Friday marked the end of the first major phase of the effort to rewrite Austin’s entire land use code, as the city officially stopped taking public comments on its first stab at the CodeNext maps.
The deadline was a milestone for the city’s massive development code overhaul, which has been fraught with frustration and confusion among Austin residents, City Council members and a range of organizations who fear that the proposed code does too much — or too little.
CodeNext attempts to address many of Austin’s most vexing problems, such as traffic, affordability, connectivity and density. And while the effort has drawn impassioned responses from the community — more than 4,000 comments that ranged from cheering the draft to calling it a “special interest boondoggle for real estate speculators” — many have worried that city staffers and consultants from the Pacific Northwest are making decisions about the city’s future in a vacuum.
“Citizens are wondering whose idea it was to start destroying their neighborhoods,” architect and Brentwood resident Don Leighton-Burwell wrote on May 15. “Why are citizens who have paid extraordinary taxes for many years and who have tried to make Austin a great place to live being attacked in this way?”
City staffers say they are responding to the input, pointing to their first major course correction in the code last week, when they unveiled a new slate of zoning classifications intended to make the rules clearer.
Gone are the designations referring to “transect zones” that were at the heart of much of the draft code released in January. In their place is a more unified scheme in which the zoning name indicates how many units can be built on a piece of property. For instance, “R1” zoning would allow one unit per lot, “R2” would allow two units per lot and so on.
The CodeNext team says the ideas behind transects — to emphasize how development in an area looks — will be rolled into specific zoning classifications in neighborhoods where the city wants to encourage density while maintaining the neighborhood’s character.
That could mean allowing construction of a house that looks similar to those near it, but now with the ability to divide the building into a duplex or place a garage apartment or granny flat in the back with more ease.
“They’re not done,” CodeNext project manager Jorge E. Rousselin said of transects. “We still have form standards in the new draft.”
3 zoning codes become 2
One of the main criticisms of CodeNext’s first draft, produced by consultant Opticos, was that it failed to deliver the simplified code that the city had promised.
“A lot of people had to hire attorneys” to translate the code, CodeNext spokeswoman Alina Carnahan said.
The original CodeNext draft divided the city into three distinct zoning codes.
Some areas, such as the Brentwood and Bouldin neighborhoods, were in transect zones with specific rules on how development could look. Other areas, such as Northwest Hills and Circle C Ranch, were in nontransect zones that were similar to traditional zoning, which describes the types of units allowed but not the look of development. Finally, the current code was ported over for planned unit developments such as the Grove at Shoal Creek and neighborhood conservation combining districts such as Hyde Park.
To some, it looked like the staff created one code for neighborhoods designated as transects, a second code for nontransect zones and a third legacy code for the planned unit developments, also known as PUDs.
The assertion chafes CodeNext staff, but critics of the CodeNext draft continue to point out that the number of broad zoning classifications grew from 17 to 26 with the addition of transect zones.
Now, however, transect zones and nontransect zones will be unified under proposed “R” zones for virtually all residential zones in Austin.
“It won’t be a direct translation necessarily,” said Jerry Rusthoven, the assistant director of the Planning and Zoning Department. “We are changing it based on comments; we aren’t just renaming it.”
Planned unit developments are not being touched at this time, with last year’s bruising fight over the Grove at Shoal Creek remaining fresh in city staffers’ minds along with the fact that such developments are generally created with intense guidance from the Austin City Council and negotiations between concerned parties.
So CodeNext’s second draft will be more like two codes: one for zoning and one for planned unit developments, though Rusthoven said it would be more like one code and a reference manual.
A lot of information will also be repeated several times in the second draft, much to the chagrin of some engineers, Rusthoven said. But the writers aren’t trying to change CodeNext from “The Old Man and the Sea” to “War and Peace.” Ideally, residents who have never cracked open Austin’s zoning code will be able to pull out the handful of pages related to their property’s zoning type and see right on one spot what can and cannot be built there, Rusthoven said.
Getting it right
Leighton-Burwell, the architect and Brentwood neighborhood advocate, said when reached by phone Friday that his online comment on the code was likely made in frustration over the commenting process. He said that changing the zoning names will make CodeNext more palatable.
“But I have skepticism about whether it was just a political move,” Leighton-Burwell said. “It doesn’t change the character of the thing itself. To change the name is nothing if the content and intent of the thing is not really looked at more closely.”
Staffers and consultants will deliver a second draft code and map in September to the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission. Both will review the code for a third draft set to be delivered to the City Council in February. The council is scheduled to vote on the final iteration of CodeNext in April.
Some council members said staffers appeared to be on their way to addressing some of the concerns they have heard at a recent City Council work session. Leighton-Burwell said, despite his concerns, he is still optimistic.
“I have faith that we can do the right thing, that we can get CodeNext right,” he said.
Keeping up with CodeNext
The Austin American-Statesman is collaborating with leading Central Texas news outlets to provide residents a one-stop portal for CodeNext coverage. Called CodeNext Hub, the site features news, events, timelines and other resources to help Central Texans understand and participate in the complex but critical rewrite of the city’s land-use regulations. Follow us on Twitter @codenexthub.