Blog

We need a walkable Land Development Code. Here’s how we can get it.

We all want Austin to be affordable, diverse, equitable, beautiful, sustainable, sociable, accessible, and walkable and for this a first-class Land Development Code (LDC) is essential. For decades, despite the quality of many of its older neighborhoods, Austin’s existing code has produced dull, unwalkable, and unsustainable suburban sprawl produced by an increasingly consolidated corporate development culture.

It’s time to chart a new course.

The recently-released draft LDC is a significant improvement over Austin’s current code. Highlights include allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) citywide, reducing parking minimum requirements near transit lines, and introducing missing middle housing to many areas. These and many other changes are important steps toward a better, more walkable Austin.

However, the draft code must go much further before it can align with the goals of Imagine Austin, the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, and other key plans to adequately address the challenges and opportunities we face now and in the years to come. Walkability is key to, and reflective of, a sustainable, just, sociable, and happy Austin and our code should deeply enshrine walkability in every aspect.

To those ends, Walk Austin proposes the below amendments to the draft LDC. (A PDF version of the below includes additional information in footnotes.)

As always, we’d love to hear what you think. Contact us and let us know.

Summary of recommendations

A. Pedestrian accessibility and comfort

  1. Create more small neighborhood commercial zones
  2. Incentivize better pedestrian and bicycling connectivity through properties
  3. Require that buildings be pedestrian-accessible from the street
  4. Encourage building features, such as awnings and sittable spaces, on commercial streets
  5. Ban new gated subdivisions and encourage existing subdivisions to be integrated into the public street network
  6. Discourage lot consolidations and large, block-long development
  7. Create an urban growth boundary around Austin and ensure development be infill-oriented

B. Sociability-enhancing development

  1. Prioritize and incentivize socially-oriented housing
  2. Incentivize public spaces to be created as part of new developments
  3. Remove setback requirements between buildings and streets in residential and main street zones
  4. Eliminate or greatly decrease minimum residential lot sizes

C. Parking

  1. Eliminate parking minimum requirements citywide
  2. Encourage existing parking to be converted into other uses
  3. Address missing sidewalks with sidewalks, not with more parking
  4. Eliminate Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as a tool or require that parking in buildings count toward FAR
  5. Don’t downscale proposed developments because of road capacity concerns

D. Community-rooted and equitable development

  1. Incentivize community participation in development from the start
  2. Apply the LDC to all neighborhoods

Recommendations in detail

A. Pedestrian accessibility and comfort

1. Create more small neighborhood commercial zones

Small neighborhood commercial centers such as Duval & 43rd Street (pictured) and W Lynn & 12th Street, some of Austin’s favorite places, place daily needs within walking distance and establish focal points that give communities a shared identity. In contrast with longer arterial-based commercial corridors, these smaller commercial crossroads often adapt more harmoniously to neighborhood character, function better as centers of community, and more effectively enhance walkability.

All Austinites should live a 10 minute walk from such places and the new LDC should allow them throughout the City.

2. Incentivize better pedestrian and bicycling connectivity through properties

Large areas of Austin are planned around unwalkable suburban collector networks, long blocks, and large lots, requiring people on foot to take circuitous paths to their destination. To address this issue, the LDC should:

  • Incentivize developers and property owners to provide easements for access for public mixed-use paths across/through strategically-located properties
  • Require developers to create public paths/paseos through developments larger than 500ft wide
  • Cap maximum block lengths without public paths/paseos at 250 ft, a reasonable walking distance

3. Require that buildings be pedestrian-accessible from the street

Relationships between buildings and streets fundamentally influence relationships between people. Therefore, the LDC should ensure that buildings and sidewalks are well-connected by:

  • Requiring building entrances to be street-facing and, where possible, sidewalk-level
  • Prohibiting parking between streets and building entrances
  • Banning new drive-through businesses; if they are allowed to be built, they must be pedestrian/ wheelchair-accessible

4. Encourage building features, such as awnings and sittable spaces, on commercial streets

A vibrant, comfortable pedestrian realm on commercial streets has always depended on a symbiotic relationship with buildings through features such as awnings, arcades, and built-in sittable spaces. Austin’s LDC should strongly encourage these elements in commercial buildings that abut the sidewalk.

5. Ban new gated subdivisions and encourage existing subdivisions to be integrated into the public street network

Not only do gated subdivisions “shrink the notion of civic engagement and allow residents to retreat from civic responsibility” , by removing streets from the public street network such developments increase travel distances and discourage walking. Austin should follow cities such as San Francisco and ban gated subdivisions. Furthermore, owners of existing gated subdivisions should be incentivized to remove gates and transfer streets from private to public ownership.

6. Discourage lot consolidations and large, block-long developments

Development in Austin has become increasingly massive with many new buildings consuming multiple lots and even spanning entire blocks, producing an unwelcoming, coarse-grained environment that discourages walking, shuts out local small-scale developers, concentrates land in the hands of fewer wealthier players, and prevents the business diversity that arises from differently-ages buildings.

Without reducing overall potential housing capacity and with the exception of consolidating a small number of tiny lots to create missing middle housing, the LDC should discourage lot consolidations and large, block-long developments.

7. Create an urban growth boundary around Austin and ensure development be infill-oriented

Low-density sprawl around Austin has already consumed large areas of countryside, reducing agricultural capacity and ecological health and forcing people to drive long distances to reach downtown jobs. Dense development in Austin’s outer regions and beyond would still perpetuate many of these problems. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, Austin should focus on infill development and cease extending development into the countryside.

The LDC should create an urban growth boundary (UGB) around existing development, commit to ending annexations beyond city limits, and zone currently undeveloped countryside in city limits as undevelopable until a defined density threshold has been reached inside the UGB.

B. Sociability-enhancing development

1. Prioritize and incentivize socially-oriented housing

Housing policy shouldn’t just concern numbers of units but also quality of life, beginning with the deepest human need: Social contact. Much of Austin’s current housing isolates people, whether buildings be single-family homes encircled by barely-used yards or denser apartment buildings that segregate people in units high above the ground and away from public space.

The LDC should prioritize and incentivize more socially-oriented development, such as row homes, courtyard cottages, shared fence-free backyards, and small ground-level front yards that typically accompany traditional row housing and apartment buildings.

2. Incentivize public spaces to be created as part of new developments

When accessed on foot, public spaces are overwhelmingly used by people within a 3 minute walk, suggesting that Austin needs many more of such places around the city. The LDC should reward developers of larger projects for creating new public spaces. While incentivizing park creation should continue, plazas and more compact socially-oriented spaces should also be encouraged.

3. Remove setback requirements between buildings & streets in residential & main street zones

Residential setback requirements are a twentieth-century relic with origins in exclusionary policies that exclude low income communities. The LDC should eliminate minimum setback requirements between residences and streets and establish zero-lot-lines as standard. Over time, this will produce well-framed, inviting, and more walkable streets and more sociable neighborhoods. Setbacks should only be imposed on a case by case basis to provide space for essential uses such as future sidewalks and to provide a buffer between planned sidewalks and high-speed roadways.

The draft LDC also requires setback minimums for Main Street zones, despite millennia of best practices from most commercial streets around the world, including 6th Street and South Congress in Austin. Business success is highly sensitive to distance from the sidewalk; the LDC should not mandate commercial setbacks.

4. Eliminate or greatly decrease minimum residential lot sizes

Minimum residential lot sizes reduce affordability, limit access to property-ownership for lower-income households, and reduce walkability and sociability by spreading people more thinly across land. The draft LDC’s minimum lot size reduction from 5,750 to 5,000 sq ft is an improvement but would still represent a significant barrier to home ownership for lower income households.

Minimum lot sizes serve no good purpose and the LDC should eliminate them, as Bastrop has done in its new LDC. If such requirements persist, we recommend allowing lots to be as narrow as 12-25’, a traditional row house’s width.

C. Parking requirements

1. Eliminate parking minimum requirements citywide

Parking minimum requirements are an increasingly discredited policy tool that reduces mobility options; decreases housing supply; increases costs across a plethora of areas including housing, goods, and costs of doing business; and damages the environment. Austinites should not be forced to create parking if they cannot or do not want to drive. Austin should join a growing number of cities and eliminate parking minimum requirements.

2. Encourage existing parking to be converted into other uses

For existing parking that exceeds requirements under the new LDC, property owners should be incentivized to convert such parking to other uses.

3. Address missing sidewalks with sidewalks, not with more parking

The draft LDC requires onsite parking where a property within a ¼ mile of certain centers / transportation corridors is on the medium or lower-priority sidewalk network or if the property is on the high or very-high sidewalk network but lacks adequate sidewalks. However, the solution to poor pedestrian infrastructure is good pedestrian infrastructure, not more space for cars.

No development within this ¼ mile, no matter where it sits on the sidewalk network, should be forced to create more parking. Instead, development on streets lacking adequate sidewalks should have the option to pay a fee-in-lieu toward sidewalk construction or to install sidewalks, either using traditional raised sidewalks along the property line or, where appropriate, less expensive street-level, barrier-protected sidewalks could be installed on streets with lower traffic volumes and speeds. Developers on these streets could be required to use this cheaper design to create longer stretches of sidewalk beyond the lot width that could connect to the existing pedestrian infrastructure network.

4. Eliminate Floor Area Ratio (FAR) or require that parking in buildings count toward FAR

Excluding parking from FAR calculations disincentivizes travel modes such as walking, undercuts the aim behind removing parking minimum requirements downtown, and increases strain upon the street network. Downtown in particular is now bloated with unsightly parking podiums and a vast amount of parking.

While for several key reasons the FAR requirement should ideally be eliminated altogether, the LDC should at least ensure that parking in buildings count towards FAR calculations. Furthermore, density bonuses should be offered to encourage space to be used for housing rather than parking.

5. Don’t downscale proposed developments because of road capacity concerns

The draft LDC allows ATD’s Director to mandate that a proposed development be downscaled if the street/area in question would have insufficient capacity to handle the new traffic. This is the wrong solution to density and should be removed from the final LDC. Instead, larger developments’ impact on local street networks should be addressed by minimizing car-dependency through reducing parking requirements (if they exist); by applying Traffic Demand Management-style requirements, such as pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure and free/discounted transit passes; and by using Vehicle Miles Traveled rather than Transportation Impact Analysis as an analysis framework.

D. Community-rooted and equitable development

1. Incentivize community participation in development from the start

A growing proportion of the public has become disenchanted with modern development, feeling that it is too often ugly and out of place, lacking any kind of regional flavor, and that development is done “to the community” with only limited public input. This problem poses major challenges in creating buildings, places, and a city that reflects people’s daily well-being needs and risks inflaming public opposition to further development.

The LDC should incentivize developers work with communities from the beginning, before any plans have been made, on co-creating new developments with the developer acting as facilitator to gauge the community’s wishes in regard to building use, design, scale, materials, and other elements.

2. Apply the LDC to all neighborhoods

An LDC rooted in equity and committed to addressing Austin’s present and future challenges and opportunities cannot cherry-pick neighborhoods to be included or exempt from the new code. The LDC must apply to all neighborhoods.


See here for a PDF version of the above, addressed to Austin City Council, containing more information in footnotes.

We’d love to hear what you think of the above recommendations. Contact us here.

Read more

PARK(ing) Day 2019: Public Space… More Than Car Storage

Walking around most places, you’d think the purpose of public space is for automobiles, not people. Look at how much of our streets are given to storing cars versus providing social spaces, a basic human need, for people.

And yet, all that is a recent phenomenon. Until recently, public space was for everybody, not mainly for users of one transportation mode, and the public realm served a crucial role as a place for social exchange. Today, little social exchange happens in public space; most streets are civically dead.

PARK(ing) Day challenges this status quo by showing that public space, so much of it used for storing cars, can be used for anything: Public seating, bocce courts, artist galleries, information booths, cafes, drinking fountains, pocket parks, street vendors, and a million other uses. Yes, we need to accommodate cars appropriately but perhaps going as far as we have for cars is not the optimum use of public space.

For this year’s PARK(ing) Day on September 20th, Walk Austin and Bike Austin partnered on a space on Congress Avenue at 7th Street outside the Austin Contemporary. We wanted something fun, inviting, and quick and easy to do for people with little time to spare and one solution immediately stood up: Mini golf!

People of all kinds and all ages stopped by throughout the day to enjoy a few minutes on our 3-hole course. Those who completed two or more holes were treated to one of our homemade cookies! What was usually a dead space for storing two cars became a vibrant, fun place where people wanted to be, showing just what public space can be when we get our priorities right.

And plenty of other groups created their own spaces for the day…

That said, while there were some great installations, participation was down from 2018. Last year, the City of Austin allocated more resources to promote PARK(ing) Day and encourage people to participate; the strategy worked and participation was way up from 2017. Without that level of commitment from the City in 2019, fewer people got involved, showing that heavy lifting is still required to get PARK(ing) Day to a critical mass level where participation happens organically.

But imagine PARK(ing) Day next year if the City, the public, and the advocacy community all get serious about this opportunity to promote and enrich public space. Blocks of downtown could become bustling, vibrant community spaces for the day; school kids could make a project out of it and parents could come down for the afternoon; there could be art classes, dance lessons, karaoke, even bigger mini golf courses, and hammocks; organizations could share what they’ve been up to and connect with new members of the public. The result would be an electrifying return to public space, prompting conversation about how we could make longer term improvements.

At a time of widespread social alienation through decades of poor land use and transportation policies that distance people from each other, PARK(ing) Day could be a powerful way to kickstart a reevaluation of public space as the civic crucible of society. Next year, let’s shoot for the sky.

Read more

Our Shoal Creek campaign declares victory!

After several years of rallying the community, Walk Austin and Bike Austin are thrilled to announce that our grassroots campaign for better walking and bicycling on Shoal Creek Boulevard has succeeded!

On Friday, the City of Austin announced the final designs for Shoal Creek and they include:

  • 12 new pedestrian crossings
  • Improvements to numerous existing crossings, including slip lane closures
  • Several stretches of sidewalk improvements
  • A two-way protected bicycle lane between 38th St and Foster Ln
  • One-way protected bicycle lanes between Foster Ln and Hwy 183
  • Numerous protected intersections

Find out more about the full list of improvements here.

For a list of project updates, including implementation, see here.

Having collected support for safer mobility on Shoal Creek from more than 3,000 residents, over 120 local businesses within a mile of Shoal Creek, and over 10 community organizations in the local area, Walk Austin and Bike Austin and our thousands of supporters thank the City of Austin for making the right decision on this critical transportation corridor. We look forward to seeing these plans implemented in the near future and most importantly to seeing more people, especially vulnerable road users, walk and bike along Shoal Creek and across Austin.

And, of course, a huge thank you to our many volunteers and supporters whose hard work helped make this victory happen. We truly appreciate all the help you gave. This success is yours…

Read more

Speak up for better walking and bicycling on Shoal Creek at 3/26, 3,28, 3/30 Open Houses

Shoal Creek Boulevard, between 38th Street and Highway 183, is an important walking and bicycling corridor between north and central Austin. With its gentle curves, plentiful trees, trails, and creekside parkland the street is a prime walking area, not to mention an important arterial for people on bicycles.

However, Shoal Creek could be so much better. There are too few crosswalks, pedestrians often have to contend with turning vehicles when crossing the street, utilities often block the sidewalk, and there are few benches and gathering spaces.

That’s why Walk Austin is collaborating with Bike Austin to push for pedestrian and bicycling improvements on Shoal Creek Boulevard to make this a true Austin gem for people of all ages and abilities.

The pedestrian-related improvements Walk Austin is pushing for on Shoal Creek include the following:

  • Widen, where possible, and improve sidewalk surfaces
  • New marked pedestrian crossings where there is a current lack of crossings
  • Relocate sidewalk-obstructing utilities
  • Mid-crosswalk “State Law: Yield to Pedestrian” signs
  • More benches and public restrooms
  • Protected bicycle lanes (would improve pedestrian safety)
  • Landscaped buffer or rain garden between the protected bicycle lane and a sidewalk, if space allows, while retaining the existing curb lines
  • Lead Pedestrian Intervals (LPI) at 45th St, Anderson Lane, and at Steck Ave
  • A pedestrian underpass at Allandale Rd / 2222
  • Improve the pedestrian connection to Northwest Rec Center
  • Lower roadway speed design from Foster to Steck Ave by reducing travel lanes from 5 to 3 and ensuring lane widths are no wider than 11′
  • Create a safer crossing under Highway 183 with fewer roadway crossings
A possible pedestrian-bicycle underpass at Allandale Rd / 2222
A possible Shoal Creek Blvd, north of Foster Lane

Imagine a Shoal Creek one day bustling with children and the elderly, people walking to work or walking the dog, friends and neighbors stopping to catch up, and folks learning to ride their bicycles alongside seasoned riders. This beautiful, thriving Shoal Creek is within our grasp if we unite to push for it. Explore more possibilities for walking and bicycling improvements in the Shoal Creek Conservancy‘s Shoal Creek Vision To Action Plan.

However, this inspiring vision goes even further. A better Shoal Creek would also make possible The Big Loop, a proposed 30-mile hike-bike loop that would encircle much of Austin north of Lady Bird Lake and would include the existing South Walnut Creek Trail and Walnut Creek Trail, integrating them all into a stunning new facility for all Austinites and beyond. And the Big Loop can only happen if we succeed on Shoal Creek.

With your help, these inspiring visions could be around the corner. On March 26th, 28th, and 30th, the City of Austin will host three Open House events to present design alternatives for better walking and bicycling on Shoal Creek Boulevard. We need you to attend an open house event with the message “I want better pedestrian facilities and protected bicycle lanes on Shoal Creek”. You won’t have to speak, just write your thoughts down. The City will base its decision on this community feedback so please attend one event.

Thank you in advance for supporting this important project.

Read more

Join us at the World Day of Remembrance – November 18th

On Sunday November 19th the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims vigil takes place here in Austin. Walk Austin will be a participating organization. This annual global event remembers those killed in traffic crashes. In Texas, 3,721 people were killed in the past year. In Austin alone, 68 people have died in 2018; roughly 2/3 of fatalities were on TxDOT-owned roads. This is an unimaginable amount of tragedy and suffering that warrants immediate action.

A big turn out to the event will send a powerful message to local and state governments to address the urgent issue of traffic deaths on our streets. Your presence will help save lives.

Official event webpage: http://visionzerotexas.org/vigil/

Schedule (full event information)

Sunday November 18th 2018

  • 5pm: Introductory speeches at the plaza outside Austin City Hall (NW corner of Cesar Chavez & Lavaca)
  • 5:25pm: Memorial walk to the State Capitol
  • 6pm: Vigil at the South Steps of the Texas Capitol

Speakers: Texas Representative Celia Israel; Commissioner Jeff Travillion, Travis County; Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, City of Austin; Jay Blazek Crossley, Vision Zero Texas; Katie Deolloz, Bike Austin; Kathy Sokolic, Central Texas Families for Safe Streets.

Social media links

Read more

Walk Austin Endorses 2018 Bond Election Propositions A-G, Opposes Proposition J

By Tom Wald, Walk Austin board member

The Walk Austin Board endorses all City of Austin 2018 Bond Election items, Propositions A through G. We especially support the transportation bond item, Proposition G, which includes funding for sidewalk maintenance, Vision Zero safety projects, and urban trails, among other transportation needs. We also oppose land-use policy Proposition J. Read more further below.

Early voting has started and continues through Friday, November 2nd. Election Day is Tuesday, November 6th. The local propositions will appear far down on the ballot, and you must select them individually, regardless of voting straight ticket. Further voting information is at the bottom of this page. We encourage all eligible Austin voters to vote for all 2018 Bond Propositions A-G, and to vote against Proposition J.

Walk Austin advocated for pedestrian funding throughout the 2018 Bond development process, helping to ensure funding was included in the final ballot going to voters. We worked with the Austin Pedestrian Advisory Council, Farm&City, other advocacy organizations, other pedestrian community leaders, and city staff to understand community needs and goals. The need for pedestrian infrastructure funding is huge, and seizing each opportunity toward meeting that goal is critical.

Walk Austin Board Member, Tom Wald (left), speaks in support of 2018 Bond sidewalk funding at Austin City Council, June 28th, 2018. Toilet paper serves as a prop for the long road ahead to complete Austin’s essential sidewalk network. Photo: Patricia Schaub, former Walk Austin board member.

Proposition G would fund transportation infrastructure projects, including the following key pedestrian funding needs:

Sidewalk Funding: The City of Austin Sidewalk Master Plan identifies $1.6 billion in needs for completing our sidewalk network and repairing existing sidewalks. Over the next eight years, the plan calls for $25 million/year for new sidewalks and $15 million/year for sidewalk maintenance and ADA-accessibility upgrades. Proposition G would provide funding toward the latter, $15MM/year needs.

Vision Zero Funding: The City of Austin Vision Zero Master Plan lays out the city’s goal of zero transportation fatalities and serious injury crashes by 2025. The plan includes transportation infrastructure improvements, enforcement, education, evaluation, and other methods for meeting that goal. Proposition G would provide funding for transportation infrastructure improvements for all travel modes, including pedestrian safety improvements such as pedestrian hybrid beacons (signalized midblock crossings), crossing median refuge islands, low-speed shared streets, and more.

Urban Trails: The City of Austin Urban Trails Master Plan describes a network of hundreds of miles of paved pedestrian and bicycle trails connecting far across the city. These trails are designed to meet both transportation and recreation needs. Proposition G would include funding for multiple trail segments, including a section of the Red Line Trail that would connect between multifamily housing, office towers near The Domain, Capital Metro MetroRail stations, the Shoal Creek Trail, the Northern Walnut Creek Trail, and the North MoPac Trail.

Oppose Proposition J: We oppose Proposition J, since it presents time delays and barriers to changing our auto-centric land development code. Our current land-use policy favors car mobility over walking and transit in myriad ways. Walkable neighborhoods provide access to amenities for everyone, including the young, old, and other non-drivers. Our city needs to increase walkability in our neighborhoods to build community, provide equitable access to daily needs and community spaces, and respond to our traffic problems and climate change.

We encourage all eligible Austin voters to vote for all 2018 Bond Propositions A-G, and to vote against Proposition J.

Further information

Walk Austin belongs to Austin Together, a coalition of local nonprofits and community leaders that support the bond propositions, Propositions A-G. More information.

The City of Austin 2018 Bond website

Austin American Statesman endorsement of Proposition G

Austin Chronicle endorsement of all bond items, Propositions A-G

Voting information for Travis County voters

KUT News Austin summary of voting information and links

Go for a walk

Read more

Walk Austin Collaborates To Bring PARK(ing) Day to Austin

By Heyden Walker, Walk Austin board member

On a Friday in mid-September, nearly 20 parking spaces along the streets of Austin became people spaces. Walk Austin teamed up with other local organizations to coordinate this tactical placemaking as part of International PARK(ing) Day, this year on Sept. 21.

The annual event’s mission – which has grown in popularity and scope since its inception in 2005 – is to raise awareness, through temporary, low-cost interventions, about the possibilities of rethinking how we use urban space. This year’s event brought thousands of people together in hundreds of cities around the world to turn single parking spaces into parklets for people to enjoy and congregate in.

Walk Austin was involved on several levels in bringing the movement to Austin’s streets. Board member Heyden Black Walker, of Black + Vernooy architecture and urban design, assisted with coordinating the 18 installations located throughout the city, with many in downtown. Activities and installations – put together by organizations as diverse as the Austin Parks Foundation and TBG Partners as well as motivated individuals – included giant chess, a canopy of green balloons, hopscotch, tic tac toe, hacky sack, street musicians and various food and drink offerings.

Walk Austin also partnered with the conservation nonprofit The Nature Conservancy Texas, the engineering firm Civilitude, the urban design and landscape architecture firm Asakura Robinson and the UT–Austin initiative Planet Texas 2050 to create “Parlor in the Park” at 316 Congress Ave. The installation featured a green astroturf carpet floor; comfortable, stylish chairs for relaxing; planters creating a streetside barrier from traffic lanes; and plenty of free goodies, including popsicles from GoodPop, tote bags, sunglasses, water bottles, stickers and more.

In addition, board members Adam Greenfield and Katie Deolloz helped organize installations and led two Walk Austin-organized walking tours of the downtown spaces.

We hope to expand PARK(ing) Day next year to encompass even more installations and organizations. Join us on Friday September 20, 2019.

We encourage you to think about putting together your own space and to support this grassroots effort to move the needle towards a walkable Austin!

Read more

Walk Austin’s recommendations for CodeNEXT v3

Austin’s built environment – its buildings, streets, and public spaces, and how they fit together – profoundly affects our lives. The way we move around the city, whether we know our neighbors, if we can walk for our daily needs, our physical and mental health – the built environment is the prime influence on these crucial aspects of life and our land development code dictates what form the built environment can take.

Through the CodeNEXT project, Austin is currently in the process of creating a new land development code to replace its old outdated, auto-centric, and confusing code. Recently, Walk Austin sent to City Council Members its recommendations for updating the current draft version 3 of CodeNEXT. What follows is an amended version of what we sent to Council. If you have any feedback on our recommendations, let us know.

We strongly support the vision of a compact and connected, and thus walkable, community set forth in Imagine Austin and encourage you to measure the code’s success by this standard. Creating safe and vibrant pedestrian spaces for all Austinites is an issue of equity, environmental sustainability, and quality of life. A new land development code should move us into a future where people can interact friends and strangers in public space and safely get to daily destinations on foot.

Austin has a strong legacy of supporting parks and trails, which are important public spaces. This code rewrite is an opportunity for us to open our eyes to the other public space all around us, our streets, and make them function for everyone. In order to meet this vision of an Austin for everyone – young and old, rich and poor, fully abled and disabled – we must build diverse walkable communities. Walk Austin appreciates the improved connectivity standards incorporated in draft 3, and we note that there are more important changes to make to realize the goal of a walkable Austin.

To that end, we recommend the following updates be made to the draft CodeNEXT document:

Add missing middle housing and ADUs throughout the city

The zoning maps need to allow for diverse housing types throughout the city to meet the housing needs of individuals and families of multiple income levels and needs. This should be accomplished by including Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in all zoning categories. Heavy Residential (3-6 units/ lot) should also be spread throughout the City. While these actions alone will not solve our affordability crisis, they will allow many more people to live in central neighborhoods near jobs and activities.

Strengthen Anti- McMansion Ordinance recommended by Planning Commission by removing FAR limitations when building multiple housing units

The Planning Commission recommended an anti-McMansion ordinance aimed at reducing the number of demolitions that would result in a larger single family home replacement and encouraging building of more modest sized housing for many. We fully support this aim. The Commission recommended restricting Floor Area Ratio (FAR) further than is called for in zoning if a demolition will result in a single home, but not if the demolished structure is replaced by multiple units. We recommend increasing this incentive by removing FAR entirely when the replacement is more than one dwelling unit.

Our city has many restrictions on building that are aimed at context sensitivity. Removing FAR for multiple dwelling units, while maintaining other restrictions such as impervious cover and height restrictions will increase housing supply while maintaining buildings that are context sensitive. Given all of the other restrictions, FAR is simply reducing the amount of housing that can be built and available to middle-income families.

Zone for commercial where people live

Walkable neighborhoods combine housing with commercial development such as restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops, banks, and childcare facilities. While we support the change from general commercial zoning to mixed use and main street zoning, the draft code and map must also encourage neighborhood level commercial development. We recommend adding additional main street zoning in interior or secondary neighborhood arterials. For example, along Speedway in Hyde Park and Emerald Forest in South Austin. These types of streets have transit, and would provide walkable access to neighborhood commercial. Main street zones also allow town houses as a use that should be encouraged in these locations. The current draft of the code leaves many residents living outside of a walkable distance of commercial development and daily needs.

Put additional housing and jobs near transit

Mapping needs a stronger connection between transit and density. A walk marks the beginning and end of most transit trips. The mapping needs to consider Capitol Metro’s new bus routes and especially Bus-Rapid Transit lines and future Project Connect transit lines, as well as corridors identified in Imagine Austin. Locations that have or will have high capacity transit should be zoned to incorporate more homes and businesses within a quarter mile. This means adding back in transition zones that would allow for 2-4 story attached dwelling units.

Remove Parking Minimums while retaining handicapped parking spaces

Removing parking minimums will allow the market to determine appropriate levels that take into account buildings near transit and active transportation, allowing for construction savings which in some cases can be passed on to residents. More cars parked on residential streets encourage slow driving, making streets safer for pedestrians. We certainly are sensitive to the need for handicapped parking to remain. CodeNEXT should retain the same number of handicapped parking spaces that would have been required under existing code. The City should also consider providing more public handicapped parking in urban areas.

Incorporate the Street Design Guide into the code

Understanding that the Draft Street Design Guide will be incorporated into technical criteria manuals governing how streets and roads are designed in Austin, Walk Austin recommends incorporating the prioritized hierarchy found in the current city documents. That hierarchy should be clearly stated in CodeNext, reflecting that pedestrians take highest priority on our streets and roads, with the order from highest to lowest priority as: pedestrian (1), transit (2), bike (3), automobile. Beyond that, Walk Austin agrees with recommendations made by the Pedestrian Advisory Council.

Design building standards for walkability and community building

There are several places the code can be improved to design walkable places: reduce setbacks, include active façade requirements, limit building footprints, and include building character standards

a. Reduce residential setbacks to no more than 15’ and remove setbacks requirements in commercial and mixed use zones

A symbiotic relationship between buildings and streets is crucial for lively, walkable, and economically strong neighborhoods. The most comprehensive study of front yard dimensions was conducted by architect Jan Gehl who concluded that 10.6’ was the optimum depth for allowing neighbors to connect while still providing sufficient space for yards to be useful and for houses to function as sanctuaries. Commercial buildings function best when they come right up to the sidewalk, creating an intimate, defined walking environment and making businesses most visible to passersby. In the case of a 0’ setback, either the building or a defined outdoor space (patio) should come up to the right of way.

b. Require active façades in commercial zones

Long blank walls in commercial areas prevent ground floors from acting as destinations that attract pedestrians and enliven streets. The current CodeNEXT draft includes a purely aesthetic articulated facade requirement. Instead, an active facade requirement in commercial zones, used in cities such as Melbourne and parts of Manhattan, should mandate features such as regularly occurring and recessed doors, visually permeable windows, awnings, arcades, and sittable window sills.

c. Limit building footprints by requiring buildings be built on a single lot

Most of Austin’s liveliest and most walkable areas, such as South Congress, 6th Street, and Guadalupe Street (“The Drag”), are characterized by compact, fine-grained development where each building occupies a relatively small amount of land. However, recent developments occupy entire, or even multiple, blocks. This raises shuts out small local developers, raises commercial rents, limits business diversity, and creates an unpleasant walking environment of monolithic buildings. Where large areas are slated for development, such as Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), master plan for the area, and divide the land into smaller lots to be developed by multiple parties. Any aggregation of lots must require publicly accessible pedestrian walkways or alleys between buildings where lot lines exist or previously existed.

d. Incentivize quality construction

Buildings made of local materials with quality construction practices possess local character and authenticity, last longer, create neighborhood pride, promote psychological well-being, and encourage walking. Many Austin residents feel strongly about neighborhood character, as reflected in the Community Character Manual published in 2014 and through repeated feedback during the CodeNEXT process, and are unhappy with the generic, low quality of recent development. We recommend initiating a post-CodeNEXT project to survey the character, materials, and construction techniques used in Austin’s historic buildings; survey the public on the types of buildings it wants to see; and investigate how to require or incentivize these preferences in new construction.

Read more