Utilizing CodeNext in Northern District 10

I was very disappointed by the limited use of the new transect zones in the CodeNext maps. The whole point of CodeNext’s transition to form based zoning is to build a better Austin. An Austin that is sustainable, affordable, and offers a better quality of life for the residents. Yet the vast majority of the city is going to keep the traditional use based zoning. I understand the reasoning behind not using it in some places, but there are many places we could use CodeNext to improve neighborhoods that are ignored by the current map.

I am not arguing here for radical changes to the cores of suburban neighborhoods, but we already have a mix of uses along highways and major streets. Why not use our new form based zoning to make walkable community hubs out of these areas? In order to show how this could work and make a better Austin, lets actually try using the transect zones north of the Arboretum in Northwest Austin.

Current Status

To begin with, this is what happened during the re-zoning:

Completely untouched as you can see. The problem is for all the housing in Great Hills/Northwest Hills/North Burnet Gateway, both the single family houses and the larger apartment complexes there is nothing walkable so people are forced into their cars to go everywhere. And even when someone drives their car to one of the stores they still have to drive to the next store even if it is across the street due to the traditional big box store layout.The main strip that we will be looking at is Jollyville, and it looks like this for the most part:

A five lane road with two slivers of a bike lane on the side, the zoning is half commercial half apartment complexes and a bit of single family houses on the north end. Here is the zoning of this specific intersection.

Interestingly there is a lot of apartment housing on the west side of Jollyville, and almost none on the east side. The east side also has an easy connection to the 183 access road. I think this would be the perfect opportunity to use a mix of transect zones to make help this neighborhood a better place to live. Lets take this section east of Jollyville.

A Plan

With the exception of that one spot of LDR,we could completely zone this area T4.MS or T5.* without displacing existing residents. This would allow for buildings to be constructed that could include a mix of commercial and residential. Those two zones are very different, neither is perfect for the area but a mix of the two would could create a really nice streetscape.

A potential new Jollyville

Picture having a better designed South Congress or Drag in Northwest Austin. The residents of those big apartment complexes would have a place that they could walk, residents in the suburban neighborhood could bike there, and families could hang out along Jollyville.

This part of town also has the advantage of being surrounded by many of the larger tech campuses. So demand for housing in the area is high, while property values are comparatively low. This allows us to create naturally affordable housing without having to subsidize it.

Which is one of the core issues with CodeNext as it stands, only applying CodeNext to the inner neighborhoods that are already very expensive can only produce small gains in affordable housing. We need to use CodeNext to produce better neighborhoods and housing throughout all of Austin to take advantage of cheaper real estate.

Concerns

Of course any changes come with concerns, but let us not shy away from challenges and address them for the benefit of Austin.

Traffic

Based upon the resistance to Austin Oaks, the major concern around new development is traffic. The strength of using CodeNext is that this type of development promotes walking over driving. So currently if you live in one of the big apartment buildings you have to drive everywhere, with more mixed used development people could actually walk on Jollyville. Heck, hanging out and walking down Jollyville could even become a thing like going to the Drag or South Congress is currently.

Heck, hanging out and walking down Jollyville could even become a thing like going to the Drag or South Congress is currently.

I can promise you that traffic will get worse along 183 if we don’t do this and I promise you traffic will get worse if we do it. Traffic will always get worse in Austin as long as it is a great place to live, the question is can we build neighborhoods that offer alternatives to driving everywhere and allow people to drive less?

Environmental Impact

The second issue is the environment. As almost all of this sits above the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, we need to make sure the development does not harm the quality of our drinking water. That being said Austin already has Water Quality Standards that address these issues so any new development would take that into account better than some of the existing businesses that were grandfathered in under looser standards. Already there are vast swaths of impervious cover that is very underutilized space in the form of car dealerships and huge parking lots, so we could do much of this construction without increasing (maybe even decreasing) impervious cover.

Secondly, some trees would inevitably need to be removed in rezoning this. We need to promote as many trees and as much shade along our streets as possible. Yet at the same time, saving a hundred trees but only allowing autocentric development is penny wise and pound foolish in terms of global warming.

Changing the Neighborhood Character

Finally, there is the change to the neighborhood that this would bring. Since almost all of this area is commercial and primarily massive corporate chains like Randalls, Petsmart and a Ford Dealership, I don’t think there is much logical objection to allowing them to be rebuilt as homes, offices and businesses of various sizes.

If we go further north along Jollyville we do get a few sections of low density residential. I would propose not zoning the area around them more than T4.MS to preserve their quality of life, but already those houses are surrounded by large commercial uses as shown below.

Next Steps

In the end this is just a rough sketch of a plan. A more granular look at these lots is needed to get the mix just right, but for the $6.2 million we are paying the CodeNext consultants I think they could take a drive down Jollyville. Additionally, this is certainly not the only place where we need to be more liberal with our use of CodeNext, this is just an example of one of the many parts of town that could benefit from CodeNext. By using it throughout Austin it would allow us to gently increase our density, provide housing close to job centers, and help transition Austin into a more walkable city.

This is also an example of a place that highlights the shortcomings of the CodeNext maps. Why was none of this rezoned? This is a major street, an area with good schools and cheaper land. A perfect place for CodeNext to be utilized. And a place I hope to see CodeNext utilized before the maps are approved by the city council.