Yesterday, I joined an enthusiastic group of solution-minded Austinites at a CodeNEXT community input session. There were many great pro-reform speakers. Here’s the presentation I delivered. Let’s turn to the main points of the presentation and some additional ideas generated from discussion with defenders of the status quo.
1. Recent trends show that the existing land development code (LDC) isn’t maintaining a compact, connected Austin.
Of particular concern are the components of the LDC that discourage development of abundant, small-scale infill (“the missing middle”) necessary to support affordability.
Image courtesy of Opticos Design
2. Since we can’t really do much to affect demand due to the much larger economic factors driving our growth, we should focus on supply. Supply does indeed reduce costs, promoting affordability.
3. Modest, well-understood reforms can add up to a successful approach.
The bulk of my proposed solutions are modest adjustments to the land development code that make it easier to build small-scale density. But I want to explain two potentially more important, “big picture” ideas. First, we need to change the choice architecture to make it harder for vocal small groups within neighborhoods to opt-out of good things (e.g. base districts that encourage the missing middle) and easier for them to opt-in to good things such as secondary units.
Further, the LDC needs to be part of a broader policy package that allocates resources to communities that opt-in to additional policies that enable a compact and connected center. The City’s approach to investing in parks and sidewalks, or how CapMetro allocates high-frequency bus service should support communities that take the lead in building a compact and connected Austin through their neighborhood’s land use. Right now – for example with the Project Connect urban rail proposal – we are using public investment to shape land development patterns. This is certainly inefficient and has a very mixed track record of success.
Listening to defenders of the status quo
Many of the most emotionally resonant concerns raised by those skeptical of progressive LDC reform have to do with the impact of design on the ‘user experience’ of the community. It’s possible that the policy arguments about development (infrastructure inadequacies, new housing unjustly hiking tax valuations) are really just fodder for the more emotionally powerful design issues. Here are the top anti-density concerns I heard and the solutions I pitched in conversations with community members.
“I will lose my privacy.”
Simply put, people don’t like the idea that neighbors in taller buildings can look into their bedrooms or bathrooms. Luckily, there are some simple solutions out there, such as high, horizontal windows in new buildings.
Or plant screens.
“I don’t want tall buildings in my neighborhood.”
A typical misunderstanding is that anyone advocating for reforming the LDC wants to put a building over 60 feet in height in the middle of Hyde Park. This is incorrect. I mentioned the many examples already in existence across Austin of small-scale infill that exemplify the missing middle we want new base district zoning to encourage. Below is an example in South Austin (H/T to Jace Deloney for the images below).
“I’m not sure we can do modest density and maintain Austin’s character.”
Again, I spoke about the many aesthetically-pleasing buildings across Austin teeming with local “character”. I personally love these 8th and Colorado structures from the below image. Check out the historic landmark designation marker in front of them.
And here’s another example of small scale, shared-wall development in Austin.
Personally, I don’t mind new designs – so many of the most interesting houses in 78704 try and fuse run-of-the-mill modern with local materials and xeriscaping. And community character isn’t a stagnant idea.
Austin does aspire to have a design conscious culture and many Austinites want to maintain a unique housing character. Fortunately, we already have a rich set of examples that allow us to achieve abundant housing supply within the core while maintaining a sense of uniquely local architecture.