If you’ve walked around downtown Austin, something you’ve probably noticed is that a lot of buildings built recently and a lot of buildings under construction have cut corners. No, I don’t mean they’ve used shoddy construction. I mean that, literally, they’re shaped as a rectangle with a corner cut off. Sometimes there’s just no building there; sometimes there’s a much shorter part of the building with just the tower component missing. It’s so common that it’s almost becoming Austin’s signature building style. How come?
Last November, I was appointed as a member of the Visitor Impact Task Force created by the City Council to look into the positive and negative impacts of tourism in Austin, as well as put together recommendations regarding the potential expansion of the Convention Center. I came in an expansion skeptic but I voted for expansion. Y’all deserve an explanation. So here are four ways the Task Force’s recommendations for the convention center expansion improved on the proposal we had coming in, followed by some thoughts on what’s needed from here.
1 Keeping the Street Grid In Place
Street connections are vital for making great places. For people driving cars, they mitigate traffic by providing alternative routes. For people walking, they increase the storefront-to-walking-distance ratio, making more destinations like restaurants and bars in walking distance. Not all uses are compatible with street connections — in downtown Austin, many potential street connections near government buildings are blocked off for security reasons. Some alleys (small streets in a sense) have been removed because they’re incompatible with the uses of the building.
One of the worst areas for street connectivity downtown is the existing Convention Center. I lived next to it for years, walking everywhere and in every direction on my own two feet before I discovered on a map that there was a city park blocks from me on the other side of the Convention Center. The lack of streets in the area made it harder to discover destinations even when they were there. The original plan for the expansion doubled down on this unwalkable dead area by closing off two more city blocks (2nd and 3rd St from Trinity to San Jacinto). Following the recommendations of the Design Commission and many architecturally-oriented citizens, the Task Force specifically called out maintaining the street grid as one of our design recommendations.
2 Bringing More Uses to the Southeast Quadrant
The Convention Center is a rare nine-city-block square downtown with a single use. The convention center’s maximum practical capacity is about 65% of the days of year, due to days like Christmas when nobody wants to hold a conference and the setup/teardown time for flipping conference space. Even when conferences are in town, conferences themselves are not typically all-day affairs, so there are still significant dead times. As a result, while the convention center area can feel very crowded at specific times when conferences are letting out, a lot of the time it feels empty. As many locals told me, “I have no reason to go there.” Right in the middle of downtown, it’s home to many storefronts that don’t even bother opening except for special events.
The original Convention Center plan recognized this and recommended integrating retail and restaurants into the expansion, but this really didn’t go far enough. Locals without a reason for being in the area rarely go out of their way to get there. At the suggestion of the Design Commission, the Task Force recommended that any Convention Center design be integrated not only with ground floor retail but also with other uses such as office or residential. This should both help locals (both residential and office space are at a premium downtown right now) and visitors, by giving visitors a chance to explore the same Austin as locals. In this way, you could conceive of the project as a convention center expansion with a residential component, or merely another residential tower, but with room for the convention center in it.
3 Potentially Saving Money by Integrating with Other Uses
Estimates for the Convention Center’s plans for redevelopment came it at an eye-popping $559m before land acquisition costs, estimated at about $100m or more. The cost estimates were done without a detailed design document, so they could be significantly off. The Task Force’s recommendation described above (housing expansion within a larger private sector development) has the potential to cut down on these costs by sharing development costs across many uses. Without detailed design estimates, we can’t know whether this will pay off, but there’s reason to believe it could!
4 The Convention Center Expansion will be integrated with other efforts
The convention center’s original expansion plan recognized the need for any new building to not be an island unto itself but integrated into its surroundings. Toward that end, it spoke of not just a convention center expansion, but an entire Convention Center District.
Disappointingly, the plans as written did a very poor job of imagining not just how the outside world could be reshaped to benefit the convention center, but how the convention center could be reshaped to take its place in the city. Downtown belongs to no one industry, group, or activity. Our zoning, unlike most other areas in the city, allows a vast array of uses, from hotels to apartments, offices to bars, parks to shelters, all next to one another. Within blocks of the Convention Center, there are already many different planning efforts underway. The Waller Creek Conservancy is leading the development of a grand new linear park along Waller Creek. (The creek itself is adjacent to the Convention Center.) A transportation planning study for the Rainey St area (a difficult pedestrian crossing across Cesar Chavez from the convention center) was recently completed.
In the vision that the Task Force put forward, we recognized this and took a few steps: 1) we recommended that City Council put out a Request For Information (which would typically lead to a Request for Proposal) on designs for this area; 2) we recommended that improvements to the immediate vicinity of the Convention Center area (a category of expenditure allowed when improving a Convention Center) be coordinated with other planning efforts in the area, such as the Waller Creek Conservancy. 3) We recommended examining the possibility of extending the Waller Creek TIF to use tax revenues from new development toward urgent social priorities downtown.
What still needs to be done
Given the big changes coming out of the Task Force and the fluid nature of the project, now is the perfect time for people to be thinking big. What could be done in this corner of downtown to make this place the best it can be for tourists and Austinites alike? We are too early for public input on the question: the Task Force has agreed to but not yet released its report; the City Council has not yet heard it, let alone taken action on it. But we’re never too early for a good brainstorm.
There’s an Austin, and Austin on Your Feet, tradition to use the hashtag #atxrising to post pictures of new construction in Austin. This could be anything from parks to single-family homes to downtown high-rises.
For the first time ever, Austin on Your Feet will host a contest! All you have to do to enter is tweet a picture of construction in Austin with the hashtags #atxrising and #atxonyourfeet sometime in the next week to win! It can be a picture you’ve posted previously. If you want to nominate somebody else’s picture, that works too, but the prize will go to the photographer! The top three pictures will win a fabulous urbanist book: Tactical Urbanism by Mike Lydon, The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup, or The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
So get snapping and get tweeting!
Fourth in a series by friend-of-the-blog Mateo Barnstone. This post focuses on the bad and ugly sides of CodeNEXT and how it could do better. For what’s good and why, see the previous post.
The Building Envelope
As they say, the devil is in the details – and oh boy are there a lot of details. Each Transect contains 8 pages and 16 subsections of details. There are 3 transects that are sliced into 13 sub-transects (not including the Open variations). Form is tightly constrained by belts and suspenders, and just to be sure, more belts. Sometimes the variations between districts are great, other times oddly narrow. For example, the building envelope for the Medium Rowhouse in the T4MS/O district is allowed to be 48’ deep but in the T5N.SS district the Medium Rowhomes is limited to 45’. The same is true for the Large Rowhomes. Why the need for this variation is unclear.
Keep in mind that the transects only describe what is theoretically possible under ideal circumstances. Geographic constraints, heritage trees, environmental features, open space, stormwater management requirements and other constraints will surely curtail the actual ability to build of units – predicting exactly how these competing regulations will impact the ability to deliver product will be very challenging.
Part of the problem lies with the fact the form that is overly prescriptive. A row house shouldn’t be particularly complicated to code for. It’s four exterior walls, a roof, and adornments appropriate to the style. A building envelope for a row house should be simple – pick the height and the front and rear set backs you want and allow for appropriate encroachments. Instead, we get this:
Rather than describe a simple box, this code includes side wings and rear wings, one might suppose in an attempt to introduce McMansion style articulations, something that makes little sense in the context of a row home. Inside lots lines should always be zero and it’s unclear who benefits from a rear articulation, outside lot lines would impact the continuous perimeter that is characteristic of row home lined streets and there’s no reason to care about a rear articulation 50’ deep into a lot. It’s unnecessarily complicate and should not be carried forward in the next draft.
Relation to the Street
More importantly, this distinction between alley and non-alley access reveals a secondary problem. Row homes should not front streets when you can’t provide rear access or limit front access via a shared drive. Narrow lots and front access driveways are a bad combination because they degrade the public realm. Placing the garages up front on row homes means your sidewalk is a nearly continuous curb cut, it makes on street parking difficult, if not impossible, and creates an unpleasant face to the street dominated by garage doors.
I suggest they simply not allow row homes except when rear access can be provided either by alley or through a shared drive to a rear shared drive that acts like an alley. Absent an alley only one shared driveway per run of units should be allowed with access to a shared drive in the rear. Streets fronted by Rowhomes on alleys would have no curb cuts and streets without alleys could have only 1 curb cut per 100’ of frontage.
At the same time, they should eliminate the distinction the 100’/75’ distinction between being on an alley or not – a shared drive in the rear is essential a private alley – there’s no good reason to distinguish between shared drives and alleys.
Ideally, CodeNEXT should eliminate the depth dimension on the lot and simply let the minimum lot size control for density and form. However, short of that, there’s no reason we should have a lot depth larger than the units being provided for at Mueller and suggest if a lot depth is required it should be at 75’ for all Rowhomes.
Another form regulation is that the code mandates 14’ floor-to-ceiling heights on the ground floor and 9’ on the upper floors. This is expensive to build and inefficient to heat and cool as well. Why are they requiring this?
In all likelihood, it’s because the transects that these row homes are permitted, T4MS and the T5 transects, are mixed use and fairly intense districts. The intent of the 14’ minimum height on ground floors is likely to allow for or preserve the possibility for commercial future uses.
This does make sense in those transects, but also calls attention to the fact that this is not really meant to be an affordable single family attached housing product in either the Medium or Large flavors. The Large and Medium Rowhomes, as proposed, may well produce engaging and active human scaled streets and potentially contributed to mixed districts – but they’re very unlikely to produce anything but very nice and very expensive homes.
The draft makes progress with regards to parking by halving the number of spaces required by residential units. This is an important advancement and should be defended against inevitable attacks. That being said, with all the talk about the promise of autonomous cars and Austin’s embracing this as a driving force for the future, it’s curious that they didn’t take the bold step that Buffalo has just done by eliminating parking minimums – at least in the more intense transects that the Rowhomes are limited to.
While the code makes theoretical 3 units + an ADU per building in runs of 3, 4 or up to 12, as practical matter, there’s only so much parking that fits on a narrow lot. The typical Mueller rowhouses lots are 22.5’ wide and can just accommodate 2 cars parking side by side.
Even if the market supports 1 parking space per unit, it would be impossible to provide 3 or 4 parking spaces on a narrow lot. So while parking is a bright spot in the code, it still serves as an effective limitation on units. Unless they allow a street space to count towards the parking minimums, at most, I would expect one or two units per building, not the 3-4 theoretically allowed.
Run of Homes
As we noted above, Rowhomes are required to be constructed in runs that are limited by both buildings and length (more belts, more suspenders). However, in some cases, the run of buildings doesn’t seem responsive to Austin’s lots. SF3 (the most widely zoned district) has 50’ lot width minimums and because much of early Austin was platted with 25’ x 125’ lots that were combined to 50’ lots we have many 50’ lots.
In terms of prescribing a run of buildings it makes sense to think of how many Row Homes could be built by someone who’s assembled two standard lots. In Austin that would typically be a minimum of 100’ frontage which could accommodate as many as five 18’ row homes (if on an alley) or as few as three 28’ row homes.
The T4MS zone prescribes a run of 3-4 buildings with a maximum combined width of 75’. This seems like an arbitrary cap in terms of both buildings and width. Having limits on scale and massing is fine but in determining what that limit should be it would also make sense to imagine what might be possible by someone who’s assembled two standard lots – about 100′ on which between 3 and 5 row homes could be comfortably built.
A final note about the run of buildings. Having a minimum and maximum makes sense to me in the neighborhood context. If you allowed single row homes, you would get more organic development, but embedding that into fully built out neighborhoods is tricky and you’d get individual buildings with flat sides, no windows on a zero lot line and would stick out like a sore thumb. Building them in runs of three or more makes contextual sense and I believe this will be more acceptable to residents in existing neighborhoods.
I’m not sure that holds in the T4MS transect which is really a neighborhood commercial street. There, it would make sense to allow the more organic development and allow individual row houses to build to the lot lines and not prescribe runs.
Medium and Large Flavor Rowhomes are an exciting addition to the range of options we have in Austin. With a few tweaks to the regulations and the right mapping this could result in transformative change for small sections of the city. However, the draft code limits the use of Rowhomes to the most intense T4 subzone and T5 transect. We don’t have a map yet, no one knows exactly what to expect, but if reports are to be believed, we’ll only see about 20% of the city mapped initially with the transects.
We’ve also been told most neighborhoods will not change significantly. The fact is that all the transects where Rowhomes are allowed in the draft code would be very significant changes to Austin single family neighborhoods. While we might get a smattering of them throughout the city, the chances of a wide-spread application in residential neighborhoods of these intense transects seems exceedingly remote given current messaging.
The Rowhomes are entitled to have multiple units on them, and exist in transects with other buildings as intense or moreso. As such we’re very unlikely to see any iterations as single family, attached, fee-simple home. Certainly if we do get these, it would only be in the form of very expensive mansions.
Still missing from the Missing Middle is a Small Flavor of Row Home: a 2 or 2 ½ story single family attached unit that a family can owned in fee-simple (i.e. not as part of a condo regime).
The absence of this option is conspicuous. It is one of the most common housing products in Mueller and it’s proven to be in high demand there and in the Crestview TOD. Why is this true missing middle option for the middle classes off the table? Why aren’t row houses permitted in the other transects with missing middle housing types such as cottage courts and multiplexes?
The likely reason is political opposition. It was alluded in a recent presentation on the code that the intensity of use that Row Homes permit would mean widespread adoption and rapid transformation of established neighborhoods. Perhaps a calculation was made that introducing row homes the mix would kill acceptance of those transects and preclude some of the other missing middle housing types from much of Austin.
Whatever the reason, this is something that needs to change in the next draft or we will not see fee-simple attached housing as a real option in this city. In my list of suggested changes below I’ve included adding a small flavor rowhouse that can be built as single units + ADU in runs of 3 – 5. There is no reason why this form of housing can’t co-exist in neighborhoods that also allow multi-plex homes (T4N.IS and T4N.SS) and even cottage court homes (T3N.DS and T3N.IS).
While row homes will not solve all our affordability issues, the value of land and construction costs are such that it will be very difficult for any builder to deliver new housing that is deeply affordable, it can be attainable housing in a way that the single-family detached home has ceased to be. Austin is a desirable city, blessed to be in a beautiful part of the country with a robust economy and a creative spirit that attracts many. We’re going to a need a lot of housing options if we’re going to avoid the path of San Francisco – a very lovely place for the very wealthy.
I’m glad to see Rowhomes featured as part of this mix because they potentially combine affordability that people need with the privacy and control of their homestead that people crave. This draft code doesn’t quite get us there and as provided for we’re unlikely to see these make a significant dent into the overall housing market. However, this is just a draft and the things that make it difficult are quite fixable. If row homes are something the community desires as a widely available as an option and lets the consultant and staff know, the code can be revised to make them a reasonable option.
The Good: The form, scale and massing of the Medium and Large flavor Rowhomes, the theoretical ability to do house up to 4 families on a narrow lot, and flexibility of use is an exciting addition to the landscape of available options.
The Bad: The building envelope is overly prescriptive and should be relaxed. 14’ ground floors will ensure this is an expensive housing type. Minimum parking requirements remains a real limitation on theoretical units in a building.
The Ugly: Where these can be built is at once too liberal and too restrictive. Front access does not work for narrow lot homes and should be prohibited except where a shared drive can provide rear access. However, because the transects are limited to the most intensive residential districts, we’re unlikely to see much of these in the city. There must be a Small flavor added in other T4 and T3 districts to achieve the promise of this missing middle housing type.
The Comments Section
Staff and consultant are asking the public to comment directly onto an on-line version of the draft code. If you want to provide feedback to the consultant about things they are doing right and things that need attention, it’s highly recommended that you do so. You can register to make comments (and see everyone else’s) directly into the code by going here and registering at the Add Comment box.
Below are a few of the comments and suggestions that I will be making.
|Add a Small Rowhouse flavor for the T4N.IS and T4N.SS as well as T3N.DS and T3N.IS transects.
||23-4D-2100 / pg 32
23-4D-2110 / pg 40
23-4D-2120 / pg 48
23-4D-2130 / pg 56
|Permit a Small Rowhouse flavor in T4MS in addition to Medium flavor||23-4D-2140 / pg 64|
|Allow a 5 story option of the Large Rowhouse on the T5U and T5MS.||23-4D-2140 / pg 64|
|Allow for a cottage court row home variety for large/deep lots.||23-45-2060 / pg 13|
|Map row home zones into urban neighborhoods and transitional neighborhoods planned for more walkability where you want transit supportive density in a residential context. Limit to lots with rear access (via alley or shared front or side drive). Permit up to one curb cut per 100′ frontage of row house units.|
|Relax the Building Envelope|
|Eliminate Depth Requirement – setbacks and lot width are sufficient to control form. If must limit density, do so with lot size. If depth measurement required, select the 75’ on all units on alleys or with rear shared drive.||Subsections C in sections:
23-4D-2140 / pg 63
23-4D-2150 / pg 71
23-4D-2160 / pg 79
23-4D-2170 / pg 87
|Eliminate side building and rear wing articulations.
||23-4D-2140 / pg 64
23-4D-2150 / pg 72
23-4D-2160 / pg 80
23-4D-2170 / pg 88
|Credit 1 on-street parking space per building towards parking minimums.||23-4D-2140 / pg 67
23-4D-2150 / pg 75
23-4D-2160 / pg 83
23-4D-2170 / pg 91
|Consider eliminating all parking minimums on the Main Street transects.||23-4D-2140 / pg 67|
|Eliminate Length of Runs – just limit the units in a row to control massing.
||23-4D-2140 / pg 64
23-4D-2150 / pg 72
23-4D-2160 / pg 80
23-4D-2170 / pg 88
The third in an ongoing series by friend-of-the-blog Mateo Barnstone.
In the first post I posit that by eliminating side setbacks and allowing for narrow lots, the row house provides a more affordable housing type that also benefits builders and the city through more efficient use of land.
“In the row house scenario – everyone wins. There are more units available and thus more people can live closer to their desired locations. Living closer means fewer and shorter trips, less traffic, and less congestion for everyone. The cost per unit is lower. The taxes per unit are lower, but the taxes collected by the City are higher. The City’s costs are arguably lower as well by not having to maintain roads and utilities and provide services over longer distances. The builder’s profit is higher which incentivizes more builders to build more lower cost units like this. We’ve added to everyone’s bottom line and made the city more resilient in the process. And the only thing we had to sacrifice was a bit of mostly useless side yards.”
In the second post I looked at where we get row homes in Austin (namely small area planned districts like PUDs and TODs) and how the zoning code otherwise prohibits the fee simple row house.
“The promise of CodeNEXT is that a range of housing types can be allowed throughout the city. Currently, we mostly allow for single family detached homes and duplexes on the one end, and high density large scale apartment and condo buildings on the other. The stuff in the middle (including row homes, multi-plexes, cottage courts, stacked flats, small scale apartment buildings, etc.) is mostly missing.”
The draft code has finally been released. Through sheer coincidence, the row house units that I live in ended up in all the CodeNEXT marketing materials. So it seems like a fair question to ask – does the draft code make row house units, like mine featured in their materials, possible in Austin’s residential neighborhoods?
The short answer is – not really. A longer answer is very much a tale of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Though in some ways the draft code falls short of the promise of the fee-simple single family attached home that I have advocated before (more on that below), in others ways it is more exciting.
Form, Massing, and Scale (jargon alert)
CodeNEXT allows for two flavors of row homes: Medium and Large. The Medium flavor appears in a sub-zone of T4 Main Street (T4MS) and T5N.SS. The Large flavor appears in T5U.SS and T5U.
Building a City – Five Easy Stories
Lost in the focus on building typology, the need to match community character, and writing a code seemingly intended to offend the fewest number of people necessary to ensure its passage is that this is about designing the future of our city. The character and built form a city takes is derived from its building blocks.
The basic building block of the pre-war cities were not palaces, castles, chateaux or soaring cathedrals. Nor was it the grand parliament buildings, townhalls, or ancient amphitheaters. It wasn’t the fortified walls, magnificent city gardens, piazzas, plazas and squares graced by fountains and statues, or the aqueducts that brought them water.
Rather, the basic building block of some of the best cities that were ever built is a fairly narrow mid-rise building that stands shoulder-to-shoulder, lining streets and squares creating a continuous perimeter that frames and defines space giving order to the civic realm.
Though each individual block is a simple modest building, by lining these up together and repeating for block after block whole cities were built. And when they assembled enough of these together – they made cities.
“Just as cells go to make up an organism, so middle class town houses are the sine qua non of the European city. On their own, town houses are unassuming, but as a group they dominate the urban scene.”
Buildings of this form, scale and massing go back nearly a 1000 years and for at least seven centuries they dominated the fabric of the urban cores of cities. As a building type, it’s a chameleon – versatile enough to build both the mansions of the Upper East side and the tenements of the Lower East side. You can see this building form in different iterations in capitals, towns and burgs in cities the world over. It has proved to be adaptable over time and suitable for a wide variety of neighborhoods and which survived great social, cultural, and economic upheavals which impacted urban design tremendously. Once grand homes of the bourgeois of Europe were broken into apartments and tenements, only later to be reconverted into flats with ground floor retail.
Creating great places doesn’t require doing big things. It means doing a lot of modest things well, again and again, over a long period of time. A simple human scaled mid-rise building, repeated enough times creates the great streets that make the bones of great cities. This building typology, by its nature, creates compact and complete communities and happens to be dense enough to support high frequency transit and neighborhood retail options.
By contrast, the dominant typology for most of the last 60 years is Austin is the low slung, deep setback, large lot detached home. This, combined with poorly connected street grids, results in a sprawling development pattern resulting in auto-dependency, and segregated incomplete communities.
Much effort has gone into CodeNEXT to preserve that which makes Austin special – and mostly, there’s agree with that sentiment. But it’s worth asking whether our sprawling land development pattern something we want to preserve? Is that working for us? If we really want to change the form our city takes, we have to start with the right building blocks.
Both the Medium and Large Rowhomes can exist on lots as narrow as 18’ or with buildings as wide as 28’ and as deep as 48’ (with possibility of including side or rear wings). The Medium Rowhouse in the T4MS zone is limited to 3 stories and 55’ in height but allowed up to 4 stories and 65’ height in the T5N.SS. The Large Rowhomes are allowed up to 4 stories and 60’ of height in T5U.SS and T5U zones. The major difference between the Medium and the Large flavors is the how many attached buildings are allowed in a run with the Medium flavor allowed in runs of 3 – 4 buildings or 3 – 5 buildings and the Large flavor allow runs of 4 – 12 buildings. Both the Medium and Large flavors allow for up to 3 units per building plus an ADU.
OK, that’s a lot of technical speak (and we’re just scratching the surface). What does this describe?
These are narrow mid-rise buildings that when standing next to each other, shoulder-to-shoulder, line the street creating a perimeter defining and giving order to public space, and which also have the flexibility to house anywhere between one and four families. The draft code allows the flexibility to vary use over time or even mix use within a building.
Multi-unit mixed use rowhouse was not something I was anticipating out of CodeNEXT and the prospect is exciting. Buildings like this have a form and scale when built en masse has the ability to produce human scaled streets and provide sufficient density to support transit and commercial activity. Because they only rise a few stories plenty of light reaches the street which can be residential, commercial or mixed in character.
I call this the sweet spot of (or Goldilocks) density and we would be wise to embrace it. Austin is a sprawling 1 – 2 story town and that needs to be fixed. But we don’t have to Manhattanize to do so. There is a more affordable, more sustainable, more transit supportive mid-point, between sprawling and high-rise: the mid-rise city.
Up to now, the mid-rise buildings outside the CBD and UNO have pretty much been limited to the ubiquitous liner building apartment wrapping a parking structure (the Texas Donut). The Medium and Large Rowhomes provide an option to create mid-rise places with a level of fine-grain urbanism that can never be achieved by the Texas Donut.
Use and Proximity
If there’s a silver bullet in the way we regulate land use that can solve our problems of sprawl, congestion, equity, sustainability, and resiliency it’s in the ability to provide more proximity between people and their desired destinations (whether for work, recreation, entertainment, worship, or civic reason). The relaxation of the regulations that separate uses is a great benefit of form-based codes.
The Medium and Large flavored Row Homes have the potential to enhance proximity in two ways. First, anytime you put more units onto the same amount of land you gain the ability to have more people near desired destinations. Secondly, they allow mixing use within the same structure or along the same block. As of yet, in Austin, this is only really achievable through the large block VMU forms.
It’s very exciting to see the multi-unit row home in the Large and Medium flavors make it into this first draft of the code. But alas, this won’t be a solution for the family looking for an affordable fee-simple option.
The city of Austin is rewriting its zoning code. Staff has prepared a draft with two different groups of zones running in parallel: traditional zones and a new form-based code with tighter rules about what buildings can look like. Each set has zones of different density / intensity of land uses; both include high-intensity downtown-like zones. Staff have indicated that more traditional zones will be used in downtown Austin while the form-based high-activity zones could be used in Austin’s uptowns, like the Domain.
Some friends of mine and I sat down at a party organized by AURA and read through the form-based downtown codes, known as T6. I love how the code description puts a real emphasis on walkability, so I’m going to share some suggestions to make this dream a reality. Many thanks to Tyler Stowell, Seth Goodman, and Mateo Barnstone for most of the ideas below.
Eliminate or reduce minimum lot widths
Minimum lot widths are a rule sometimes used to limit density; they make little sense downtown. Practical construction considerations mean that many downtown towers will be wide. But tall, narrow buildings do get built; there’s one under construction right now on Congress Avenue that would be 30% narrower than allowed in the draft T6 rules. Narrower buildings can increase walkability by providing more storefronts per city block, increasing the number of walkable destinations.
Suggestion: Eliminate minimum widths as principle and send the message that narrow buildings are preferred. If minimums are kept, dramatically reduce them to where they are no longer a bottleneck. For example, 15’ for a main street building, 30’ for a midrise, and 50’ for a high-rise.
- Allow smaller building types
Downtowns and uptowns are great places for tall buildings! But smaller, narrower buildings can complement these tall buildings well, filling gaps between towers or making use of small or oddly-shaped lots. Allowing small building types also allows districts to grow up incrementally without requiring rezoning.
Suggestion Allow Main St, Low Rise, and Rowhouse buildings in T6U and T6C.
- Raise or eliminate stepback floors
Stepbacks are requirements that buildings must be set back from the street that only kick in above a certain height. Buildings under these rules get narrower as they get higher in a characteristic “wedding cake” style. Stepbacks have pros and cons — without them, you can end up with a sheer wall along the street; with them, you can lose valuable sidewalk shade. But the particular numbers in the draft T6 section (stepbacks at the 5th and 8th floors) are both too low and too small between floors. Stepback sections of buildings that are only three stories will be awkward to design and unpleasant to look at. Stepback stories starting at the fifth floor compromise the ability to deliver the large floorplates some offices need.
Suggestion: Reduce to a single stepback, starting at the 9th story. Consider raising that height on wider streets.
- Allow floorplates to grow or shrink as buildings rise
There is a requirement in the draft code that a building floorplate can not be larger than the floor beneath it. Most buildings already meet this requirement. When buildings don’t, it’s for a good reason: overhangs to provide shade, open-air amenity decks, unique aesthetic designs, corners cut out to create visual interest, etc. This is not addressing a problem, but does cause new problems. Eliminating this requirement will allow for more interesting and creative building designs while simplifying the building code.
Suggestion: Eliminate this rule.
- Remove the private open space requirements
Private open space is the sine qua non of downtown luxury condos: swimming pools, rooftop decks, amenity levels, meeting space, etc. But not all housing need be luxury housing! I am moving into a downtown condo that nobody but the most snooty Austinites would call inadequate yet it will have only a tiny fraction of the required private open space. In walkable districts, residents have easy access to public open space. Removing this requirement will help improve affordability, walkability, and code simplicity.
Suggestion: Remove private open space requirements.
- Recalibrate parking setbacks
Walking right next to parking garages can be unpleasant, between noise, light, and air pollution. So let’s get those parking far from the street, right? Not always! If there isn’t enough space left to allow parkers to pull into spaces right or left, the parking garage may end up taking double as many floors! Alternatively, this encourages property owners to assemble multiple parcels together into large single sites, so the ratio of setback area to total area is reduced. The space around the parking garages isn’t necessarily particularly useful—office buildings work best with large open spaces, and parking garages wrapped by other uses need expensive mechanical ventilation. I’m the last person to encourage buildings build lots of parking. But if buildings do build parking (and downtown’s experience is that yes, most will), they should build them simply and efficiently, without ruining the rest of the building by encouraging overly large buildings or tall garages.
Suggestion: Replace garage setbacks with screening requirements from UNO. If garage setbacks are maintained, reduced them 10’ on upper floors, not 40′, to allow smaller buildings.
- Main Street building type
In the Main Street building type, there is a requirement that buildings wider than 150’ should be made to appear like multiple buildings, each no wider than 100’. One of the reasons this requirement is great is it underscores how important narrow buildings are and why it’s so important to make sure the are allowed everywhere. But the section is so ambiguous that, as written, it would guarantee years and years of contentious zoning board and City Council hearings over whether individual buildings comply.
Suggestion: Spell out how buildings can comply in a way that is clear enough that everybody or almost everybody can agree whether a particular building is in compliance.
Many of these ideas seem more like tweaks than overhauls. But when prescribing detailed rules, each and every rule must be closely calibrated or else any particular rule can create a cascading effect of complex consequences. Because of these complex consequences, I was very relieved when I heard staff was more interested in using the traditional code downtown. But these tweaks should help improve the T6 code as well.
How do we handle the growing unaffordability crises in many cities? Most people agree that building more subsidized Affordable Housing can help by providing an opportunity for people who struggle to pay market rates with more options. But that’s not the only type of new housing that can help. Here are five ways that building more housing–even if it’s not subsidized or rent-limited–can help affordability.
1) Fewer folks competing for existing affordable housing
In growing cities, standing still in housing stock means going backward on affordability. As new residents look for housing, they’re looking at the same houses and apartments as everybody else. If folks with money can’t find something in their price range, they often still pay more–but for housing that used to be affordable. Providing them with something new can mean fewer move into existing affordable housing and drive up rents.
2) Residents of New housing pay taxes
Most below-market-rate housing gets government subsidies in one form or another: tax credits, fee waivers, grants, loan guarantees, etc. The ability to provide these subsidies depends on having a large enough tax base to generate funds without making taxes too high. Market-rate housing builds up this tax base. Of course, the new residents will also require other government services that require taxes. In the long-term, infill housing–where new residents make use of existing streets, buses, pipes, schools, etc–can be more affordable for cities than adding miles of pipes, wires, and road networks to maintain.
3) Today’s luxury housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing
Many of the new, fancy buildings of today will eventually become the ordinary, affordable buildings of tomorrow. Some people like paying the extra dollar for brand new appliances, cabinets, floors, etc. Others would rather save some money and move into a place with a little less shine and a little more character. But the existence of twenty-year-old housing twenty years from now depends on us building new housing today!
Where new housing is built in central cities, it opens up possibilities for more people to live without the expenses of car ownership. This means that, even if rent is higher, your overall place-based costs (rent, utilities, transportation) may be lower. Down the line, when rents for the building are no longer the top of the housing market, this effect can be even greater.
5) Political pressure on Affordable Housing
In growing cities that don’t build much new housing (like San Francisco or many other cities in California), prices skyrocket until a larger and larger percentage of the population struggles to pay rent. Politically, the pressure for politicians to allow middle class people to take advantage of programs originally intended only for poorer people becomes immense. The result is that, for people who struggle the most with housing costs, they have even less of a chance of getting government aid. Building enough housing to keep market costs down reduces the pressure to spread out housing supports away from the population they help most into the broader population.