Here comes CodeCRONK

On Friday City Manager Spencer Cronk released a 39-page memo outlining some options for City Council to pursue in revising or rewriting the land development code. He wants their feedback on the following issues: parking, compatibility, housing capacity, and missing middle housing. Finally, he wants to know whether they want a completely new code or to simply make changes to the existing code.

On most of the issues he presents three alternatives:

  1. The status quo
  2. Whatever was proposed in version 3 of CodeNEXT
  3. Something even more ambitious

Cronk only explicitly makes two recommendations in the memo. First, he recommends that Council replace the code entirely, rather than simply make changes to it. Second, he recommends that the code text and the zoning map be done concurrently, rather than separately, as even some land use reform advocates have suggested.

For a variety of reasons, staff does not recommend adopting a new Land Development Code that would take effect without concurrently adopting a new Zoning Map. The Land Development Code and Zoning Map are interrelated and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to apply a new Code to areas within zoning districts established under a prior version of the Code. Similarly, while using a placeholder zone like “F25” is acceptable,staff does not recommend adopting a Zoning Map that depicts zoning districts established under different versions of the Land Development Code….

…In sum, the more significantly Council wishes to change aspects of the current Land Development Code, the more difficult it becomes to do so through amendments to the existing Code. If this is an option Council wishes to consider, staff will be available to provide general guidance as to the types of changes that could reasonably be made through amendments to the existing Code.

For the reasons identified in Council’s resolution and the Code Diagnosis Report, staff recommends continuing forward with adoption of both a new Land Development Code and new Zoning Map.

On its face, Cronk’s memo is a politically neutral document that simply presents various options that are up to Council to select from. But there are a few instances where Cronk is clearly nudging Council in one direction. Let’s take a look…

Housing Capacity

At the center of the housing debate is housing capacity. That refers to the maximum amount of housing that could be built according to zoning regulations. To be clear, the housing capacity is always much greater than the actual amount of housing that is built. You could zone a property in Del Valle to allow a skyscraper but it’s unlikely that any developer is actually going to build one. Similarly, you can currently build a duplex on most single-family lots in Austin, but for a variety of reasons, few builders pursue that option.

In his memo, Cronk says that the current code will not allow the city to achieve its goal of creating 135,000 new units over the next decade. The current zoning capacity is roughly 145,000 units; it needs to be much greater to facilitate 135,000 units. Cronk includes a handy graphic from CodeNEXT:

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 1.01.36 PM.png

This is economics, by the way, that some on Council reject. But Cronk is telling them that it’s not really a debate.

According to city staff, the final version of CodeNEXT provided a capacity of 287,000 units. Cronk does not indicate whether he believes this is sufficient to meet our housing goals.

Parking

Cronk presents evidence that current parking requirements are bad for affordability, again using a graphic from CodeNEXT:

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 1.13.55 PM.png

He doesn’t suggest how parking requirements should be changed, but it’s a clear message to those on Council who feel strongly about affordability and reducing car-use that they should strive to reduce parking minimums.

Missing Middle Housing

When it comes to missing-middle housing (triplexes, quadplexes, sixplexes, rowhomes, cottage courts), Cronk tells Council that they’re not going to get much with either the current code or what was proposed under CodeNEXT:

While the regulatory changes discussed above would all increase the availability of missing middle housing, the Zoning Map included with Draft 3 was fairly conservative in applying the new transition zones that allow missing middle housing. Instead, the Draft 3 map largely perpetuates existing zoning patterns that significantly limit the availability of missing middle housing. This means that, if Council chooses the Draft 3 option, the supply of missing middle housing would be unlikely to increase substantially unless appropriate and context-sensitive mapping of new zoning districts also occurred.

Compatibility Standards

These are the rules that limit a building’s height or setback if it’s within a certain distance of a single-family home. Cronk acknowledges that the current rules make it harder to produce multifamily housing in some areas, but he doesn’t seem to indicate any opinion about whether Council should embrace the moderate reforms proposed under CodeNEXT or if it should do something more ambitious.

So, now what? 

It will be really interesting to see how Council members react to this memo at their work session on March 26. I think the way Cronk has framed the options will pressure CMs to select the more ambitious option. It looks really bad to pick “the status quo,” even if that’s probably what some CMs want. If I had to guess, I think a majority on Council will vote to embrace the CodeNEXT version on some of these topics and the more aggressive option on others.

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