July 23, 2019

Austin's Land Development Code Revision

In 2012, the Austin City Council unanimously adopted Imagine Austin, the City’s 30-year comprehensive plan. Articulated in Imagine Austin is Austin’s vision to be:

A beacon of sustainability, social equity, and economic opportunity; where diversity and creativity are celebrated; where community needs and values are recognized; where leadership comes from its community members and where the necessities of life are affordable and accessible to all.

Let that sit for a little bit:  affordable and accessible to all

Today, Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation with a population growth expected to nearly double over the next 30 years. We must plan for the residents who live here now and for many new Austinites.

Building a Versatile Toolbox
Land development codes regulate where, how, and what may or may not be built, thereby shaping how our community evolves. Austin’s current Land Development Code was written more than 30 years ago, when the City’s population was half the size, and in a time when car transportation was prioritized. A separate analysis has determined that the current code is difficult to use, overly complex, inconsistent and compromises the character of Austin’s communities by working against Austin’s vision.

Austin is experiencing displacement, gentrification, traffic congestion, and an affordable housing challenge. A new land development code alone will not solve these long-standing issues. But, a new code in concert with complementary programs and services will help us build a versatile toolbox of resources to combat these challenges. 

In 2013, the City engaged the help of national and local experts to work with elected officials, staff, appointed representatives, and the community at large on how best to align the land use standards with Imagine Austin’s goals and vision. Dubbed CodeNEXT, the new land code went through three draft versions with each iteration receiving significant community feedback. However, after extensive discussion, the City Council ended the CodeNEXT process after determining that it was not a suitable mechanism to achieve its stated goals or to address the critical challenges currently facing our City.

New Information and Direction
The City Council then directed the City Manager to offer a new process leading to a Land Development Code that achieves the goals set out in the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the Strategic Housing Blueprint, the Watershed Protection Master Plan, and the Austin Strategic Direction 2023. The City Council also took an important step by unanimously adopting the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP), a bold and data-driven vision for our transportation future.

There is a strong relationship between land use and transportation. And we already know that housing costs and transportation costs are key drivers (no pun intended) to affordability. With the recent adoption of ASMP, we have a rare opportunity to holistically integrate transportation planning with land use planning. Essentially, updating the Land Development Code with the ASMP in mind will allow us to more effectively manage traffic congestion and impact affordability.

In developing a new process, the City Manager asked Council five policy questions that drive the content of the Land Development Code. The Council provided its policy direction and further directed staff to:

  • Create a new land development code and zoning map concurrently;
  • Plan for approximately 400,000 units over the next 10 years as a means of achieving the 135,000 unit goal established by the Strategic Housing Blue Print;
  • Encourage smaller scale, multi-family housing to address Austin’s missing middle housing types;
  • Reduce minimum parking requirements;
  • Provide a clear public process for Austinites, including timelines and opportunities for public input, and how their input has been received and used; and
  • Provide the draft code text and zoning map for Council action in October of 2019.

Different Approach
The City Manager has assembled a broad-based and cross-functional team that will collaboratively share in the responsibility of drafting a revised code. The team is hard at work reviewing previous CodeNEXT feedback for alignment with Council direction and drafting code language. We are taking a different approach to this effort. Inspired by Strategic Direction 2023, equity and affordability (for all) serve as the anchoring values driving our work every day.

As the process continues, we’ll dive deeper into the code revision and explain more nuanced areas in greater detail.