixed Use, which was intended for parts of downtown outside the CBD. This is the area where you see 4 to 12 story buildings that aren’t exactly skyscrapers, but still very much a dense, downtown-style usage.
Amazingly, despite plans more than a decade in the making, much of downtown Austin doesn’t allow either type of building, limiting development to professional offices cramped uncomfortably into old houses. The Downtown Austin Plan passed years ago and the overwhelming majority of downtown stakeholders want to see this happen, so we should fix this without a lot of disagreement.
3. More apartments over shops
I’m not the only one who found it a little comical when Mayor Adler described the idea of placing density on corridors, but not side streets, as a “grand bargain,” especially when it wasn’t clear exactly who the signatories to this bargain were. Incidentally, it’s also not my favorite bargain. A lot of people who can’t afford to buy a house, a lawn, and/or a picket fence also don’t like the noise and pollution from living on a major street. Nevertheless, we do have lots of one-story commercial buildings that could just as easily have some apartments built above them. And it really would help an awful lot of people — so why not do it?
4. South Central Waterfront Initiative
The traditional downtown is spilling its borders. Austin has become a city where companies come to find educated workers for good, air-conditioned office jobs. But we’re running out of central office space, and new office buildings have popped up to occupy many plots of land downtown we’d previously been counting on to provide additional residential development and increase the housing stock so people had places to live. City Council passed a plan to extend the downtown-like office-building sector across the river into the no-man’s land just south of downtown. This area was going to be zoned as such in CodeNEXT; so now that it’s off the shelf, it would be a good time to get this part done anyway.
5. Minimum lot sizes
One of the most politically damaging parts of CodeNEXT was its million variables: maximum heights and floor area ratios, minimum widths and setbacks, stepbacks, impervious cover, and so on. Of course, the rewrite inherited this complexity from the current code, but people regardless had a lot of difficulty in understanding what was changing, exactly. Instead, Council could take aim at just one variable at a time, keeping things straightforward so intentions are clear and interactions are minimized — and the variable to start with is minimum lot size. It’s no coincidence that Austin, among the big Texas cities, has both the highest housing costs and the highest minimum lot sizes. Allowing folks to build modest houses on modest lots would go a long way towards fixing that.
6. Transition zones
Adler’s “grand bargain” said “Let’s build housing on corridors, not side streets.” But what is a corridor? Is it strictly every property that has an address on a major street like Lamar Boulevard or Burnet Road? Traditionally, the concept of a corridor has included a little more width, providing a transition zone of moderate density between the high-density busy streets and the low-density side streets. Let’s make this happen.
For Council Members who prefer to think big, the specific fixes above may not be enough. Here’s a slightly grander vision:
1. Eliminate Parking Minimums
In West Campus, the negative effects of parking minimums are readily apparent. Expensive, ugly, code-mandated garages sit mostly empty all day, while students walk, bike, scoot, and bus to class. But let’s not forget that parking minimums don’t really make sense anywhere. Developments that believe they need parking are going to build parking whether it’s required or not, and new office buildings frequently resemble parking garages with a little bit of office space attached despite the lack of parking requirements in the downtown area.
But since parking requirements were removed downtown, there have also been some creative ways for buildings to get people in without building parking: the Aloft hotel on Congress Avenue uses only valet parking, making use of overbuilt parking garages in other buildings. A zero-parked office building on 17th Street advertises its proximity to an existing garage and landed a tenant that uses the space as a meetup spot for employees who deliver packages on bikes. The entire project of micromanaging how much parking each and every business, house, and apartment needs is bankrupt at its core, so let’s just stop it.
2. Allow Mueller Houses and Mueller Townhouses anywhere
One of the reasons CodeNEXT invited so much “misinformation, hyperbole, fearmongering, and divisive rhetoric” was that people — even development professionals — didn’t really know what kinds of buildings would fit into the code. Within Austin’s urbanist community, however, hyperbole and divisive rhetoric are no strangers to a certain neighborhood: Mueller. Its residents are so excited by the community in the neighborhood, they can sound like cultists prosletyzing for new members. Not that fresh blood is hard to find: Units in Mueller sell faster than a popsicle in July.
Yet, as popular it is, and as conducive as its design is for the development of “community,” Mueller’s housing types aren’t allowed in other Austin neighborhoods. “Mueller Houses” are 4-unit apartment buildings that resemble houses from the outside and sit on 7,000-square-foot lots, while Mueller rowhouses sit on 1,375-square-foot lots and are attached side-by-side — both perfectly dense “missing middle” housing types for any neighborhood in Austin. We know what Mueller’s code looks like, and we know what Mueller’s homes look like, so all we need is the will to make it happen in other places, again and again.
3. Let 1,000 West Campuses bloom
Okay, maybe not 1,000, but West Campus is another example of a wildly successful sui generis zoning category. We know what it’s zoned for, we know what’s being built, and though most people who aren’t between the ages of 16 to 24 don’t want to live in the middle of 35,000 burnt-orange-clad undergrads, I know a lot of folks who do wish they could live somewhere as walkable, bikeable, and scootable as West Campus. So where else could we reuse the rules that made it such a great place to live? Neighborhoods near St. Edward’s or Huston-Tillotson? An area already mostly inhabited by grad students? A “West Campus” for the Domain? The possibilities are endless.
4. Make real ways for neighbors to build together
What would happen if a bunch of neighbors got together and decided that they wanted to allow denser development where they lived? There’s no reason for this concept to sound far-fetched. While it’s not clear whether allowing dense development across an entire city would raise property values, allowing denser development in a small area should definitely raise property values by allowing more people to share the land.
Considering how hard it is to get political agreement for where new development goes, if a group of folks do want to see it in their backyards, the city should do what it can to allow it. A similar proposal by the group London YIMBY would do just that, by preparing pre-formed acceptable zones for residents of a single street to choose from. In Austin, that could mean that if a majority of the residents of a single block vote to choose one of these denser zones, the city will fast-track rezonings for that entire block.
What do you think?
Do you have other ideas for discrete reforms to the current land use rules? Let us know in the comments or on social media!
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