Let’s not make a deal

If you hang around the Austin (and presumably other city’s) zoning codes long enough, you get used to deals.  I’m not talking about compromises, where one side wants a height limit of 40′, the other a height limit of 100′, and they settle for 60′.  I’m talking about requirements built into code that a landowner can get out of if they satisfy some other requirement.  This principle is built so deeply into code, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to avoid.

The Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) zoning overlay allows a landowner to choose between the “base zoning” of a district or VMU zoning.  VMU zoning significantly reduces some limitations (FAR, density, see the linked Austin Contrarian post for definitions and details), and replaces them with different requirements: detailed specifications on acceptable building designs and requirements for some units to be designated as Affordable Housing (see link for definition of Affordable Housing).  Similarly, the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) allows landowners to build significantly more on a single property than they would be allowed under base zoning, but only if they agree to an extraordinarily detailed specification for how their building might look like.  (I continue to be amazed that these specifications forbid developers from developing new buildings that look historical because this “results in the devaluation of the real thing.”)  Transit-Oriented Development overlays work similarly; allowing greater densities in certain locations, as long as you follow certain design specifications.  The Downtown Density Bonus allows greater heights in exchange for funding Affordable Housing.  At a smaller scale, there are deals that allow developers to opt out of minimum parking regulations in exchange for providing bike lockers or providing parking for shared car services (e.g. Car2Go, Zipcar).

In general, I find myself in favor of each of these deals. VMU, UNO, and the DDB all provide an opportunity for a development that’s more of a proper scale for the locations of the building along major thoroughfares, or near UT or downtown. I don’t always think what the buildings are required to do in exchange is for the best, but it’s worth it to have that option.  Similarly, I’m in favor of vastly lower minimum parking regulations; if buildings provide bike lockers or Car2Go spaces, more to the better.

But for the short-term upside, there’s also a long-term downside: if either side of the deal changes, the whole deal will need to be renegotiated, making it much harder to make any changes.  When Council Members Chris Riley, Bill Spelman, and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole introduced an ordinance to explore the possibility of lowering minimum parking and density requirements for microunits along VMU corridors, the major objection expressed at Council was not toward the idea of allowing greater density or less parking itself, but rather that it would gut the existing VMU deal of less parking in exchange for more Affordable Housing.  (Again, see link for definition of Affordable Housing.)  Lowering minimum parking regulations citywide would have an effect on existing deals involving VMU, TOD, bike lockers, car2go, and thousands of ad hoc deals in which landowners agree to waive some development rights in exchange for reduced parking requirements.  It would be a nightmarish negotiation.  Each deal creates an opportunity for lowering the minimum parking needed in one situation, but also creates a constituency opposed to a broad-based reduction.

I’m not sure how to handle this situation–most new deals that come up are tempting, as they offer greater flexibility to build something of a more appropriate density than base zoning allows.  Some of them (VMU, UNO, DDB) have positively transformed the city, allowing far more people to find homes.  Yet, I fear that the more layers of deals that get added, the more difficult it will be to unravel. Small decisions like lowering minimum parking regulations even 10% will be impossible to make because of the number of stakeholders involved in the negotiations.

Fortunately, I feel very excited that this was one of the primary diagnoses CodeNext made [large PDF] in their review of Austin’s current Land Development Code: base zoning districts are ineffective, leading to complicated layers of opt-in, opt-out regulations.  I hope that a good solution can come up with to unravel these deals and that any future deals are made with caution.  A well-meaning deal that advances two priorities in the short-term can lead to paralysis in the long-term.

Let’s not make a deal

2 thoughts on “Let’s not make a deal

  1. Good stuff. At some point, the sum of all of these transactions will add up to a giant unintended consequence. There has got to be some sort of standard of limitations on these things.

    I think the more concerning possibility is that this transactional mindset avoids the idea of resetting the baseline of the deal for fear of leaving something on the table. Consider Arlington, VA, where they worked on a whole series of fees to go in exchange for relief from parking requirements, yet the logic behind the change essentially prevents just eliminating the requirements and calling that a benefit:

    It’s almost as if the goal is to make a deal, rather than to actually reduce parking (in this case).


    1. Wow, the conversation on that link is pretty incredible.

      Not only does the logic behind the change prevent lowering minimums, but once the fees go into effect, I imagine it will be a million times more politically difficult to lower minimums because there will be a fiscal note about how much lowering minimums would “cost” the County in foregone revenue.


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