Zoning is the central question for Austin, affecting virtually every issue we touch on. In previous posts, I’ve argued that the path to walkability is upzoning of central Austin neighborhoods near downtown and UT. I’ve also argued that upzoning is what’s needed to make Austin affordable. And the much-debated densities for the urban rail route are largely defined not by physical geography, but zoning geography.
Yet it’s a question I am only beginning to educate myself about. When Chris Bradford wrote his letter to City Council opposing the Highland route for urban rail, he was able to get much more specific than I have been:
In 2008, the City upzoned hundreds of tracts on Core Transit Corridors throughout the urban core for Vertical Mixed Use on the premise that these streets would be the focus of our transit investment and thus particularly suited for dense development… It is thus remarkable that Project Connect’s planners managed to choose the only sub-corridor — Highland — that lacks either a current or future Core Transit Corridor connection to downtown or UT.
Getting to know Central Austin zoning
So I sought out some maps to give some visual clarity to Chris’ point and found them here. The first map shows current and future Core Transit Corridors and the lots zoned for Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) along them:
There is indeed VMU zoning along South Lamar, South Congress, North Lamar, Guadalupe, Burnet, Airport, and Riverside. But, as Chris mentions, there is a big, transit-corridor-free, mixed-use-free gap north of UT, between Guadalupe and I-35, precisely where Project Connect is planning to run a train. Based on this map, you might think that South Lamar is the best corridor for transit, followed by South Congress. These are the streets with the most VMU zoning along them. But VMU isn’t everything. For a more complete look at what the zoning for these streets looks like, we turn to the general zoning map:
This map is all of Austin. It’s hard to see specifics, but I include it to make the general point that Austin is largely zoned single-family (SF). In much public discussion, people focus heavily on new condos or on commercial areas, but I believe this is largely because that’s the interesting part of Austin. In terms of land area, it’s tiny. Now here’s a much smaller portion of that map, showing a small, central area of Austin:
A few things jump out:
- Despite talk of central Austin becoming unrecognizably dense, a majority of central Austin by area is reserved for people to live in not-dense single-family housing.
- VMU areas around South Lamar and South Congress are largely confined to those streets themselves. Just one parcel away from major streets, you are no longer allowed to build multi-family housing, let alone tall or dense mixed-use buildings.
- There are three areas in Austin with real penetration of multi-family housing into a neighborhood and not just a major street: Downtown, East Riverside, and West Campus.
- The stretch of the proposed rail line in the Highland subcorridor from UT to Airport Blvd is zoned for low-density single family housing.
Single-Family Sea as Impediment
Zoning touches on most issues Austin faces. But with these maps in mind, I think we can get more specific: one of the major zoning problems Austin faces is the sea of low-density single-family housing surrounding Austin’s islands of high residential density. Upzoning downtown- and UT-adjacent neighborhoods to allow more than SF homes could help solve many of our problems:
- Transit Ridership We are a decent-sized city and should have no problem siting a rail line through density, where it will be used. Yet to hop from downtown to the business and political class’ preferred site of future density (Highland), it would have to go through a sea of low-density single-family housing.
- Housing Affordability There is ample land on which enough new housing could be built to satisfy the rich, the middle-class, and the poor. Even if the new housing is expensive, it would lower overall rents in a game of musical chairs. But it wouldn’t have to be expensive; building affordable housing is much easier when every home isn’t required to provide expensive amenities like personal gardens or yards, and homes (apartments or condos) can share walls and foundation.
- Tax Affordability It’s also cheaper for the city: expensive amenities like sidewalks and utilities can be provided cheaper the more people who share them.
- Transportation Affordability Housing built in central Austin is close enough to job centers that household transportation expenses could be eased by requiring fewer cars to achieve the same or better mobility. And fewer cars means less overall traffic.
Building islands of density surrounded by seas of single-family housing loses many of the benefits of the density, while retaining its costs. This is a point similar to that made by Jeff Wood in his endorsement of the Guadalupe-Lamar route, where he calls for the creation of a single large employment district that isn’t separated by low-density areas. And it really would be easy to do anywhere in Central Austin. West Campus isn’t denser for natural reasons (e.g. better soil, less hilly), but policy ones: the city passed UNO, allowing more housing to be built. Given the enormous demand for housing, any downtown-adjacent neighborhood that the city removed SF shackles from would see growth.
What I’m NOT Saying
1. I’m not saying all SF housing is terrible and should be gotten rid of. As I have said before (and again), I respect others’ preferences for living not only in single-family housing, but single-family neighborhoods (that is, neighborhoods that exclude/outlaw multi-family housing). When my last roommate and I parted ways, I moved to a small downtown condo and adopted a cat; she adopted dogs and moved a few miles away from downtown to find a place she could afford a fenced-in yard. I would no more tell her she’s wrong to want a garden and yard than I would expect her to tell me I’m wrong for wanting a cat. And, as you can see from the larger map, Austin the city (let alone the suburbs) is not remotely in danger of seeing single-family housing go extinct. To a first approximation, all of the housing areas of Austin are single-family housing areas.
2. I am not saying we should remake all of Central Austin to resemble downtown, with its soaring skyscrapers. As fast as Austin is growing, we would still run out of people to put in them before we got even close to that point. Even the relatively dense neighborhoods of West Campus and East Riverside are largely without downtown’s skyscrapers, and opening up more land area to denser building would satiate demand without every building going 20 stories high.
3. I’m not saying the city should demolish single-family homes. People who live in single-family homes close to downtown can go right on living in them; they just will now have the option of building more on their land or selling it to somebody else who wants to (or selling to somebody who doesn’t want to). The one thing they lose is the right to forbid their neighbors from building.
We are moving to 10 single-member districts and one at-large mayor (10-1) soon, a system that Chris Bradford worries will lead to “ward privilege” (Councilmembers granting each other carte blanche to veto development within their own district). Mike Dahmus describes a system similar to this already happening within one of the city’s most influential citizen groups, the Austin Neighborhood Council (ANC), where outer-Austin neighborhood associations support central Austin neighborhood association’s decisions about central Austin neighborhoods in solidarity, even if the outer Austin neighborhoods might be better served by central Austin densifying.
But I’m less convinced than ever that there are hard-and-fast rules about local politics. At least 9 out of the 11 incoming city Councilmembers will be new, due to term limits. A tiny fraction of voters vote in local elections and an even tinier fraction understand the full range of issues. A dedicated organization focused on understanding and changing local politics in an urbanist direction could make a tremendous difference. As the leadership of AURA has found, there is a hunger within many communities for this type of politics. Developers make a poor counterweight to neighborhood politics and a true grassroots coalition that wants to see dense development in central Austin could change things enormously.