clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Recoding Austin

As a city evolves, so must its zoning rules

An illustration of two hands pushing together city buildings.

Picture Austin in the early 1980s. The population was just about 350,000, making it one of the 50 biggest cities in the United States—not tiny, but also not a major metropolis. Despite being the capital of Texas and home to the University of Texas flagship, Austin was still a relatively small, low-rise, low-density city. So, in 1984, when the city rewrote the rules that guide the city’s development, land use, and zoning—known as the Land Development Code—this powerful document was drawn up for the small city it was then.

Roughly 30 years later, the Land Development Code is still in place, but Austin is no longer that small city. With a 2016 population of 926,000, Austin is the 11th most populous city in the country. Between 2010 and 2015, the city’s population grew by more than 14 percent, and experts estimate the metro area’s population will grow somewhere between 30 and 80 percent by 2030. Its three-decade-old, small city Land Development Code has gradually become irrelevant, inefficient, and confusing.

"There’s been literally hundreds of changes that have been made to the code" since it was first written, says Gregory Guernsey, director of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department. "As you layer all these things on and as you go through time, it’s difficult for staff to administer. It’s difficult for the property owner to understand. It’s difficult for a neighbor to figure out what’s being built next door and whether it’s compliant or not."

Recognizing the growth and change under way, in 2012, the city approved its new comprehensive plan, a 30-year vision of an environmentally sustainable city that provides a variety of housing choices for residents; the conditions for economic growth; and an interconnected, multi-modal transportation network. Dubbed "Imagine Austin," the plan hinges on bringing the Land Development Code up to date. So, in 2013, the city began the complicated and years-long effort of completely rewriting the code, a process they’re calling CodeNEXT. The first draft of the new code is expected to be released in early 2017, more than a year behind the original timeline, and could be ready for city council approval later in the year. It’s a widely welcomed update of a code many say is holding the city back. Depending on how it shapes up, the new Land Development Code could be a dramatically transformative document for Austin—a city that’s growing and changing, but one that’s also facing contentious questions about what it wants to be.

For now, the Land Development Code remains in use. The 1980s document has ridden into the 21st century on hundreds of amendments, tacked on to tweak the code and make legal room for things like tiny houses and garage apartments that the planners of the 1980s didn’t foresee the city wanting or needing. But even with these amendments, and the bureaucratic confusion they can bring, the main problem with the code is simply that it’s old—old in years, certainly, but also old in its thinking about how to guide and regulate land use.

The code takes a one-size-fits-all approach to defining its zoning classifications, meaning a single-family neighborhood in wealthy northwestern Austin is controlled in the same way as one in low-income parts of East Austin, despite their very different contexts.

"We’ve tried to find solutions for specific problems in our development pattern and we’ve applied them citywide. So in terms of trying to address a specific issue, we weren’t paying attention to context or to existing conditions on the ground," says Jorge Rousselin, the CodeNEXT project manager. "We see that as an issue because each area of Austin is special and unique. They each have their own challenges, they each have their own way that they’ve developed, so it’s important for us to take a more nuanced approach."

As the city grows, it’s struggled to match its housing supply to the demand. Austin’s flourishing tech and startup industries have fueled this demand, pulling large numbers of young people and millennials to the city. Between 2000 and 2012, the Austin metro area saw its population of 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees rise by more than 44 percent, according to a report from City Observatory, and a growing number of them are moving into the city’s core. But, under the current code, there’s been a shortage of the type of central, walkable, mid- and high-density development that many of them desire.

"Builders over the last 40 years have mainly been building either single-family detached homes or 300-unit apartment complexes," says Dave Sullivan, a former Austin planning commissioner who’s now serving on the CodeNEXT Land Development Code Advisory Group.

Most of the projected population growth within Austin’s city limits between 2010 and 2020 is expected to occur in or near the city’s core, but that’s also where median home prices are increasing at the fastest rate. More people are moving into the city, but housing is becoming less affordable.

"If you own a home or if you rent in Austin, you’ve seen that. Prices have gone up whether you’re being taxed on one end or your rent is going up. So people experience that in person almost on a daily basis," says Guernsey. "There’s a lot of people moving here. And we need places for them to live and to get around."

Many believe the city will have to build more rapidly to accommodate this growth. But getting stuff built has become an extreme challenge in Austin, and critics blame the city’s planning department.

"It’s basically considered one of the worst departments in the country," says Ward Tisdale, the recent former president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, a 2,000-member organization for developers, builders, and architects. "I hear from our members on a daily basis some of the horror stories," he says—problems that were laid out in a scathing 2015 report. It listed 462 recommendations for improving operations, including minutia like a call for more scanners in its offices, and broader mandates, like the one to speed up its slow development review process. The report also called out problems with the department’s leadership, a point that hit home earlier this year when assistant planning director and CodeNEXT manager Matt Lewis resigned over staff complaints about a "pattern of harassment and intimidation." "There’s just a basic lack of communication and lack of concern," Tisdale says. "And ultimately it harms the citizens because they’re not getting the supply on the ground that they need to live affordably."

Replacing the Land Development Code is a key element in improving this system. "Many people see the code inefficiency as a barrier to affordability and a barrier to growing in the way that the community says it really wants to grow," says Lee Einsweiler of the Austin-based Code Studio, a consultancy specializing in planning and zoning code rewrites. A number of major cities have gone through this process in recent years, including Denver, Raleigh, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and Einsweiler says they’ve seen dramatic improvements in their planning and development processes. His firm isn’t involved in CodeNEXT, but it is undertaking the rewrite of the zoning code in Los Angeles, which dates back to 1946. Aligning these aging documents with a city’s modern vision for itself, he says, is crucial. "If you’ve got this planning policy that says you want to achieve all these things and your zoning code is frankly in the way of all that, then it needs a rethink."

Opticos Design, the Berkeley, California-based firm leading the CodeNEXT process, is emphasizing the code rewrite’s potential to enable the development of what it calls "missing middle" housing—the small and mid-sized multi-family residential buildings the city is largely lacking.

"You can count the number of small multi-family projects almost on two hands in any corridor in this city, we’re adding so little," says Michael Hsu, an Austin-based architect who’s working on a five-unit condo project in the city’s Zilker Park neighborhood. "The barriers to entry for small developers to do these projects are very difficult."

Eliminating barriers like building density limitations and delays in the permitting and review process has been a key priority of the CodeNEXT project, according to Sullivan, the advisory group member. He says filling in this "missing middle" is about providing more housing alternatives, but also about strategically adding density and mixed-use development to give parts of the city a more urban feel.

"We’re not trying to homogenize the city with our rules, but we are trying to make it easier for anyone who chooses to live someplace to go and live there, or make it easier for people who live in an area to reach their destinations through alternative means of travel," he says. "I’m not sure to what extent we can create lower price points, but at least we can create more diversity."

CodeNEXT is developing a partly "form-based" code for Austin. Instead of use-based zoning rules that lay down strict baselines for certain development types no matter where they are in the city, a form-based code focuses on how land uses and building types relate to each other, to their surrounding context, and to the public realm. The city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, laid out a conceptual framework of corridors and centers, where the form-based parts of the code will largely focus on determining how higher-density development can better blend physically with differently scaled land uses in the immediate vicinity. "It essentially said when you start growing as a city, start looking at these areas first," says Rousselin, the CodeNEXT project manager. "CodeNEXT and Imagine Austin are not saying that density is appropriate everywhere. That’s why we want to take the more nuanced approach of studying each neighborhood specifically to try to gauge where it would be appropriate in certain places to add additional density based on the conditions we find on the ground."

Some of the city’s commercial corridors, for instance, are set back 120 feet from the street, while others are 500 feet or more. The new code aims to treat these two kinds of spaces differently. But there are also areas where dense commercial corridors butt right up against residential areas of single-family homes, and the incongruity of these development types has created consternation among the city’s planners and builders. "One of the things that’s most broken about the code is we don’t have zones that sort of taper down the scale of uses," says Hsu.

The new code seeks to address that discord, focusing on how the city’s centers and corridors can better blend into its mostly single-family neighborhoods. Exactly how that will work is not yet clear. Once the draft of the new code is released in January, the city will begin the process of mapping out where the tapering of land uses and densities should occur. Hsu and many others expect this to be the most challenging part of the process.

"The mapping part is going to be very contentious, because the developed neighborhoods, they’re very powerful, they will preserve the neighborhood at all costs," Hsu says, referring to the many neighborhood organizations that have considerable political sway in Austin. Most are generally opposed to efforts that could change their neighborhood’s character. "It’s a pull up the drawbridge, put alligators in the moat, get behind the barricades kind of thing."

Tisdale, formerly of the Real Estate Council of Austin, says the pushback boils down to a widespread NIMBY attitude among the city’s neighborhood organizations, particularly the powerful Austin Neighborhoods Council, which represents about 100 neighborhood groups. "They think that if you just slow down or stop development that you will preserve the Austin of old," says Tisdale. "Since we were founded in 1839, the population’s doubled every 25 years. It always has, it always will. So let’s stop trying to pass legislation that will somehow magically stop people from moving here, because it doesn’t work. Let’s focus instead on how we can grow in a much more efficient and responsible way."

The Austin Neighborhoods Council did not respond to interview requests. But in a May 2016 Austin American-Statesman article on the CodeNEXT process, ANC President Mary Ingle expressed concern about how the code rewrite could affect single-family neighborhoods in the city’s core. "Some people in the real estate industry just think this is their opportunity for anything goes," she said.

The city’s neighborhoods may end up having a significant impact on how the new Land Development Code shapes up. In the late 1990s, the city of Austin instituted a system of neighborhood planning that enables local residents to play an active role in determining how their neighborhoods grow and develop—making recommendations about neighborhood priorities and working directly with planning department staff to implement them. More than 50 neighborhoods now have such plans, offering guidelines on things like pedestrian infrastructure improvements and bus route frequencies, but also laying down rules for where density should be increased and what types of buildings should be prohibited. To the chagrin of some, these plans are being used to inform the CodeNEXT process.

"In the normal course of business, you do a comprehensive plan, you rewrite your code, and then you can pass neighborhood plans that support the first two. Here we’ve done it kind of ass backwards," says Tisdale. "There’s going to be a lot of angst and turmoil over those neighborhood plans."

Until January, no one knows how controversial the new code will be. And given the time it will take to develop the maps based on the code, and the likely months-long public review, the code still has the better part of a year to be adjusted and potentially challenged. Guernsey in the city’s planning department is confident the new code will improve the planning process in Austin, even if what comes out of it isn’t exactly in line with the compact, walkable, dense, and increasingly urban city envisioned in the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan.

"What comes out will be tweaked, and there’ll be pieces that I’m sure will change before the council adopts the final version," Guernsey says. "But we’re a very engaged community and I’m sure people won’t hold back."

Editor: Sara Polsky


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform