Five things to watch as third CodeNext draft hits inboxes on Monday

Feb 09, 2018
Stephen Spillman
Greg Guernsey, head of Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department, speaks during a CodeNext open house in October. STEPHEN SPILLMAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Developers, urbanists and neighborhood advocates will be glued to their email inboxes Monday waiting for the release of the city’s latest crack at a rewrite of Austin’s entire land use code and zoning map, better known as CodeNext.

The third version of CodeNext is due out at 5 p.m. Monday and will be the version that the Austin City Council will begin working on in the late spring or early summer once it gets recommendations from two city commissions.

“This will be the foundation for what the council will be working from,” CodeNext spokeswoman Alina Carnahan said.

READ: Austin council members’ anxiety grows over CodeNext’s cost, timeline

CodeNext is the city’s attempt to implement the recommendations of the 2012 Imagine Austin comprehensive plan by revising what type of development can go where. The effort aims to address many of Austin’s problems, including a lack of low-income housinggentrification and traffic congestion.

Little has been publicly released about the third draft. However, a recent CodeNext consultant’s presentation showed that it would make it possible for more housing to be built than the second draft.

Here are five aspects to watch as the new draft rolls out:

1. Density bonus programs

With state laws taking some affordable housing tools off the table, density bonus programs are one of the few ways Austin can directly encourage developers to build affordable housing. The programs essentially offer builders the ability to construct larger housing projects in exchange for dedicating a portion of the units to low-income housing.

RELATED: 4 Austin City Council members push for affordability in CodeNext

When the first draft was released, it showed that CodeNext would vastly increase the amount of land in Austin eligible for those programs. Draft two scaled that back, but still proposed making about three times more land available for the programs than is currently available.

Nuria Zaragoza, a former member of the Planning Commission, said she is most anxious to see what changes are made to the underlying formulas behind the larger density bonus program. Zaragoza was disappointed that the second draft of CodeNext provided so many perks to developers, such as larger numbers of units or taller buildings allowed, that they might not feel the need to seek even more units through the density bonus programs.

Allen Reichler’s suggestions mark up a piece of paper as he describes the structure of a proposed apartment complex directly behind his Austin home. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

A consultant’s recent presentation showed that the second draft CodeNext’s density bonus program would create the capacity for 76,848 new housing units in the next decade, but only 949 of those would be considered “affordable.”

“I know there was an argument that we should apply it more broadly, but to me there is no excuse to leave any affordability on the table,” Zaragoza said.

2. Transit corridors

CodeNext’s guidepost, the 2012 Imagine Austin plan, envisioned a “compact and connected” city that would encourage the use of public transportation while also creating more walkable communities.

One of the most broadly supported changes in draft two was allowing residential development in nearly all commercial zoning. This would open the door to more compact housing, such as apartments and condominiums, on corridors, but it won’t do enough, said Jeb Boyt, president of the nonprofit group Alliance for Public Transportation.

RELATED: Mayor Adler, two council members release CodeNext goals

Boyt said that CodeNext does not have enough potential for additional housing and commercial development along the city’s major transit corridors to support a more robust public transit system.

“It is great to say we have all these new multiuse properties,” Boyt said. “The reality is most owners (of those properties) have no plans to change them any time soon.”

3. Transition zones

The first version of CodeNext looked at neighborhood areas within a quarter-mile to a half-mile from major transit arteries as transition areas that would step down density through the use of so-called transect zones.

The second draft did away with transect zones, but some of the increased density off major roads remained. Scott Turner, the owner of Riverside Homes, said he will be looking at those areas first on Monday to see if they allow for the creation of “missing middle” housing, a code word for affordable housing that often takes the form of apartments and duplexes.

Turner said he would like to see zoning with greater flexibility on what can be built in transition zones as a way to make builders develop things like row homes and smaller houses.

Austin affordability plan shows incentives to build taller, denser

“A lot in the previous versions was one step forward two steps back,” Turner said. “We are really looking for some progress there.”

4. Neighborhood interiors

Neighborhoods are where CodeNext has seen tempers flare, with supporters of the rewrite pushing for in-fill growth that includes encouraging redevelopment as long as it responsibly produces more housing units.

Detractors see CodeNext as a broad upzoning that threatens the character and livability of their neighborhoods. Many have called for their single-family designations to remain.

Clifton Bailey holds a small sign at an event hosted last fall by IndyAustin, a political action committee that is organizing a petition drive to hold a voter referendum on CodeNext. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

The second version of CodeNext showed that accessory dwelling units such as granny flats and garage apartments would be allowed in much more of the city.

“I’d like to see more places where they are allowed and more flexibility in how they are built,” said developer Nicole Joslin, executive director of the Austin Community Design and Development Center, which creates such housing projects. 

MORE: CodeNext draft would open up city to garage apartments

Some expect the latest version of CodeNext to show the influence of neighborhood associations. Large swaths of neighborhoods in the city’s urban core are expected to be switched to zoning classifications that are similar to their current single-family home zones.

5. Parking

The second draft of CodeNext broadly reduces the minimum amount of required parking for commercial and residential properties. How the third draft changes that could be a major sticking point as CodeNext reaches the City Council.

Under the second draft, the amount of required parking spots off the street in neighborhoods was reduced from two to one per housing unit, with some exceptions.

This reduction has faced skepticism from many neighborhood advocates who believe that encouraging curbside parking will create less safe streets for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Advocates for the reduction say the opposite: that having more cars parked on streets actually reduces driving speeds, therefore making streets safer.

Boyt said the argument should be about costs.

“Someone that lives in an apartment complex but rides the bus is paying for a parking spot they don’t use,” Boyt said. “The costs of building those is passed on to the renter.”