Notes from 10/17/17 SRCC Specially Called Meeting on CodeNEXT

Mayor Adler recently requested a meeting with SRCC members to hear our concerns regarding CodeNEXT. SRCC arranged to hold the meeting in the church where its general meetings are held. SRCC’s Ad Hoc Committee on CodeNEXT set the format for the meeting and former Council Member Laura Morrison kindly consented to be the moderator. Karen McGraw, an architect and Planning Commissioner, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo also agreed to participate as panelists. Karen McGraw was primarily there to provide clarification as needed and additional insight into the CodeNEXT and earlier city-wide planning processes. The questions were directed primarily to Mayor Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Tovo. Some questions from Laura Morrison were follow-up questions as needed based on responses to attendees’ questions.

In order to keep the meeting moving and to prevent disruptions, no questions were allowed from the floor. Attendees wrote their questions on index cards handed out at the time they signed in. The cards were gathered, categorized by subject matter, and turned in to Laura. The meeting was open to the public, not just SRCC members. All questions submitted that were not answered due to time constraints, have been typed and will be submitted to the Mayor’s office shortly. When responses are received, they will be posted.

Gretchen Otto, SRCC President and tireless CodeNEXT committee member, opened the meeting giving a brief introduction of the moderator and panelists, a brief account of the work the committee has been doing, and the purpose for the meeting and its format. The panelists each gave a brief statement regarding CodeNEXT.

Adler’s remarks included the timeline for CodeNEXT, noting that the original contract with OptiCos was for $2M, and did not provide for any mapping. He stated that he would not vote to approve CodeNEXT 2.0 in its current form, but he is not in favor of extending any deadlines. Adler believes that even though public comment on the maps and text will be closed soon, the public can still participate in guiding CodeNEXT to its conclusion.

Both McGraw and Tovo expressed concern about the timeline due to the incompleteness of some sections of the new code, mapping errors that still have not been corrected, and questions that have not been answered by staff or the consultants (some of which were submitted in May). Staff recommendations to the Council are due in early January and the Council is to vote on adopting CodeNEXT in April.

McGraw also recognized the issues with the mapping process. She participated in all three major City-wide planning efforts, beginning with the Austin Tomorrow Plan. There is precedent for pulling the mapping process away from the text. When the Austin Tomorrow plan was developed through a very public process, the text was written and adopted first, and was then followed by ten months of public input on mapping, after which the map was adopted. McGraw supports this sort of process over the current mapping process, which was done without any initial public input.

Tovo added that another major cause for concern is the fact that the mapping is market-driven, clustering the added density within the urban core rather than following the Imagine Austin plan of developing identified growth corridors. Tovo pointed out that City Demographer Ryan Robinson has studied the Austin housing market, and concluded that there is no dire housing shortage in Austin. Looking at local historical data, our growth trends are on track.

Adler and Tovo agree that affordability cannot be achieved through CodeNEXT and that Austin cannot build its way out of affordability.

McGraw confirmed that all NCCD’s, PUD’s and corridor plans, the ERC for example, will be frozen and retain their current Land Development Code zoning. This zoning is identified on the CodeNEXT 2.0 map as F25. However, should a need for a zoning change on property located within an NCCD arise, and an application is filed and approved, that property would be pulled from the NCCD and would be reclassified with the appropriate new CodeNEXT zoning designation. So, yes you could have CodeNEXT zoning within an established NCCD-frozen neighborhood.

Although staff has stated that the McMansion regulations are included within CodeNEXT, they really are not—the tent and some other elements are missing, carports are free—their impervious cover not counted. Other changes adversely impacting urban core neighborhoods are the reduction in parking requirements—going from two required spaces to one per dwelling or in some instances, no parking spaces at all. Lot sizes are reduced; flag lots no longer require a waiver, etc.

Adler advised that CodeNEXT is a work in progress. He would not vote for it as it is now. The City has challenges: mobility; escalating demolitions; affordability; flooding; permitting; nothing in CodeNEXT regarding bringing failing infrastructure up to date in order to handle the proposed density. He also mentioned hindrances to increasing density, such as restrictions on building two duplexes next to each other if two lots are owned by the same owner. A lack of density inhibits mobility. This is a chicken and the egg issue. You have to have the density first in order to support transit. Need to use all tools to help solve these problems. Adler agrees the McMansion regulations need to be “fixed” in CodeNEXT.

There was brief discussion of the Austin League of Women Voters’ Action Alert regarding changes they see in 2.0 that need to be addressed concerning the legality of some CodeNEXT proposals. Adler had not yet reviewed the document in detail and was unable to comment. Tovo had not had an opportunity to give it a thorough reading either.

Tovo stated that the increase in two vs. three units per lot does not result in affordable housing or an increase in the number of children living within the urban core. Just a couple of her additional concerns are the reduced compatibility, the proposed administrative approval of CUPs and MUPs without notification of, or public input from the affected parties.

Items Adler and Tovo like, do not like, or would change about CodeNEXT: Adler believes CodeNEXT will provide greater flood protection because it requires new development and remodeled developments to not only take care of their own run-off, but to catch the run-off from older developments above the new development. He likes the flexible lot sizes; he does believe that neighborhoods should have more say in the transition from the corridors into the neighborhoods. CodeNEXT does a better job of incentives to reduce demolitions. He stated that CodeNEXT does a better job on density bonuses.

Morrison asked for clarification from the Mayor regarding whether he considers going from two units to three units an up-zoning. Adler’s response was that it is a major change. Going from two units to three units can be an increase in units, but not an increase in scale. He is not in favor of blanket R3 zoning being applied.

Kathie Tovo likes the water capture/drainage mitigation aspect of the new code and believes it will help with flooding due to infill; she likes density bonuses but the program needs tweaks.

There is a discussion of the state law that does not allow cities like Austin to require affordable housing as a condition for approval of new development or granting up-zonings. This leaves the City with no option but to add incentives via community benefits, which can include providing affordable housing on-site or paying a fee-in-lieu for same.

Tovo feels that on-site affordable housing should be required in the community benefit tool kit when an up-zoning is requested. However, CodeNEXT allows fees-in-lieu and Tovo is opposed to granting fees-in-lieu because it doesn’t keep the affordable housing within the neighborhood where it is displacing existing affordable housing. On the issue of increasing residential zoning from two units to three units per lot, the neighborhood plan should be followed.

Addressing the question of the ERC’s density bonus program failing to provide affordable housing as projected, and resulting instead in increasing the demolition of existing affordable and “missing middle” housing and replacing it with new and/or remodeled, unaffordable units, Tovo indicated that increased entitlements by right should not be permitted without community benefits tied to the entitlements. She stated that this is true of R3C zoning also.

The question was raised of how Main Street zoning will impact South Congress because the new zoning will allow Level 1 and Level 2 bars to be built next to single-family residences. Under CodeNEXT, these bars will be administratively approved. Is the intent to turn South Congress into another Rainey Street entertainment district?

The Mayor is not sure how Main Street zoning and administrative approval of Level 1 and Level 2 bars will impact neighborhoods. He has received conflicting answers. He believes that bars should probably not be allowed next to residences.

Tovo agrees and states that it is important that South Congress retain a mix of businesses and should not become another Rainey Street. Allowing administrative approval for L-1 and L-2 zoning needs to be looked at. The Austin League of Women Voters’ Action Alert captures the public input issues and should be carefully reviewed. Tovo believes that doing away with the public process concerning the granting of CUPs and MUPs is wrong.

Adler expects these issues to continue to evolve: public process vs. administrative approval trade-offs—there are advantages to the public process, however, administrative approval can streamline the permitting process making remodeling, for example, less expensive and take less time to get approvals. The parameters of administrative approval should be narrowed.

Adler also stated that fees-in-lieu should be cost neutral. Current density bonus programs are not working. He disagrees with putting all density bonus housing clustered in one area. He does prefer to get the most affordable units for the money. If there is a choice in providing more density bonus housing off-site, depending on how far away the housing would be from the development, he would choose the off-site location. Adler was unable to explain what he considered to be close proximity. Fees-in-lieu should be required to match the cost of building and maintaining the on-site affordable units.

Morrison pointed out that there is no transparency in the number of how many affordable units should be required.

Adler responded that the numbers should speak for themselves and should be transparent; staff is unable to do that; the City needs to hire someone, perhaps an economist—not tied to developers—who can figure that out; the figures should be regularly updated.

Tovo stated that the figures should be transparent. Contrary to many developers’ and staff’s assertions, density itself is not a community benefit and it should stop being considered part of the bonus equation. Affordable units should be tracked by the City. The changes in District 9 have not resulted in additional affordable housing—demolitions have increased, removing “missing middle” housing and replacing it with upscale unaffordable housing.

The Mayor admits that the rezoning could make matters worse in the affected neighborhoods, but the City needs to ensure that the new regulations and rezoning are done right.

In response to the question of how can you rationalize reducing parking without making transit a high priority, Tovo replied that she supports a light rail system for corridors that would probably increase density enough to support transit. Increasing the density along the corridors needs to be done in a way that it can co-exist with existing neighborhoods.

Adler agrees. CodeNEXT allows residential alongside commercial which he likes. Adding transit first or adding sufficient density to get transit is the egg and the chicken question. Which should come first? Transit must have density. The bus system could be re-aligned and there’s the time factor. New technology can be utilized, such as the Chariot buses, and other small buses.

Regarding draft 2.0, will you support adding more residential to the commercial along corridors?

Adler responded that he supports adding more community benefits to increase the residential component along corridors. Economic questions need to be considered.

Tovo agreed, adding that community benefits need to be attached to increasing affordable units.

Regarding water infrastructure, impervious cover limits are the same in the current Land Dev. Code as in the new code. Upgrades are expensive. Impervious cover needs to be looked at.

Tovo believes that more impervious cover will be added due to build-outs. New housing on existing lots will probably max-out the impervious cover on those lots where the demolished housing had less impervious cover than allowed. This is what has been happening in older neighborhoods.

When will localized flooding be addressed in the mapping process?

Tovo has asked for that data but has not received an answer.

Adler stated that the data has been requested and the data will be forthcoming.

The time to comment on the text and mapping is running out, and there are still no comparison tools reflecting the changes between the first and second drafts. How do you feel about the timing?

Adler’s position is that we need to get this done. Council will not vote on anything in April if it is not right. We need to see the third draft and the Planning Commission and Zoning & Platting’s recommendations. I think that there will be more than two weeks for review; it will be presented to Council for three months before a vote.

Tovo is concerned about the timing. The council members, boards and commissions, and staff are struggling to keep up with the changes. Tovo will advocate for more time if it is needed. Regarding the contract amendments, she indicated the need to make sure to get overviews of changes from the staff. She also stated that it was important to get the Q&A of questions from council members to the staff and consultants and their responses on-line as quickly as possible. She is hoping that questions that were asked in May will soon be answered.

The South Central Waterfront overlay compatibility standards are better and more restrictive than those proposed by CodeNEXT. Will CodeNEXT replace the compatibility standards of the South Central Waterfront plan?

Adler is not familiar with the South Central Waterfront plan. But, regarding compatibility, it does change. It no longer has a 500 ft. setback; it is now a 100 ft. setback, but it does require buffering. It increases the types of property that trigger compatibility. Compatibility needs to be viewed in context.

McGraw confirms that CodeNEXT allows a 100 ft. building within 100 ft. of a residence.

Morrison asks about changing compatibility standards, allowing a building that close to residential, couldn’t that be considered an increased entitlement?

Adler stated that he is open to anything regarding community benefits.

Tovo stated that she is not familiar with the compatibility standards of the South Central Waterfront overlay either. Regarding the changes in compatibility standards, some make sense, but CodeNEXT does reduce compatibility standards. Context is important. She couldn’t provide an answer right now. The changes to compatibility standards have not been covered in detail yet.

Neighborhood plans are part of Imagine Austin. Is CodeNEXT going to be consistent with the Neighborhood Plans?

Adler stated that neighborhood plans have to be part of CodeNEXT. The reading of Imagine Austin is open to different interpretations. Many things can be pulled from them. This is not a black and white issue, but neighborhood plans are critically important.

Tovo added that CodeNEXT does not incorporate much of the neighborhood plans. There is a misalignment of CodeNEXT to neighborhood plans and Imagine Austin. CodeNEXT should be guided by Imagine Austin and it is not. CodeNEXT is market-driven rather than guided by Imagine Austin.

Notes prepared by Toni House


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