Austin’s new city council is shaping up to be the most development-friendly Council in recent memory. What kind of agenda could we expect or hope to see from the new City Council? Here’s what’s on my holiday wishlist.
Reform before Rewrite
CodeNEXT is dead. One reason it failed is that it combined two separate but related goals: increasing density and improving design. How dense different parts of Austin should be is a subject of intense debate. By contrast, the best ways to design Austin given a certain level of density is debated mostly by professionals. To the extent that the public debated design elements at all, the arguments sounded an awful lot like the only thing most people cared about is how these design elements affect yield. Looked at it this way, CodeNEXT was doomed to fail. It’s impossible to write coherent design guidelines when the public takes intense interest in them but evaluates them solely based on how much housing (or other buildings) they produce.
We must at least try to separate the issues of density and design. Improving the presentation of the code, the process of getting building permits, improving our streetscapes; all important issues that need a collaborative process informed by technical know-how. On the other hand, the question of whether we build a city that sprawls outward or soars upward is one with a lot of public input from the kinds of people who vote in municipal elections. It’s a question that has divided the electorate to the point of dividing communities like environmental groups and neighborhood associations. This is not an issue we can hope to just keep talking about until we find common principles. We don’t need to be nasty in how we debate the issue but we need to recognize that dumping these political questions on to staff and community engagement is doing more to cause rifts than heal them, without providing meaningful benefit. So, for my Christmas wishlist, I hope that our City Council takes a bold leap of faith and does the job they were elected to: settle political issues. That means making real movements on density even without the comfort of a completely undivided city. My real wish here is that come next Christmas, Austin can stop debating whether we are a place that welcomes new residents and start moving on to debating how we welcome new residents.
How could we do that? Here are some ideas:
Build up commercial streets
Austin has seen a number of new apartments (usually built on top of new shops or restaurants) on commercial streets like Burnet, Lamar (North and South), and South Congress since it first started allowing such buildings in 2004. They’re not my personal favorite housing style; I prefer to live on side streets with less traffic noise and pollution. But there’s no doubt that they’ve been a very popular type of new housing. They produce new homes for a lot of people who need them and they’re very easy to serve by transit, as streets with shops are already our most common bus routes. The new buildings are required to follow design guidelines that make the city more walkable, by doing things like limiting the number of driveways that interrupt sidewalks.
Here are three items on my wishlist to build on the VMU program’s success:
- Allow apartments on more streets. If a bus goes there, it should allow VMU.
- Allow apartments on all parcels on a street. Austin’s VMU ordinance made a political deal where it agreed to limit the program to certain parcels, which well-informed members of the public willing to sit through long meetings got to decide on. But that was 10 years and $1000/month in rent increases ago. It’s time to fill in the missing teeth and allow more properties to rebuild.
- Apply it to “Centers” as well as “Corridors.” This was an idea from the city of Austin comprehensive plan “Imagine Austin” that envisions a few more neighborhoods not dissimilar to West Campus with fewer undergraduates or Seattle’s Ballard (click through on the tweet to see the whole walking tour):
Self-guided walking tour of Ballard, one of Seattle's urban villages. Here's a conventional grocery store tucked under apartments, wrapped around parking. pic.twitter.com/dKEcyG6Acg
— Dan Keshet🚶 (@DanKeshet) September 4, 2018
Allow more missing middle housing
“Missing middle” is the idea that there’s not a lot of ways to live in Austin that fall between a house surrounded by yard on all sides and an apartment complex with a leasing center with little bowls of candy in the waiting room. In other cities, you get lots of housing types in between: triple-deckers in Boston, greystones with up to 6 apartments in Chicago, or row houses in virtually every city the entire world over. Missing middle housing types can be employed on busy commercial streets; many cities have rowhouses interspersed with shops. But it really shines as a way of allowing more people to live on the calmer, quieter side streets where adults and children both are safer walking.
Redesigning Austin around missing middle housing is going to take a lot of work. We have effectively destroyed so much of our missing middle heritage that Austin’s Historic Preservation Officer proposed landmarking a fourplex as a rare example of a bygone housing type. But there are some items on my Christmas wishlist that are ready to ship today:
- Remove restrictions on subdividing buildings. If you’re allowed to build a mansion for one family to live in, you should be allowed to build that same mansion split into multiple apartments. This wouldn’t affect the health and safety regulations, nor would it affect regulations that affect the form of a house. It would simply take advantage of the fact that many of our houses are built too large and could accommodate more people with an extra stove and a wall between two sides of the building.
- Reduce minimum lot sizes. Austin requires unusually large amounts of land, measured in both area and width, in order to build a house or apartment building. Austin’s oldest and most beloved neighborhoods were built before that rule and have many lots with housing on smaller lots. Requiring so much land was a mistake and we should drop it sharply.
- Treat missing middle like houses not mega-complexes. Austin has a different set of rules for getting permits to build houses versus getting permits to build large buildings. While both types of buildings are required to follow zoning rules, large ones have to go much further in proving that they’re following the rules. This doesn’t have a huge effect on mega-complexes, which are always going to require complex permitting. But the additional paperwork can make it simpler to build an upscale mansion than a simple fourplex.
End Parking Requirements
Requiring that every house, apartment, store, school, daycare, and bar have its own parking places is crazy stupid. It encourages people to get an extra car even if they could get by without it, it adds crazy large expenses to everything we build, and it makes the city ugly as heck. Once you realize how much of a city is built the way it is just to provide huge amounts of parking, you’ll feel like you’ve just put on the goggles from They Live:
Parking requirements aren’t one of those “we just disagree on the right amount” ideas. They’re always wrong and the best thing we can do is eliminate them entirely. But if that isn’t on the shelf at the mall, some good alternatives could be:
- Eliminate parking requirements near buses and trains.
- Eliminate parking requirements in special districts like TODs and West Campus.
Expand Downtown and West Campus
The downtown/UT campus area is a special place, different from any other part of Austin and in some ways any other part of Texas. Austin has one of the largest percentages of jobs in its central business district, understood in this case to extend all the way up to UT. Although this can cause problems with car traffic when many people commute in from around the city surrounded by their steel cages, it’s a huge advantage for running transit. These areas are both doing very well but threatening to run out of room as they get built up. So what would I love to get to fix this?
- Rezone more of downtown to CBD or DMU, the two zoning districts special to downtown.
- Expand West Campus’ special zoning to more parts of West Campus.
- Expand the “inner West Campus” zoning district that allows taller buildings to more of West Campus.
Start working on Comprehensive Zoning
Design and density go best together. A comprehensive rewrite of our land development code could be far easier to achieve once the Council has set the policy direction clearly. But no matter what, it’s going to be a long process. When CodeNEXT died, many people from within the development and homebuilding industries actually let out a sigh of relief as they felt many of the areas outside the public interest weren’t well-enough examined. Outside of the pressure cooker of setting the city’s direction on density, real progress can be made on the more technical aspects of the code. Let’s start.