“Make Austin’s Zoning Weirder” was one of the more unusual pleas during recent Planning Commission public hearings focused on the city’s land development code reform. The citizen at the podium, a marketing entrepreneur named Austin Talbert (who presented with his six-month-old son in his arms), used his allotted three minutes to illustrate several housing scenarios on single-family lots. All were illegal under the city’s current zoning laws. His premise was that the three- and four-unit configurations, cheerfully illustrated mashups of attached ADUs, row houses, and micro-duplexes, could offer more flexible and affordable housing options for everyone from seniors and teachers to musicians and artists. In doing so, he claimed, they could help preserve the diversity and creativity that are central to the city’s idea of itself.

Talbert’s appropriation of the famous “Keep Austin Weird” mantra was a refreshing frame of the issues at hand. Visual aids and compelling storytelling have been notably lacking in the fast-paced code revision process, where two entrenched camps dominate the debate. On the one hand are the density advocates, armed with their unit yield targets, data mapping tools, and transit corridor definitions. On the other are the neighborhood preservationists, both wealthy and working class, concerned with property tax increases, ill-scaled changes to neighborhood fabric, and increased congestion.

Vociferous disagreements can disguise the fact that there is common ground. General consensus exists that Austin’s 1984 land development code is a contributing factor to the malaise of escalating home prices and traffic gridlock. From a housing point of view, the code is effective at producing large single-family homes and multi-story apartment complexes, but not much in between. It is cumbersome to navigate, thanks to a maze of overlays, neighborhood plans, and ordinances that have been superimposed over three decades. And it has failed to produce development patterns that can support a robust public transit system, without which the city is falling short of its quality of life, equity, and climate goals.

The new draft code, released on October 4, 2019, is the latest attempt to respond to these concerns. It was authored mostly by city staff, following a contentious consultant-led effort called CodeNext. That process was eventually scrapped before council elections last year, five years after its launch. The current council, which has a pro-density majority and a clearer mandate than their predecessors, is eager to push through the reforms before another election year gets underway. 

Assuming the revised code passes in one form or another, one of the most significant changes for the architecture community will be increased opportunities for designing “missing middle” typologies — housing forms that, quite frankly, Austin architects have not had much practice with. “Missing middle” is a term coined in the last decade to describe multi-unit “house-scale” buildings such as triplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, and townhomes. These housing types were common in pre-war cities but were widely eliminated in zoning codes across the U.S. as auto-centric development took hold. Cities across the country are now championing them as desirable ways to achieve walkable infill development that is sensitive to existing neighborhood character. 

In Austin, single-family lots, which dominate the city’s land use map, will be rezoned to RR, LA, R1, R2, R3, R4, or RM1, depending on their proximity to transit corridors. These new zoning categories would allow, at a minimum, more flexibility in how two units can be developed on a lot (R2 zones). At the upper limit, six units will be permitted (RM1), with an affordability bonus allowing up to 10 if income-restricted units are provided. Other provisions will shape future development too. On-site parking minimums will be loosened considerably. A “Preservation Incentive” awards an additional unit of entitlement in return for retaining a structure more than 30 years old. 

It’s estimated the changes to residential house-scale and transition zones will add approximately 110,000 of the 400,000 units of additional housing capacity that city council set as the key benchmark of the new code (the rest will be realized in higher-density residential multi-unit and mixed-use zones). These “missing middle” homes are seen not only as a tool to expand housing supply, but also housing choice. In the more intensive R4 and RM1 “transition” zones (which make up 15 percent of single-family lots), the idea is that more units on a lot will result in smaller residences with lower costs per unit relative to current trends of one-to-one replacement of single-family homes. Critics worry, though, that it will accelerate displacement because of rising land values related to increased entitlements (current floor-area ratio [FAR] limits will be doubled in RM1 zones, for example). This is a major reason that the council directed staff to map transition zones less intensely where gentrification dynamics are most acute.

There are also modifications that would influence current development patterns on the 85 percent of single-family lots that would still only be able to develop two units by right (R2 zones). Minimum lot sizes have been incrementally reduced, from 5,750 sf to 5,000 sf. ADUs, capped at 1,100 sf, would be easier to build due to more flexible requirements and would require no parking. Duplexes, previously only allowed on lots larger than 7,000 sf, could be developed on all lots, and an onerous “common wall” requirement would be relaxed. And the Preservation Incentive would allow three units to be developed instead of two.

These R2 zoning changes would almost certainly increase supply over the current code. Whether they would increase housing choice, in the form of more affordable options, is murkier. In an effort to incentivize more than one house per lot, duplexes would be granted a 50 percent increase in FAR entitlements over existing zoning (from 0.4 to 0.6 of lot size), and FAR limits would be lifted altogether where the Preservation Incentive is used. These significant increases in developable floor area seem destined to further exacerbate Austin’s “large house” problem (approximately two-thirds of new homes built in Austin’s single-family neighborhoods are over 2,000 sf), a perplexing divergence from the council’s direction to make “housing affordability … the primary policy driver of code” and incentivize the “development of smaller houses on smaller lots.”

Of course, all of these new provisions may yet be recalibrated and revised after the public consultation period. One thing is clear: There is an urgent need for architects in Austin to engage constructively to make sure a sorely needed new code is the best it can be. AIA Austin’s Land Development Code Advocacy Task Force has made an important start here, with scenario testing and a list of proposed amendments for the council’s consideration. Many architects are active in their local neighborhood associations, which can submit alternative zoning maps that propose more context-sensitive ways to realize council directives. 

There’s more to be done. The critical difference high-quality design will make to the success of new infill development has gone largely unnoted in hearings and discussion. To this end, architects have an opportunity to capture the imagination of the public — including planning staff, politicians, and developers — making well-designed missing middle housing become a valuable part of Austin’s urban fabric. This could start with highlighting the numerous examples in Austin that were built prior to the current code, such as the cherished 1930s Calcasieu cottage courts. Some excellent recent examples exist in the Mueller PUD development too. Then there are best practices (as well as cautionary tales) to be gleaned from other cities’ experience, within the U.S. and abroad. Discourse needs to be nurtured through public debate and cohort groups, and recognition bestowed on those doing it right. Brent Toderian, a respected urbanist (and former chief planner of Vancouver B.C.), articulates it this way: “A lot of cities have not set up the culture, the structure, the capacity, the training, or the tools to deliver quality. So when NIMBYs express a fear of change over density, they’re often right. The conversation needs to be around quality city-making, so I talk about QIMBY … quality in my backyard.” 

Architects understand better than most how good growth and good design go hand in hand. Talbert’s campaign offers a template for communicating this message: appealing visual content; people-oriented; and rooted in Austin-specific identity and culture. Through exhibitions, online resources, publications, and civic dialogue, architects can help envision a future with a housing stock weirder than it is right now and thus more welcoming for people of all types, incomes, races, and ages who want to keep or make Austin home. 

Lucy Begg, AIA, is co-director of Thoughtbarn in Austin.

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