Subject: Land Development Code Revision Update

Dear Neighbors,

I am writing to update you on the land development code rewrite process. Earlier this month, a majority of the council adopted policy direction; the vote was 8-3 with Council Members Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, and myself voting in the minority. I invite you to read for yourself the final document that was approved as well as the recently released staff memo regarding staff structure, timeline, and process.

There are a number of items in this direction document that I endorse:
  • Increasing density along our designated activity corridors and within our activity centers, as mapped in the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan;
  • Allowing residential development in commercial areas and prioritizing uses along our corridors that contribute to our policy goals;
  • Incentivizing the construction of new affordable housing and the preservation of existing affordable units throughout Austin while calibrating our affordability programs to be effective;
  • Updating and simplifying our code to allow homeowners and small business owners to easily remodel or expand their structures;
  • Creating zoning categories that can allow gentle increased housing growth within neighborhoods and making it easier for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built throughout the city; and
  • Protecting our environment for future generations.
In the end, however, the final document included a number of policies directing the mapping process in a manner that I could not support. I believe these choices went too far and risk undermining our ability to accomplish our stated goals, especially with respect to affordability, preserving our environment, and effective implementation. From my perspective, the adopted approach relies too heavily on rapidly unleashing the market and expecting the kind of development in Imagine Austin to follow.

Some specific points of concern to me include:
  • Housing Capacity Targets: On page 5 Section 1.a. the direction states, “The new code and map should allow for housing capacity equivalent to at least three times the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint (ASHB) goal of 135,000 new housing units.” This is a much higher capacity target than what even CodeNext Draft 3 aimed to create. My concern is that to map at least 405,000 new housing units, development rights across the city would have to be dramatically increased, as would the scale and bulk of buildings. Critically, upzoning so much at once may raise the cost of land and increase construction costs. In these ways, the capacity imperatives may undermine our ability to achieve our affordable housing goals.
  • Depth and Intensity of Transition Zones: On page 10 the direction provides for mapping new missing middle housing in “transition areas” adjacent to activity corridors, activity centers, and the Transit Priority Network, as well as in some “high opportunity areas” (page 13 Section 3.n.). Such mapping would increase development entitlements in some single family neighborhoods. The document goes on to state, “Generally, the transition area should be two (2) to (5) lots deep beyond the corridor lot.” Later on page 13, “Four units within a house scale should be the least intense zone within a transition area, subject to staff’s consideration of what is appropriate.” These points were debated at both the April 25 (Item 11) and May 2 meetings, and I encourage you to watch the deliberations. 
  • Definitions of Missing Middle: The application of the term “missing middle” sometimes refers to duplexes and ADUs and elsewhere extends to multiplexes with the latter term undefined and per council discussion possibly reaching the 24-36 units per acre range. This ambiguity of terms in my view may open the door to mapping to meet market demand through mass upzoning instead of mapping through a planning process. I value planning because I do not share the faith that the market alone will deliver responsible, sustainable complete communities for all Austinites. 
  • Increased By-Right Entitlements Without Substantial Community Benefits: Throughout our discussions I advocated that increased development entitlements should deliver substantial community benefits in the form of affordable housing, parkland, environmental protections and quality design. The mapping direction and targets (as well as the overall discussion) in my view will lead to unintended, but yet predictable consequences that may undermine our shared goals of planning for growth, protecting our environment and promoting affordability. I believe the guardrails included in the text were well intentioned, but nonetheless could prove weak or contradictory in the face of such large housing capacity targets.
  • Housing as the Priority: While I agree that housing must be a top priority for our code rewrite, I do not believe that it always can be the ultimate priority while still creating a livable city (page 7 Section 2.b.). Another one of my priorities is ensuring that we grow our city while addressing our parkland deficiencies and preserving our tree canopy. As we add density to our existing neighborhoods, providing for adequate parkland is a critical need we must balance with our housing supply if we want our communities to be livable and sustainable. I invite you to watch some of the discussion on this topic here in Part 2 of 3 starting around the 2:59:00 mark. 
Next Steps: The Council direction called on the City Manager to bring forth a new draft of the code and zoning maps in October for community and Council consideration. The majority of my council colleagues want to adopt a new code by the end of the year, so the process may unfold at a quick pace come fall. I highly encourage you to read the document in its entirety to form your own opinions and be prepared to engage when the draft code and maps are released. I will keep you updated on public engagement opportunities and anticipated decision points.

As your representative, my pledge is to continue to voice the concerns that I hear from you. I also will continue to work towards harmonizing our various housing, environmental and quality of life goals, and my staff and I will continue to be available to speak with groups on this topic either in neighborhood meetings or other venues. We have had many town halls, office hours, and presentations at other meetings on this topic. Please reach out to my office if your neighborhood would like us to come and discuss the land development code, and please join with your neighbors if you want to engage on this issue. I am only one vote out of 11, and it will take residents across the city working together to ensure that we arrive at an outcome that balances our community’s priorities.


Alison Alter
Council Member, District 10
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