15 Questions That Must Be Answered Before a Land Use Rewrite

15 Questions That Must Be Answered Before a Land Use Rewrite

Today, three Council Members and I signed off on a Austin City Council Message Board post spotlighting the need for Council to address difficult questions around Land Use.

The post offered by District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, District 3 Council Member Renteria, and myself urges Council to address difficult questions around Land Use to avoid situations like ones that stalled previous attempts at reforming Austin’s broken code.

We four Council Members agree that it is incumbent upon this Council to provide to City Staff clear direction on key policy drivers. If we do not provide specific answers to staff, they will be left to answer them for us.  

The Questions & Answers address future growth, housing, parking, compatibility, lot regulations, F25 zoning, impervious cover, criteria manuals, and more.

The full text of the Message Board post follows:

Policy Answers & Direction for New Land Development Code

We agree that it’s time for the Council to provide to city staff clear direction on key policy drivers – with a level of specificity that ensures success in meeting the objectives of the community and reflecting our core values.

Below is our list of detailed policy questions that Council should answer prior to City Staff drafting any revision to our Land Development Code. We have also provided our initial answers to these questions and would like to pose these questions for Council deliberation.

We ask our colleagues and the community to weigh-in and answer these policy questions. This draft of detailed policy questions should inform the discussion at the April public hearing, and if a majority of the Council desires, we can use this as a starting point to create a resolution for our Council vote in April.

Form-based vs Euclidean (Use-base) Zoning:

Question 1:  Do we want a Form-based code or an Euclidean (use-based) code?

Answer: Our new land development code should be primarily based on a form-based code. Form-based would facilitate more mixed-use buildings allowing areas to redevelop naturally and incrementally by focusing first on the size and scale of the built environment. To support and compliment the form-based code, use restrictions should follow more of a context-sensitive policy framework ranging from straight-forward incompatible uses (industrial vs. residential) and uses allowed with certain conditions (access to levels of infrastructure).

Future Growth:

Question 2:  What is the level of housing capacity and forecast needed to achieve our City’s goal of a 135,000 new residential units?

Answer: Capacity and Forecast methodologies do not appear to fully account for the wide variety of additional barriers to building housing. A 3rdorder assumption (Yield) is necessary to account for site-by-site variability. In order to achieve our desired yield Council needs to set some magnitude of higher goals for our housing capacity and forecast. For example, with a desired “Yield” of 135k, the forecast reasonably should be 2x the yield, and the capacity should be 2x of the forecast. To depict this, much of the greenfield area in District 6, which, while sufficiently entitled, has not developed in the decades since those entitlements were granted.

Question 3:  To what extent should affordability regulations be incorporated into the new Land Development Code?

Answer:Beginning with the policies proposed in the “Affordability Unlocked” proposal, which acknowledges that regulations inherently raise the cost of building new housing, we should explore applying parts of these policies to developments near shared community assets and further expanding the density bonus programs.

Question 4:  Where should we focus new, denser, mixed-use development to achieve our housing goals? Should new housing capacity be concentrated near downtown, along transit corridors, or distributed throughout the city?

Answer: New housing will naturally be distributed throughout the city. One of the main housing issues we need to address is the housing replacement ratio. Today because of our existing regulations we often see a one-to-one replacement ratio where one existing unit is torn-down and replaced by a one-unit new home (often larger). Areas near transit, parks, or other shared community assets are appropriate for denser housing styles. At the same time, we should allow redeveloping areas distant from infrastructure (transit, parks, and shared community assets) to maintain their building form but allow for additional units.

Question 5:  What are the transit-supportive density targets needed to help prioritize new residential units and how do we designate the areas where we want to apply these targets?

Answer: Both residential and commercial space density is required to support a robust transit system. Research shows that a target of 17 people and jobs per acre will facilitate bus service. A target of 54 people and jobs per acre facilitates more high-capacity transit investments. We should adopt targets such as these two goals as our transit-supportive density targets. The ASMP can provide an initial guide for where we should apply each transit-supportive density target. However a post-rewrite amendment to the ASMP may be necessary to right-size our transit planning to our land use planning.

Question 6:  How should we balance sufficient housing supply with non-zoning requirements related to environmental protection, open space, reducing flood risk, transportation, infrastructure, urban forest protection, etc?

Answer: Housing affordability should be the primary policy driver, but context sensitivity is key. Areas that lack sufficient infrastructure (like regional stormwater systems) may require more on-site solutions. We should allow some level of variance for some building form regulations (setbacks, height, building cover, etc.) to help maximize the shared community values of housing, parks and tree preservation, and mitigating flood risk. City staff should explore the feasibility of how regulations can overlap (e.g. how a drainage field can also safely serve as open space).

Question 7:  Should some uses be allowed everywhere? For example, nursing homes and daycares?

Answer: Uses should be regulated through context-sensitive policy within appropriate building scale and not solely through by-lot zoning regulation. For example, daycares should only be restricted from areas that represent a health or safety issue and should have an appropriate building scale that is context sensitive.

Housing:

Question 8:  What should the number of residential units per lot be within the City?

Answer: All residential house scale zones should allow for single family homes. Use restrictions should be policy-driven and context-sensitive and not driven solely through by-lot zoning regulation. The smallest form of residential development (residential house-scale) should allow for single family, duplex, triplex, or ADU development depending on site conditions.

Question 9:  How should existing McMansion standards for regulating the scale and form of infill housing be carried forward or changed in a new code?

Answer: We should support modifications to McMansion regulations which would shrink the envelope for a tear-down-new-construction single-family home but would expand the envelope for a house-scale 2- or 3-unit building within the house-scale form of the neighborhood.

Compatibility:

Question 10: What should the role of compatibility be in the new land development code?

Answer: Context-sensitive compatibility based on policy and future conditions, including the opportunity for increased entitlements through compatibility when faced with odd-shaped lots adjacent to shared community assets.

Parking:

Question 11: How should parking requirements be reflected in the new land development code?

Answer: Parking minimums should be eliminated city-wide. Policies like parking maximums or minimum unit-yield may be necessary to ensure sufficient transit-supportive development. This is in addition to requirements for ADA-accessible parking and Transportation Demand Management (TDM) requirements.

Lot Regulations:

Question 12: Should there be a minimum lot size and/or lot width? If so, what lot sizes should be allowed in the City?

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

F25 Zoning:

Question 13: Should zoning from the current land development code be preserved via F25? Should it be maintained in some cases and not others? What should be the process for future changes to F25?

Answer: Our goal is to create a simplified and unified Land Development Code that does not allow for a two-part zoning code nor for an opt-out of the land-code reform. We recognize the possibility of needing a mechanism for some properties, with existing complex zoning, to transition to the new Land Development Code.

Impervious Cover:

Question 14: What helps address flooding more, impervious cover or drainage system?

Answer: Drainage systems. 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).

Criteria Manuals:

Question 15: To what extent should site development regulations be set in staff approved Criteria Manuals?

Answer: Council should set policies driving the site development regulations and staff approved Criteria Manuals should only be the implementation of the Council approved policies.

We look forward to further discussion and debate.


To read the full council conversation, click here and visit the Austin City Council Message Board.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan