Seven votes for land use reform

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Things are looking very good for supporters of land use reform in Austin. A joint statement posted on the Council message board this morning by Jimmy Flannigan, Pio Renteria, Natasha Harper-Madison and Ann Kitchen indicates that there are now seven Council members in support of changes to the land development code aimed at creating more housing and enabling public transit and walkable neighborhoods. Remember, you only need six.

The most recent message from those four comes a week-and-a-half after Greg Casar and Delia Garza laid out their vision for a new LDC, emphasizing the need for a code that allows more housing options and reduces sprawl. A few days later, Mayor Steve Adler posted his own message, largely endorsing Casar and Garza’s statement.

In contrast to the statements from Casar, Garza and Alder, the statement this morning did not provide direct answers to the five questions that City Manager Spencer Cronk said Council must provide direction to city staff on before it begins crafting a new code. Instead this message focused on a bunch of more specific issues that Cronk didn’t ask about.

Here are some of the most significant conclusions:

Triplexes on every lot: Or at least I think that’s what it’s endorsing…

The smallest form of residential development (residential housescale) should allow for single family, duplex, triplex, or ADU development depending on site conditions.

Triplexes on every lot is what Minneapolis recently approved in its new comprehensive plan. That was a compromise, after the original draft called for quadplexes on every lot.

(Potentially) Eliminating parking requirements: 

One option could be to eliminate parking minimums city-wide and adopt parking maximums or minimum unit-yield in areas necessary to ensure sufficient transit supportive development. Another option could be to eliminate parking minimums except in areas that require a more context-sensitive approach.

I’d be surprised if we end up eliminating minimum parking requirements entirely. If we don’t go all the way, what might be those “areas that require a more context-sensitive approach”? Again, we’re not talking about eliminating parking –– the question is whether it will continue to be mandated as part of residential and commercial development.

(Potentially) Eliminating minimum lot size: 

We should explore eliminating minimum lot size and lot width in exchange for minimum outcomes (like number of units).

This would be huge. The current minimum lot size for much of the single-family stock in central neighborhoods is 5,750 square feet, preventing developers from splitting them up to provide smaller, cheaper homes.

Shift flood mitigation focus: 

Impervious cover is a tool that lacks nuance, does too little in critical flooding areas, and is too restrictive where infrastructure exists. More flexibility in impervious cover can be a benefit if it comes with additional drainage infrastructure. This could address key flooding issues and allow increased density (housing, commercial, retail, etc.) especially when near shared community assets. It is not our intent to change regulations governed through the Save Our Springs Ordinance (SOS).

Flooding is one of the most common concerns that neighbors cite when trying to block new development, particularly multifamily developments. Because multifamily zoning allows for more impervious cover, the fear of flooding  is often a justification that elected officials or land use commissioners can use to vote against an upzoning. I’m really not an expert on this issue, but relying on drainage infrastructure instead of impervious cover limits will allow greater density and less sprawl, which will benefit the environment, both by preserving more greenfield land and reducing car trips.

Are Kitchen & Adler really supportive of an ambitious code rewrite? 

As I’ve said before, I think there are five votes for an ambitious rewrite: Casar, Garza, Renteria, Flannigan and Harper-Madison. There are three solid votes against: Tovo, Alter and Pool.

In the middle are Adler, Kitchen and Ellis. Surprisingly, both Adler and Kitchen have endorsed what appear to be pretty aggressive rewrites. We still haven’t heard from Ellis.

Kitchen began her Council tenure generally aligned with the “neighborhood” bloc. She generally joined Tovo, Pool and Ora Houston in votes against controversial developments that were opposed by neighborhood associations. She voted against a 2015 ordinance that legalized accessory dwelling units (garage apartments) on most single-family lots.

By the time CodeNEXT came around, Kitchen appeared to have shifted to the middle. She and Adler positioned themselves as consensus-seekers. For fear of drawing an opponent for reelection, Kitchen sought to drag out the CodeNEXT process as long as possible and avoid taking tough votes. Adler helped her do that.

Whereas Kitchen leaned preservationist and has since moved to the center, Adler generally favored developments but sought as much as possible to broker compromises and avoid anything that was too controversial. On CodeNEXT he advocated for the “Austin Bargain,” which he said would increase density on corridors but generally “protect” the interior of single-family neighborhoods.

However, the political winds have shifted since the 2018 election. Adler squashed Laura Morrison, who ran an old school neighborhood preservationist campaign and got a whopping 19% of the vote.  Prop J, the referendum backed by neighborhood groups that aimed to restrict Council’s ability to rewrite the land development code, went down in flames. In only one of the four competitive Council races did a density skeptic triumph (Kathie Tovo).

As a result, Kitchen and Adler have become more comfortable embracing reform. They probably know it’s better policy and they aren’t as worried about backlash from the community. I would guess the same is probably true of Ellis, who generally sends urbanist signals (she even lives in an apartment building!!) but has called herself a moderate.

However, I would be wary of predicting a slam-dunk for a big reform. While these statements appear ambitious, they remain vague and could be subject to different interpretations. There are repeated references to the need for “context-sensitive” policy … that could open the door to big reforms being significantly watered down due to neighborhood opposition.

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