Recoding Austin

December 7, 2016
As a city evolves, so must its zoning rules

Picture Austin in the early 1980s. The population was just about 350,000, making it one of the 50 biggest cities in the United States—not tiny, but also not a major metropolis. Despite being the capital of Texas and home to the University of Texas flagship, Austin was still a relatively small, low-rise, low-density city. So, in 1984, when the city rewrote the rules that guide the city’s development, land use, and zoning—known as the Land Development Code—this powerful document was drawn up for the small city it was then.

Roughly 30 years later, the Land Development Code is still in place, but Austin is no longer that small city. With a 2016 population of 926,000, Austin is the 11th most populous city in the country. Between 2010 and 2015, the city’s population grew by more than 14 percent, and experts estimate the metro area’s population will grow somewhere between 30 and 80 percent by 2030. Its three-decade-old, small city Land Development Code has gradually become irrelevant, inefficient, and confusing.

"There’s been literally hundreds of changes that have been made to the code" since it was first written, says Gregory Guernsey, director of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department. "As you layer all these things on and as you go through time, it’s difficult for staff to administer. It’s difficult for the property owner to understand. It’s difficult for a neighbor to figure out what’s being built next door and whether it’s compliant or not."

Recognizing the growth and change under way, in 2012, the city approved its new comprehensive plan, a 30-year vision of an environmentally sustainable city that provides a variety of housing choices for residents; the conditions for economic growth; and an interconnected, multi-modal transportation network. Dubbed "Imagine Austin," the plan hinges on bringing the Land Development Code up to date. So, in 2013, the city began the complicated and years-long effort of completely rewriting the code, a process they’re calling CodeNEXT. The first draft of the new code is expected to be released in early 2017, more than a year behind the original timeline, and could be ready for city council approval later in the year. It’s a widely welcomed update of a code many say is holding the city back. Depending on how it shapes up, the new Land Development Code could be a dramatically transformative document for Austin—a city that’s growing and changing, but one that’s also facing contentious questions about what it wants to be. ...