Would you rather live in a small building or a big one? In Austin, you often don’t get a choice, but that could change soon. Recent tweaks proposed for Austin’s land development code by City Council earlier this summer hope to unlock multifamily projects on smaller properties across the city, joining other efforts to incentivize the construction of more affordable housing types and create “missing middle” style development that’s currently rare due to the city’s all-or-nothing zoning.
The missing middle thesis is easy to explain in Austin. Our current code, which includes widespread low-density zoning — alongside spatial limitations including large minimum lot sizes, parking requirements and compatibility restrictions — incentivizes the construction of either large apartment structures with hundreds of units on major transportation corridors or single-family homes that sell for millions. There aren’t many places where it’s possible to build a residential project on a small piece of land with, say, 10 units, or up to a few dozen at most — which would spread out costs and ultimately create cheaper homes. Instead, you get the $3 million McMansion or the big donut-shaped apartments, with nothing in between. It sucks!
But there’s another way, and some projects currently standing in the city provide a peek into the future of how these zoning changes could enable a different kind of urban living across Austin. For some examples of how these smaller residential buildings might fit into existing neighborhoods, take a look at two recent projects in the west end of downtown Austin by local designers McKinney York Architects.
The first, Capitol Quarters at 1108 Nueces Street, is a “co-living” project by local developer Weaver Buildings that contains 30 identical three-bedroom apartments intended to be shared by roommates, with considerably cheaper monthly rates enabled by this arrangement compared with other new buildings downtown. (The entirely three-bedroom layout of the structure’s units would also make the building ideal for larger living arrangements, addressing the concerns of housing advocates who often bemoan that these types of designs heavily favor studio units.)
The energy-efficient design of the structure, which qualifies for a four-star rating under Austin Energy’s Green Building Program, is estimated to save its tenants 30 percent of typical annual utility costs. The project, which opened last year, occupies a small quarter-acre site and reaches an impressive density of roughly 120 units per acre while still accommodating the generally midrise character of the surrounding neighborhood — all of this is made possible by eliminating parking, making Capitol Quarters the first car-free multifamily residential building to break ground in the entire city. In such a walkable, transit-rich central neighborhood, it’s a no-brainer.
While large developers with institutional investors can acquire large tracts for development, small, formerly single-family lots comprise much of central Austin. In the city’s core, lawyers, accountants, architects, and other professionals have long ago converted these properties to commercial uses. As downtown Austin has evolved from a 9-to-5 commuter-office destination into a bustling mix of housing, office, retail, cultural, and nightlife uses, these small lots offer an opportunity for not-so-large developers to contribute to its vibrancy.
— McKinney York Architects
But perhaps even more inspiring is the Ashram Condos, now in a late stage of construction less than three blocks north of the Capitol Quarters site in the west downtown area at 707 West 14th Street. This six-unit condo project by local developer Jay Reddy is the first in the entire city to take advantage of Austin’s adoption of the 2021 International Building Code, which combined with local regulations allows a three-story building to be constructed with only one staircase.
These so-called single-stair buildings, widespread in Europe, are finding increasing demand stateside as a more affordable multifamily residential construction type, with a large body of evidence indicating that lack of a second staircase doesn’t create a notable fire safety issue when other mitigation efforts like fire-resistant materials and sprinklers are used. The Ashram building, with two of its six units accessible to wheelchair users on the ground level despite its lack of an elevator, fits on a microscopic 0.1-acre lot that’s even smaller than the current 5,750-square-foot minimum lot size required for a single-family home in most of the city.
Model building codes have for years allowed apartment buildings with four or fewer units on a level to be served by a single stair up to the third floor, provided the units were small enough that the travel distance from the most remote part of any apartment to the exit was not more than 125 feet. However, before it adopted the 2021 version of the International Building Code, Austin had always amended the code to require a second stair from all three-story apartment buildings, regardless of the travel distance.
This amendment particularly burdened small sites. At Ashram, a recent McKinney York project, a 4,400 SF lot was rezoned from residential to DMU (Downtown Mixed Use). After accounting for compatibility and building code setback requirements, open space, and parking, the rezoned site could accommodate a building of approximately 7,400 SF on three levels. The footprint of a second stair would likely take around 500 SF out of the building, which as of 2023, could amount to a reduction of $20,000 (or more) in annual rent in central Austin. This diminished earning capacity could be the determining factor in the viability of a site for a small-site apartment redevelopment, perpetuating the city’s residential shortfall.
There is no singular fix to the shortage of housing in Austin. However, unlocking the development potential of our many small sites offers one way to contribute to the solution.
— McKinney York Architects
We’re still biting our nails to see if the various changes recently approved for the city’s land development code actually make it past the finish line intact — but if they do, buildings like Ashram and Capitol Quarters would likely be possible outside of more generous zoning regions like downtown. The future of urban life in Austin depends on buildings just like these, and we can’t wait to see them rising everywhere.