Sparks Fly As CodeNext Zoning Rewrite Enters Second Year

CodeNext, Austin’s wholesale reform of zoning laws, enters its second year with competing input on what development rules should change, and even how the rewrite process itself should happen.

As expected, the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) is proposing a “clean slate” approach that overturns almost all existing rules, with the intent of making development in Austin much easier. Opposing RECA is the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC), which has urged that the process slow down, and that important decisions be made by the new 10-1 City Council starting in 2015.

In between are various groups and agendas: advocates for family-friendly housing, affordability, environment, and public space.

Real Estate Industry – Let’s Go!

The Real Estate Council (RECA) has pushed for the most transformative changes. A RECA working group on January 28 proposed the following:

  • Scrap the existing zoning regulations, start from a fresh slate
  • Scrap the McMansion ordinance
  • Scrap the Commercial Design Standards – Vertical Mixed Use ordinance (applies to most properties along Burnet, Lamar, other commercial streets)
  • Scrap minimum lot size requirements, including for residential lots
  • Scrap the conditional use permit requirement for bars, which allows special requirements to be placed on the bar’s operations
  • Reduce the distance from single-family housing that triggers compatibility setbacks (currently 540’)
  • Change the Heritage Tree ordinance to allow removal of large trees in return for new plantings at other locations (assumes equivalent value)
  • Introduce standard rules for flag-lot development
  • New subdivision zoning rules (mainly used in the suburbs) should require different levels of connectivity and environmental protection than zoning rules for urban areas
  • Simplify rules for building duplexes
  • Define height limits by number of stories, not linear feet

The working group suggested a more aggressive density program is required. “Redevelopment and density are needed not only in Imagine Austin centers and corridors; it has been predicted that the current growth concept map will only account for one-third of Austin’s projected growth.”

The working group identified “NIMBY ways of thinking” as a key obstacle to achieving the City’s goals. It said the Little Woodrow’s bar rezoning on Burnet Rd was an example where testimony from angry residents threatened a project that others in the community supported.

Neighborhoods – Not Impressed

The rhetoric from RECA has served as a rallying cry for Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) activists. ANC President Mary Ingle said ANC is seeking a slow-down of the CodeNext process to address procedural flaws, and also wants major CodeNext decisions to be postponed until the new 10-1 City Council convenes in 2015.

Ingle said the ANC Land Development Code subcommittee in late February identified several flaws with the CodeNext community character feedback process, whereby people can send photos describing their neighborhood. A particular concern is how the photographs are interpreted. Someone can submit a photograph to illustrate something they don’t like, and it might be interpreted as something they do like.

Other feedback: Some neighborhood activists say the ‘Community Character’ feedback process focuses on physical attributes, and not on the mix of people by age and income who define a neighborhood. Other activists have said rezoning of single family homes to duplexes or fourplexes will exacerbate affordability in the short-term, because the new properties will be more expensive than the existing, older properties.


Meanwhile, a separate (and less combative) proposal from the affordable housing non-profit HousingWorks and RECA would allow granny flats (accessory dwelling units) on residential lots. HousingWorks Austin’s Mandy De Mayo and RECA’s policy chair Melissa Neslund say the proposal is necessary to achieve affordable housing in Austin’s core. They also favor reducing minimum lot sizes and streamlining the site plan review process. Both De Mayo and Neslund serve on the CodeNext Advisory Task Force.

The granny flat and reduced lot proposals, if applied to all single-family properties, would appear to contradict an Imagine Austin principle that infill housing should be located near transit.

The “build near transit” principle is explained in (yet another) proposal, this one by the North Austin community group Sustainable Neighborhoods (SN). The SN white paper “Achieving Child-Friendly Development in Austin’s Early Suburbs” acknowledges the (long-term) affordability benefit of granny flats, duplexes and other middle-density housing products. Such housing is also less likely than big apartments to exclude families. But SN’s president, Steven Zettner, said he has not yet received answers from staff on likely challenges, including construction quality and maintenance, rapid tenant turnover, or enforcement of the “build near transit” principle that could protect the character of existing residential neighborhoods. CodeNext Project Manager George Zapalac said such concerns may be discussed later in the process.

Mary Rudig, editor of the North Austin Community Newsletter, in the March edition pointed readers to a similar zoning reform effort, ‘EcoDensity’, that took place in Vancouver in 2006-2008. Most of the issues emerging in CodeNext arose in Vancouver. Proponents argued that increased density would improve affordability, in particular by making a wider range of housing choices available so that people can buy or rent just what they need. Also in Vancouver, prominent urban planners like Bill Rees applied the term ‘NIMBY’ to delegitimize opposition as “concerns from a very selfish point of view.”

Critics say the EcoDensity effort has not improved affordability in the short-term, and whitewashed the legitimate concerns of residents. Wendy Sarkissian, an Australian planner and consultant who reviewed EcoDensity in 2014, said:

“What people feared was not density but overcrowding. Community concerns focused on problems associated with very dense neighbourhoods and what was coined “green overcrowding” (density without amenity). The policy was seen as greenwashing of developers’ agenda. Critics were concerned that EcoDensity would sacrifice liveability and that led to anxiety and open protests in a number of neighbourhoods.”

Read the full report of the RECA CodeNext working group

Read HousingWorks/RECA proposal

Read the SN white paper on Child-Friendly Development in Austin’s Early Suburbs

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