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the CodeNEXT project, Austin is currently in the process of creating a new land development code to replace its old outdated, auto-centric, and confusing code.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.