As residents, planners and activists pore through Austin’s 1,100-plus-page proposed rewrite of its zoning rules, one of the largest questions is how these new regulations will affect individual neighborhoods and blocks across the city.
Those answers won’t become clear until City Hall releases new zoning maps in April, which will break down which sets of zoning rules and restrictions in CodeNext will apply block by block across Austin’s 326 square miles.
Officials have defended the decision to release the code before the maps, saying that it allows residents and activists to become familiar with rules and the concepts behind them before seeing how they apply to neighborhoods across the city. But they acknowledge the rubber won’t meet the road until then.
“The real discussion, about even what the code says, isn’t going to happen until we have the mapping, when people actually start seeing ‘where is my property and what is the impact on me and my immediate neighborhood,’” Mayor Steve Adler said last week.
Officials have sought to tamp down fears by saying that most of the city — “97 percent,” Adler estimated — will be the same or largely similar to the zoning that exists now.
The fight, Adler acknowledged, will center on how to zone the neighborhoods that sit in the urban core or along major transportation corridors. They will likely be governed by a new set of rules known as transect zones, which the city’s staff says will promote density and provide needed housing.
More apartments along corridors?
To better understand how these changes could play out, the American-Statesman asked two planning experts to envision how the new zoning scheme could impact the Heritage neighborhood in Central Austin.
The tree-lined neighborhood — filled with houses and apartments that house students and families — sits just north and west of the University of Texas and right on major transit corridors to downtown. Small businesses line the east and west of the neighborhood along Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard, as the neighborhood stretches from 29th Street up to 38th.
For this hypothetical exercise we consulted Jim Duncan, the former head of the city’s planning department, who chaired the citizen committee overseeing the CodeNext process and typically an ally of neighborhood preservationists; and Chris Bradford, an attorney who specializes in development issues and generally supports urbanists pushing to increase density. They offered broadly similar visions of what the rewrite could mean for Heritage.
Its proximity to campus and downtown would likely make it an attractive place to try to add density, both Duncan and Bradford said. However, the neighborhood’s small lot sizes would likely complicate efforts to add housing there, they added.
“When you get down to Heritage, (the lots are) very shallow,” Duncan said. “What we don’t want to have happen is to have people coming in and think they’re going to do four, five and six stories.”
For instance, both said CodeNext’s zoning maps would likely allow the single-story shops along Guadalupe — currently home to stores like Buffalo Exchange and Antone’s Records Shop — to be replaced with three-story buildings, with retail on the bottom and apartments above. The shallowness of the lots, both added, would prevent the buildings from going much taller.
It wouldn’t be a revolutionary change. Such a development already exists nearby, at Guadalupe and 31st streets, across from the Wheatsville Co-op.
A scalpel, not a machete
Duncan and Bradford also said they believed that when the city’s new zoning maps come out this spring, officials would probably aim to preserve the largely residential, one- and two-story nature of the Heritage neighborhood’s core.
But there’s a hitch, Bradford said: The proposed residential zoning categories that match the single-family homes in Heritage would not allow for the two-story apartment complexes that are also in the neighborhood.
On the other hand, Bradford said, if officials applied a different zoning category that permits such apartments, those rules would allow buildings up to six stories tall — changing the feel of the neighborhood and likely guaranteeing a nasty fight.
“This neighborhood illustrates the big hole in the transect zoning they’ve done,” Bradford said. Ideally, he said, the city would allow some smaller apartment complexes in the residential zones, “but at a lower height.”
Meanwhile, Heritage’s residents continue to wait for the unveiling of the maps in April to better understand what plans the city has in store for their neighborhood.
“I’m just hoping there’s greater clarity around (zoning) so that we know where development stands and developers know where they stand,” Anne Heinen, who sits on the Heritage Neighborhood Association’s steering committee, said about CodeNext.
“I think it’s great they had a view of the neighborhood that, I think, is very attuned to its current diversity of housing types, as well as where there is potential to bring in more density,” she added. “I see the points of both, especially allowing greater height and more density on certain properties. I just hope it’s done with a scalpel and not a machete.”