In 2013, a light bulb went off in Austin builder David Whitworth’s head as he was reading a rather dry document: the city’s land development code.
The next year, Whitworth razed two homes that each sat on three lots in the North Loop neighborhood, and replaced them with six detached single-family homes, one on each of the lots — even though those lots, which were platted decades ago, don’t meet the city’s current minimum lot size of 5,750 square feet.
Whitworth had figured out a new way to use a tool called “small lot amnesty,” which neighborhoods can adopt as part of the plans that lay out a vision and priorities for future development. The tool, adopted in at least part of 20 of 30 neighborhood plans, allows for the construction and renovation of homes on lots as small as 2,500 square feet and at least 25 feet wide.
To Whitworth, the tool is a way to triple the amount of housing on a given plot of land and to build smaller, relatively more affordable units in some of the city’s highly desirable central neighborhoods. His homes have sold in the $400,000s while the area average is $672,817, according to a document Whitworth provided with Multiple Listing Service data.
To residents of the North Loop area, Whitworth is adding density they never planned for, and potentially setting an example for other profit-hungry builders, by taking advantage of a loophole in city code. Neighbors say they thought small lot amnesty was meant for another purpose. As a city handbook puts it, the tool is meant to ensure small lots aren’t sitting vacant or topped with a “deteriorating home” — it is meant to grant amnesty, or relief, and not to notably increase density.
Now, three years after Whitworth had his epiphany and built a total of eight homes using it, city staffers are asking the City Council on Thursday to prevent other such developments from happening. The proposed changes to city code would stop a developer from tearing down a house straddling multiple small lots, breaking up those lots and developing each one individually.
“The larger issue from staff’s perspective is that, even though maybe it’s not a geographically widespread thing that’s being done, we see it as a mistake in the way the code was written. The way it’s written doesn’t match the intent,” city senior planner Greg Dutton said. “It may not be very pervasive, but we see it as kind of fixing an error.”
Whitworth said the proposed change would put city code at odds with Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan calling for smaller lot sizes. The city’s minimum lot size was changed from 3,000 square feet to 5,750 in 1946 at a time when other cities did the same thing as a way to keep minorities out of neighborhoods, Whitworth said. (A larger discussion about the city’s minimum lot size will probably take place during the ongoing overhaul of the land development code, Dutton said.)
“You have to wisely use your urban land,” Whitworth said, pointing out that Chicago, which hit a population of 1 million people more than a hundred years before Austin will, has development on small lots. “What better way to respect the environment than to build additional homes where we already commandeered Mother Nature?”
There are 9,600 small lots eligible for small lot amnesty citywide, concentrated in the North Loop, Upper Boggy Creek, Rosewood, Hancock, Holly and Central East Austin neighborhood planning areas, Dutton said. North Loop, which is roughly bounded by Interstate 35 to the east, 45th Street to the south, Lamar Boulevard to the west and Koenig Lane to the north, has its roots in the post-World War II era, when former soldiers taking advantage of the GI Bill’s benefits flocked to the area.
Other options exist for developing small lots, Dutton said, such as the “cottage” and “urban home” tools that neighborhood plans can also include. Nine of 30 plans have one or both, Dutton said. While small lot amnesty applies to all single-family properties, cottage and urban home developments are allowed only on certain types of single-family zoning, which means using them could require rezoning, Dutton said.
Mike Wong, president of the Northfield Neighborhood Association, said his neighborhood has generally been open to more development than other places in Austin, and that development on smaller lots can work well when it’s planned for, such as in the Mueller neighborhood. By agreeing to small lot amnesty, though, his neighborhood “gave them (developers) an extra foot of rope, and they’ve taken a whole mile.”
By exploiting small lot amnesty, developers can also gain increases in density beyond what normally would be allowed, Wong said. For instance, small lot amnesty allows up to 65 percent of the site to be paved or otherwise developed, whereas the most common single-family zoning in the city allows for 45 percent impervious cover.
Lex Zwarun, chair of the Austin Infill Builders Group, acknowledges that Whitworth isn’t using small lot amnesty as it was intended. But, Zwarun said, the outcome of that use is positive.
“Where is the evil, where is the crime?” Zwarun said. “Where is literally one example of something really bad that happened developmentwise because this loophole was used?”
Sebastian Wren of the North Loop contact team said that what Whitworth has built in his neighborhood is “actually pretty nice” and is backed by “logic and sense.” But, Wren said, “The next builder who comes along is not going to be as good as he is. Unfortunately that’s just the fact of the matter.”