The Promises and Failures of CodeNext

On Tuesday April 18th 2017, the City of Austin along with Optico Design, the consulting firm hired for the rewrite, finally released the rezoning maps of Austin. Across the board people were confused, disappointed and just perplexed. What had been promised as a radical simplification and modernization of our code appeared to be a further complication of it with little substantial progress towards a more affordable and sustainable city.

Does it look simpler?

From 30,000 feet, the map looks, if anything, even more complicated. If we dive into a more granular view we can see the increasing complexity of the new zoning. Below is the rezoning of the neighborhoods north of UT, another complicated mess. Many of the neighborhoods in this view were built in a form based manner back in the early 20th century making the selective use of CodeNext even more baffling.

Rezoning of Heritage and North University

I will dive into what this map means on the ground level later, but for right now let’s say this is unacceptable work. We were promised a new, modernized, simplified code that would support the Imagine Austin goals, but they only delivered a new code. So let’s look at those goals, why getting it right matters and how we can start to get it right.

Imagine Austin Goals

The reason CodeNext is being written is so our zoning can support the Imagine Austin plan we passed in 2012. The Imagine Austin Core Principles for Action are :

  1. Grow as a compact, connected city
  2. Integrate nature into the city
  3. Provide paths to prosperity for all
  4. Develop as an affordable and healthy community
  5. Sustainably manage water, energy and other environmental resources
  6. Think creatively and work together

Unfortunately, I think the only one of theses goals that the current code and map achieve is integrating nature into the city. The only reason this is being achieved is we are not making many changes and we already have a lot of natural wonders in the city limits.

Why Getting It Right Matters

Austin is facing two dire issues right now: traffic and affordability. CodeNext is not the only tool but it is the best tool to address these issues. The main reason we needed to change from a use based code to a form based code is so we could have a lot more of this:

A subtle 4-plex

What appears to be a small single family home with a 2 story garage is in fact a 4-plex. This is the type of form appropriate housing that a form based code allows. These are a form of naturally affordable housing, even on a very desirable central Austin location. The higher property value burden is split between the four units. This is the “missing middle” form of housing everyone is raving about. CodeNext was supposed to be the vessel to legalize this type of slightly denser but totally consistent with the neighborhood housing. Something like this 8-plex:

Parking lot aside, a beautiful in-scale building.

This is the variety of slightly denser housing that should be allowed throughout all of the core of the city. We were promised that CodeNext would support these affordable, compact and connected types of housing options. So how did CodeNext deliver? Well here is the old map of the North University Neighborhood where these buildings are.

And here is the old:

Yep, everything to the right (east) of Guadalupe is untouched. Not a single change. When I asked the CodeNext team about this, they said rezoning historic neighborhoods was too difficult for them because of the other requirements in terms of appearance. Yes… you read that right, they said it was too difficult to rezone these neighborhoods which is why North University and Hyde Park are completely untouched. Heritage, which was not a historic neighborhood and is the neighborhood to the west of Guadalupe, was rezoned to various T4 transects which allows for these small multiplexes. So some of the most useful land in the heart of the city is being left completely untouched because it was too hard to deal with historic zoning. I think we can all agree that this is unacceptable. I am not advocating for a 20 story high rise in the middle of the neighborhood, but right now this one story Domino’s on 37th and Guadalupe will not be rezoned to allow for a more appropriate use of this prime location because figuring out the historic overlay was too difficult.

The Missing Middle is Still Missing

Here is a map by twitter user Michael Theis showing everywhere townhomes will be allowed.

We are not talking huge apartment buildings here, we are talking side by side homes which allow for greater density, lower cost but are still family friendly. In fact during their presentation about missing middle the consultants specifically used these townhomes as an example:

Row homes on Guadalupe.

The irony of this example? They specifically had to zone this lot separately from almost all the other parts of North Loop so it could exist. That means they are not encouraging this type of housing on any scale.

And this really gets to the core of what happened here. Opticos and the CodeNext team put preserving the physical character of the neighborhoods above preserving the characters in the neighborhood. The CodeNext Map Initial Presentation Meeting focused almost completely on preserving the look and feel of the neighborhoods instead of any of the other goals of affordability, sustainability or walkability they were charged with. This is not about putting up 20 story towers in North Loop, but it is about allowing a 3 story multiplex with a whole 8units on a main thoroughfare like Guadalupe. And maybe we let them build 12 units if they make 25% permanently affordable units. Until CodeNext addresses the goals of affordability, sustainability and walkability outlined in Imagine Austin the draft is unacceptable.

How to Fix the Maps

These are not all the fixes needed, but these are a baseline to get this effort to the D or C- range instead of the F the maps currently deserve.

Use the transect zones in the historic neighborhoods. Obviously this will require integrating preservation requirements with form based requirements, but that is what a multi-million dollar budget should fund. Until this is fixed and North University, Hyde Park and other historic neighborhoods are rezoned to transect zones, I don’t know why we even bothered to create this new code. Below is the map of areas rezoned to transect zones:

Some areas like West Campus or the Triangle are untouched because they have different PUDs that allow for higher density, but overall you can see how much of prime real estate is not being touched.

T4.MS Zoning on the major thoroughfares. Red River is not currently a walkable street, but it should be. It should be another main street for the community, yet in the new map large parts are being left as single family housing instead of allowing the variety of uses that we need on our major thoroughfares. This same issue can be seen throughout the entire city.

Equalize the changes between the East Side and the West Side. I hope it came as no surprise given the history of Austin’s zoning, but the maps came out very unbalanced.

Look how much the colors changed East of 35. The rezoning was intended to allow us to gently and naturally increase the density of Austin. In the end, we need places for all the newcomers to live, but it looks like we will continue the trend of the last two decades and make the East Side and the South Side shoulder all the burden of absorbing the new comers. Until the planners and consultants figure out how to equitably spread the new units between the two sides of the 35, the maps are unacceptable from an equality and equity standpoint.

To hammer in that last point, lets look back at that Dominos.

Too historic to rezone!

So this is getting to stay, some huge corporate chain in a generic 80s strip mall which is literally putting the Gattis right next door out of business.

Try the Tacos Dorados.

While the Los Altos Taqueria, one of the last affordable non-hipster Mexican joints in Cherrywood is getting rezoned to T4.MS. If we are trying to use CodeNext to create a more equal and just Austin, the current maps and their continuation of our history of discriminatory zoning is unacceptable.

What Happens If We Don’t Fix It

The code is complicated, the maps are confusing, and the fixes are hard so what if we just leave it all alone? What is the worst that can happen? Mopac won’t catch fire, companies won’t flee town, the weather won’t get muggier, but Austin will continue to get more expensive and we will lose the characters and the weird that actually makes Austin great. The cute small houses will be torn down and replaced with monstrosities for the super rich like this interesting $2.2 million house in Travis Heights.

We have until the beginning of July to fix this. So please provide the feedback on the maps, attend your district feedback session or just light twitter up with ways we can fix the maps in your neighborhood.