Zoning: the Central Problem

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:

Map of Central Austin
Core and Future Transit Corridors in Red. VMU-zoned parcels in brown.

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:

Large map of Austin Zoning
Yellow is SF, oranges and browns are mixed-use or Multi-Family. Lavender-ish is special downtown zoning, and purple is industrial.

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:

Map of Central Austin zoning
Lavender-ish area is downtown zoning, yellow is SF, orange and brown are multi-family or VMU, light blue is public land / UT.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

24 thoughts on “Zoning: the Central Problem

  1. The fact that ONLY our streets are dense or can become dense (as Larry Sunderland pointed out on bookface) means that any transit planning around “sectors” or “subcorridors” was a stupid idea from the get-go. Only the street the transit runs down is important, in other words; and we made sure we couldn’t take that into account so that certain people wouldn’t be embarassed by Rapid [sic[ Bus.

  2. Another good column, but can’t share your optimism about the 10-1 council. Power was effectively ceded in this vote to the suburbs with almost every inner city neighborhood effectively packed into 2 districts. A lot of people new to Austin might not realize the minor miracle of urbanism that has occurred in central Austin was incredibly hard fought by some rather forward looking city councils under Kirk Watson and especially Will Wynn – such progress that was notably absent under tenures of Bruce Todd and Gus Garcia. Austin’s nascent and somewhat tepid and uneasy embrace of urbanism, such that it is, was by no means certain and could have easily never occurred with poor leadership.

    The 2008 zoning changes were modest in the extreme – they took a few, very heavily traveled corridors and said effectively “ok you can have urbanism on this kind of crappy road – but no where else – not even one street over” And even this, very modest step, would have been unthinkable under the previous city council.

    I would not expect to see major advancements after 10-1 outside the CBD and the very few transit corridors already deemed acceptable for VMU.

    1. M-,

      If the urban core neighborhoods are worried about losing power to the suburbs under 10-ONE, and I agree that’s the likely outcome, there is a *very* simple solution – permit more housing. The demand is there, this is a short cycle (until the 2020 census), and if Chris’s vision of ward privilege comes to pass, it’s unlikely a district 6 rep would work hard to kill up zoning central Austin neighborhoods.

      That’s one good thing I can see coming out of the 10-ONE: if you want more influence at city hall, you gotta add more people.

      1. Since I can’t vote, I’ve not paid much attention to the 10-1 plan. How though if you only have two member districts does adding more people in those two districts, get you more power?

        I assume missing the blindingly obvious?

  3. I am grateful for this analysis and the voices here that speak out against the madness. Austin has worked very hard to create this landscape. If you want to preserve and protect your single family utopian vision you have to show up, vote, elect your representatives and convince the poor into believing the vision you promote includes them. As one of those perched all pretty bird in my single family home (which i could not afford were I to buy it today)I am struck by the realization that the advocates for neighborhood preservation have also stripped me of my ability to benefit from my one real asset. It is almost certain that I will eventually be displaced. I cannot rent it out short term to offset my rising taxes, I cannot build auxiliary units to supplement my income or to house a caregiver as I age, I cannot participate in the densification of my neighborhhood in a way that is creative and individual and fitting. I won’t even mention the menace of growing food and fowl. It has been an amazing process to watch over the last 35 plus years. While we are Imagining Austin others are effectively preserving the Austin they built.

  4. “A dedicated organization focused on understanding and changing local politics in an urbanist direction could make a tremendous difference.”


  5. I’ve just re-read this in light of Michael Kings affordable Point Austin column. Can you be more specific on “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.”, especially since you were discussing S Lamar and S Congress, aka Bouldin neighborhood. I was part of the neighborhood planning contact team for Bouldin during the VMU’ification. We most definitely only addressed the main aterials, but there is nothing to stop a developer coming in with an application to convert other properties to VMU.

    All we did was wave through all the existing properties, with a nod to reduced parking requirements in exchange for additional affordable. Bouldin neighborhood doesn’t agree with the conclusion you are making in relation to multi-family,we have MANY examples. Also, it’s not clear what change you are refereeing to when you say “no longer”.

    1. “Also, it’s not clear what change you are refereeing to when you say ‘no longer.”

      By “no longer”, I wasn’t referring to time, I was referring to the imaginary journey the reader was taking from arterial (allowed) to neighborhood street (disallowed).

      “There is nothing to stop a developer coming in with an application to convert other properties to VMU.”

      There’s a gigantic difference between being allowed to apply for a change in zoning and being allowed to build places for people to live and work by right. The process of managing community review is expensive in both time and money, and very risky from an investment perspective. There’s the added risk that the zoning change won’t be approved or that expensive community benefits will be demanded. There’s also the added risk that, even if you do get approval, by the time you get approval, the project will no longer be financially viable (e.g. funding falls through, prices of construction change).

      These additional costs may make the difference between making it more financially viable to develop dense, walkable urban buildings close to downtown or more financially viable to develop car-dependent greenfield development in the suburbs.

      In addition, many of the actions that neighborhoods have taken give little reason for developers to believe that their application would be approved (e.g. neighborhood associations fighting hard against a modest 96’ building at the Taco Cabana site).

      Also, a couple other things:

      1) I don’t see why multi-family needs to be VMU. Why not just zone to allow multi-family without ground-floor commercial? Along the arterials, commercial might be viable, but in the neighborhoods, a nice building like 404 Rio Grande (no commercial) might be more viable.

      2) Why make the developer set aside units as income restricted in order to build less parking? If the developer wants to build less parking, all the better!

      1. Thanks for taking time to reply Dan, I’m trying to at least understand what you are looking for, at least in so much as Bouldin is concerned I have some opportunity to influence.

        Lets start with the easy one. Multi-family doesn’t have to be VMU. In some much as the developers come forward with plans to build entirely family based units, on the arterial roads, I don’t see why the neighborhood would object out of principle. A developer proposed an entirely m/f building on the corner of S 1st/Live Oak, couldn’t fund it, but the neighborhood never objected. If you want the developers to build on the interior of the neighborhood, you have a few problems. 1. Zoning, lets just assume we could fix that. 2. Land to develop on.

        Right now, apart from existing m/f properties, almost everything in the neighborhood that comes up with traditional single story s/f homes, goes either duplex or (faux)condo. Within 6-blocks of my home there 8 lots have gone from s/f single traditional homes to big duplex homes. To the best of my knowledge, only one developer has purchased multiple lots, if I remember correctly, on the north west corner of Annie St/S 2nd, and then built 3x monster s/f on 2-lots that previously only had 2x traditional small homes. Simply put, the gentrification of Bouldin, East Austin doesn’t appeal to interior m/f from a financial perspective, the lots are expensive, small and a developer can turn a s/f lot in 3-months and turn a healthy profit. The house opposite mine has sold, $395,000. It will be a tear down, take-away, and a duplex by June, it’s a big lot but not big enough for even a small apartment building, even assuming you stripped the trees.

        Of course, you are right, the neighborhood objected to the TACO PUD, 801 BSR, and others. The city, developers and the neighborhoods spent a long time developing the neighborhood plans, agreeing and laying out how they felt Austin should develop, including the water front overlay etc. Along came the developers, almost always starting by threatening outrageously large buildings and then backing down to what they know they can get; if this isn’t enough, they go PUD. In one recent development, the developer explicitly said they’d eliminate all the affordable/subsidized units and blame the neighborhood, that was their opening position.

        What you see if you don’t participate from the pre-application meeting, is a set of volunteers who’ve already been backed into a corner, who have a developer who can out lobby, out spend, and has all the time in the world to max out any property, irrespective of surrounding properties, community benefit etc. When they finally get to agreement, they just pay the money over to the city to get out of the their obligations, this money goes into a pot and mostly doesn’t show up anywhere in the central district. So, it’s of no benefit to the neighborhood, or for the most part downtown/CBD.

        I’m confused by your comments on affordable and why a developer shouldn’t set aside some of the property? Prices in the central downtown area are sky rocketing, lots of properties that have sold recently are investment only. How do you expect to service all these downtown, CBD, multi-family units if there are no affordable properties? Is everyone taking the train and buses in, biking, or driving?

        The notion that we can build enough m/f to drive down prices is a nonsense, it just won’t happen any time soon. Rather than your “imaginary journey” I’d like to hear what you actual want done, in real practical steps that would encourage growth, density and the general mixed neighborhoods that can survive and thrive.

      2. Hi Mark,

        Glad we found a point of agreement on m/f not having to be VMU. 🙂

        I can definitely sympathize with the position of volunteers fighting for what they believe in. It’s really hard when you’re outgunned in terms of somebody with more money or power. And I’m sure that they’re wonderful people; this isn’t some personal thing. I just disagree with the goals, regardless of the intentions or underdog status. I like the designs for the TacoPUD and I like the fact that there will be 40 additional households in that building because the developers fought for greater height. That’s 40 households that could well have outbid other people for their homes in the future. When you’re fighting on behalf of building 40 new homes (at a profit), you can afford to fight hard, but not every building can afford a fight like that. Neighborhood volunteers that get rolled on a decision like that may succeed in preventing additional homes getting built in other places.

        I agree with you that zoning is the issue. That’s what I want to see changed. More permissive zoning that allows owners, by right, to build more homes. Not just larger SF homes or duplexes, but more multi-family on the interior of the neighborhood. I don’t have all the details, but I’ve lived in many very nice neighborhoods in Boston where there were dense low-rises on the interior of neighborhoods. It’s possible you’re right and the demand for m/f homes in the interior of neighborhoods is small. But I don’t think we can know that based on existing conditions: if the zoning doesn’t allow it, it seems a safe bet that it’s the fact that it’s against zoning that’s preventing it from happening then that the demand isn’t there. Not every neighborhood should be overrun by students, but West Campus saw a dramatic increase in buildings not because there wasn’t demand before and there’s demand now, but because now the buildings are allowed to be built there, by right, and without going through a long and expensive community review and negotiation.

        I don’t have a specific plan (e.g. “this block here should go from SF-4 to MF-2” or whatever), but that’s the general direction I want to move in: many, many, more people living close in, within roughly the “Central Corridor” Project Connect outlined.

        On the question of affordability set-asides vs. building toward affordabilty, I have a draft blog post I’m working on so I’ll work through my reasoning there.

        1. Thanks Dan. Let me try some of this again, not to be argumentative, but so you at least have a clear idea of what’s behind a lot of what you see from the neighborhoods. Just an FYI, I was on the Bouldin neighborhood planning contact team back through 2007-2010, which is formally separate entity from the Bouldin Neighborhood Association, I resigned when I was having my planning and zoning issues with a local commercial property to avoid any suggestion of conflict of interest. As of now, I hold no formal position on in the neighborhood.

          With all due respect, apart from directly effected neighbors, for the most part I’d argue that the neighborhood association, and the planning contact team do NOT take it personally. They are committed citizens who volunteers their time to represent the neighborhood. In general they don’t do this in a vacuum, or based on their personal desires, they do it with the neighborhood plan as their guide.That plan says what they neighborhood is and will be, it’s values and it’s core development priorities. In some much as this discussion goes, it is a mixed income neighborhood, it limits commercial development on the interior of the neighborhood, it doesn’t preclude and encourages appropriate use of m/f. Yes, their are local disputes, with neighbors and developers when neighbors believe a development will directly impact their quality of life through, traffic, noise, light or other issues, the neighborhood though trys to apply the plan fairly and evenly.

          So, in so much as I am a city-boy, or an urbanist for the purpose of this, I’ll argue for change, I’ll encourage people to try to see how things are, when it comes to making decisions, I revert to supporting the Neighborhood plan. If you want to see real change, thats where it needs to start.

          Again, lot size. Bouldin has for the most part very few lots that would be suitable for m/f housing without combining lots. Sure there are a few. On the north end of the neighborhood these are well known, and the few that exist are often used for commercial parking. The tree house lot on the corner of Barton Springs/Dawson is an obvious example. I can’t say what position the neighborhood would take on it, but I can tell you that they don’t deserve to go over height without a fight based on the neighborhood plan. The other lots irrespective of zoning, are developed into monster properties. The Bouldin Castle being a prime example, but also another former church on the corner of Bouldin/Elizabeth St another. There was never an approach to develop m/f on this lot, it’s not at all clear what is being done, and so far, no one is objecting.

          You suggest that the Taco Cabanna PUD agreement will add 40-dwellings that won’t outbid other people for homes in the future. I’d suggest this, the apartments will be high ticket, purchase apartments, that will go into a pool of high priced rental.apartments. The location won’t support anything else. The people will buy their will be “empty-nesters” who have more than one property, and the affluent working community. Neither of those would for the most part be interested in properties further south, so they only homes they would be outbidding are for now in similar buildings on the northshore. I know because I’d consider buying one as a rental and I’ve talked to many like minded people. So this does absolutely nothing for affordability, it just adds more stock that is available to the lobbiests, legaslators, para-legal and other people who swing into town ever two years and then leave! In between they’ll make ideal properties for jacked up STR’s during the big festivals, money for nothing, and get height for “free”.

          So, the problem you have is there are really very few properties that are suitable for m/f, unless you are looking at small rectangular units that could house 4-6 small apartments. The only way you’d build bigger M/F units would be to find some way to encourage combining lots. That doesn’t happen mostly because essentially when a developer acquires one lot, they need to wait for an adjacent lots to become available. This happens a few ways, death, people moving of their own accord, and being bought out. Most developers don’t take a long term view, they buy, build, sell and move on.

          So, I think even the most enthusiastic density/urbanists on the neighborhood don’t see how we change things. I certainly don’t see the neighborhood as the problem, as I thought you were asserting. We have a broad range of m/f in the neighborhood already; future development is guided by the neighborhood plan, developed and agreed with the city back in 2002. While its good to have dreams, and make sweeping generalizations about what you’d like, the only way forward would be to convince the city, and the neighborhoods to develop a new plan that incorporates your ideas.

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