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Dead Plan Walking: Austin's CodeNEXT Zoning Turmoil Could Sink City's Future

Are Political Divisions Over Austin's Proposed Land Development Code Rewrite Hurting its Growth?
May 14, 2018
The first major rewrite of Austin’s land development code in 30 years will likely be dead on arrival when it appears before Austin City Council this coming June.

The Austin Zoning and Platting Commission voted 7-4 to recommend the city "immediately terminate" the CodeNEXT project. Five years of work and nearly $10 million spent to codify the city’s future now may be nothing more than a headache locals want to forget.

"The commission wanted to make a statement, the process is fatally flawed, and so is the product," Commissioner David King said.

The massive undertaking to rewrite the land development code began with Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive 30-year plan to make Austin a safe, inclusive, livable, affordable, accessible, engaged and healthy city. The plan was adopted by City Council in 2012. After that, replacing the current code to achieve the plans other goals was the next logical step.

The choices Austin made to address its issues in the past transformed the city into what it is today. In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, Austin experienced a population boom, growing more than 35 percent each decade. Between 1960 and 2010, the land area expanded by more than 400 percent, from almost 56 square miles to more than 300 square miles.

In more recent years, Austin’s accelerating growth has compounded the land use issues plaguing the city. Austin’s population grew by 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, making it the 14th most populous city in the U.S. In that same time, Austin’s area increased by nearly 20 percent. Today, Austin and its extraterritorial jurisdiction represent an area of about 620 square miles, more than double the size of Chicago.

Population projections show that Austin will almost double in population in 30 years. Given the city’s population and employment projections for the next three decades, Imagine Austin asserts that Austin’s existing land use pattern must change to accommodate this growth in a more sustainable manner.

"The changes we see today are happening under our current 30-year-old Land Development Code, a code that is directly contributing to rising housing costs and limiting our ability to address flooding, congestion, environmental protection and the need for affordable housing," Council member Ann Kitchen told KXAN.

But how exactly Austin’s code will change to address the myriad of issues facing the city has been hotly contested from the start. CodeNEXT advocacy groups like Evolve Austin and Habit for Humanity argue the new code needs to counteract the prevailing trend of sprawling development that consumes vacant land and natural resources while advancing affordable housing, halting gentrification and incentivizing density.

Then there’s Austin’s historical significance. Austin has designated more than 550 local historic landmarks and 190 properties designated as Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks. The city also contains 164 historic properties and 15 historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places that need to be protected.

Zoning has become a critical issue for Austin because very little undeveloped land is available within the city’s urban core. In the absence of policy or regulatory changes, new growth will likely occur in outlying areas where land values are lower. Although 34 percent of Austin’s land area is classified as undeveloped, much of it has environmental constraints, such as floodplains or steep slopes, or is in large-lot single-family use.

"CodeNEXT won’t be the silver bullet that solves all our housing and transportation issues, but we do need it to be a bold step in the right direction," said Wayne Gerami, vice president of client services for Austin’s Habitat for Humanity branch.

CodeNEXT aimed to take some steps in that direction. The expansion and recalibration of the density bonus program would enable more affordable housing to be built in more areas of the city. So-called Accessory Dwelling Units - a second small dwelling on the same grounds, or attached to, a single-family home - and duplexes would be easier to build in residential areas. Minimum lot sizes would be reduced, allowing for more efficient land use and correspondingly lower-priced homes. Minimum parking requirements would be reduced throughout the city, reducing housing costs and encouraging multi-modal transportation options.

But critics say the nearly 1,500-page code and 400-page addendum still misses the mark in crucial areas. While there are changes in the new draft that would make Missing Middle - a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types similar in scale to single-family homes - easier to build, there are far fewer areas on the new map where this type of housing could be built. High-density residential development along corridors is still unlikely due to restrictive development standards, such as height limitations. The city needs to add more robust incentives to entice more private developers to participate in its S.M.A.R.T. housing program, a policy initiative to make housing Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible, Reasonably-priced and Transit-oriented. Most major transit zones lack transition zones to ease the shift from corridors to the neighborhood core, greatly reducing overall housing capacity and affordable housing capacity.


High-density residential development along corridors is still unlikely due to restrictive development standards, such as height limitations. The city needs to add more robust incentives to entice more private developers to participate in a key housing program. Most major transit zones lack transition zones to ease the shift from corridors to the neighborhood core, greatly reducing overall housing capacity and affordable housing capacity.

Referenced in nearly every part of the Imagine Austin initiative priorities, failing to reform Austin’s land development code could sink or delay every other part of the plan. Without the right tool for the job, Austin’s decades old problems will persist, potentially sending Imagine Austin itself back to square one. In Imagine Austin’s five-year progress report, 237 action plans were identified. Six have been completed.

Jolene Kiolbassa, the Zoning and Platting Commission’s Chair, said she thought the code was irreparable.

"I don’t see what kind of recommendation I could have made," Kiolbassa said. CodeNEXT "is bad, and I don’t know how to dress it up to make it palatable."

Kyle Hagerty, Houston Reporter  CoStar Group   
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