Austin City Zoning is F#$ked! The Death of CodeNEXT

We will be discussing the zoning problems faced by the city of Austin, Texas. To shed light on this issue, we have a special guest, Austin Stowell, an expert in real estate zoning. Throughout this episode, we will explore the history of zoning and share interviews with experts in the field to provide a comprehensive overview of the situation.

About Austin Stowell

We had a conversation with Austin and his experience in real estate, starting from when he first got his license to when he started developing properties himself. Austin got his license in 2002 while still in college, and he initially worked as a leasing agent. He later worked at several real estate companies, including Austin Silent Property Group and David Huvane Properties, before starting his own company, KEEP Real Estate.

Austin eventually began developing properties on the east side of Austin, Texas. However, he quickly realized how complex the Land Development Code was in the city of Austin. Compared to other cities where he had developed properties, Austin’s Land Development Code was much more complex. Despite this, he believes that the complexity of the code also provides opportunities for those who know how to navigate it.

RELATED: Austin Zoning and Affordability Issues with Chris Affinito

Changes in Austin’s City Council

The issue of development and zoning in Austin, Texas has been a long-standing and complicated one. Many people in the city have a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) mentality, making it difficult to find suitable locations for development. One solution that has been proposed is to develop along major corridors, but this has its own challenges.

For the past 20 years, the Imagine Austin plan has been in place, along with a code that is 40 years old. The newer CodeNEXT Austin plan has been in discussion for 10 years, and progress has been slow. However, some exceptions have been made, such as the Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD) which allows for different rules for certain areas of the city. For example, 12th Street was exempt from the current zoning plan and was developed as an NCCD.

When developing on 12th Street, the rules were slightly different, and 15 single-family houses were built on the site. However, the current Land Development code is not incentivized to break land up into individual ownership, making it difficult to build individual homes. The city’s development code also only allows for condos to be built in many cases, which is not ideal for many people who prefer to own their land.

Why Did CodeNEXT Austin Fail?

The development on 12th Street was unique in that 10 individual lots and five on the second parcel allowed for 15 single-family houses on lots ranging from 2500 to 3500 square feet. City planners even viewed the site as a potential model for unique development standards to be spread throughout the city under CodeNEXT. Progress on CodeNEXT Austin has been slow, and many changes have been watered down over the years.

One issue that has arisen is the minimum lot size for single-family lots. Currently, most are zoned as SF-3 with a minimum of 5750 square feet. Changing the minimum lot size and allowing for more units to be built on an individual lot could help to alleviate the housing shortage in Austin.

The housing supply issue in Austin has caused many discussions about zoning changes and how to create more affordable housing. Reaching a consensus about the zoning changes is a challenging task. The government is trying to balance the interests of City staff, developers, and residents. The process of making concessions to get everyone to agree has led to a watered-down version of the zoning changes. 

The city is back to square one, and nothing has been done to address the housing supply issue. The issue is that no one is making executive decisions because everyone is governed by a mass consensus where no one agrees.

The zoning changes require a supermajority vote of 8 out of 11 council members, and the valid petition process allows adjacent landowners to appeal and change the metric within the city charter. The process of getting a vote on code changes is a massive undertaking that only happens every few years. The complexity of the new code poses an inherent risk. There are ongoing fights about mapping and details that come with a new code.

The city’s council members are trying to represent their constituents’ interests, but their votes don’t necessarily represent the needs of the city. Kathy Tova is no longer in District nine, and the city has a new pro-housing council member. The city’s ties are changing, and Kirk Watson, the mayor, is a very effective politician. 

Getting a consensus about the zoning changes is still a massive undertaking that requires an agreement between everyone. Zoning changes are essential to address the housing supply issue, but getting everyone to agree on the changes is a challenging task that requires an executive decision.

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Potential Solutions to Austin’s Zoning

In today’s world, the issue of urban density has become a hot topic of discussion. On one hand, people want to live in areas that have a small environmental footprint, and on the other hand, there is a need for parking spaces. The economic impact of these issues is also worth considering. Lenders require a sufficient parking ratio, which makes sense, but this requirement can sometimes conflict with the desire for a more compact living environment.

If we look at some of the new downtown buildings, we can see that the need for parking has led to the construction of buildings that are essentially just towers. The Modern, for example, has eight stories of parking, which is a significant amount of space that could be better used for housing or other purposes.

There are examples of buildings that have been developed without any parking spaces at all, such as a 40-story tower in Little Italy, San Diego, which is made up of efficient units and is very walkable. This is a unique set of circumstances, and it’s not always possible to develop buildings without any parking spaces.

For a progressive city that focuses on bike lanes and sidewalks, it’s essential to ensure that the land development code is in line with the goal of providing housing. This means finding a balance between the need for parking and the need for more compact living spaces.

While requiring some parking spaces may be necessary, it’s important to consider the economic impact and explore alternative options, such as subterranean parking, to ensure that the cost structure and economics of the building are viable. The aim should be to create a more sustainable and livable urban environment.

Eminent Domain Failure

Austin bought a property after they had sold their first spec deal. This was back when he was still a pharmacist. They had done a new build in 78704, and when they sold that, they used the proceeds to buy a property that was a boarded-up Old Church of Christ that looked like an old barn. It’s located on Montopolis at 500 Montopolis Drive – there’s one right here, by the way.

The building was overgrown and falling down, and it had a historical plaque on it. They learned through a historical study done by Travis County that it was originally an old black church that had an adjacent schoolhouse to educate the community. At that time, AISD, or at that time Travis County, was in charge of education and had excluded African-American students from public schools. 

The community itself had built their own school, and they had actually transported this building from Camp Swift and put it on this site to turn into a Schoolhouse. After Brown v. Board, the school was desegregated, and shortly after that, the church was filed under eminent domain by the county to be demolished to eventually build a road that never came to fruition. The church itself was demolished, but the school building was left there.

When they bought the property in 2016 for around $250,000, it was a weird situation because it was on about an acre but had a huge section of right away that the city of Austin had taken. I think TxDOT may have taken it, but they were going to connect Grove and Montopolis Drive to make a connection that zigzagged across to get out to the airport.

However, due to some environmental concerns at the Riverside Golf Course (which used to be the old ACC), they couldn’t get the environmental regulations through to connect the road. Eventually, the road was abandoned, and they went through and worked at length with the transportation department to get them to agree to release that land.

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They hadn’t thought much about what to do with the building – they had thought about the potential to demolish it and went ahead and applied for a demo permit. They came across an issue when they applied – the building was a historic black school. When the original church was there, they had developed the school adjacent to it to educate the community.

When the school closed after desegregation, the church eventually lost its population and closed its doors. The building had been vacant for 41 years and boarded up since the early ’80s. It was in good condition, ironically, because the owner and the deacon of the church own Montopolis Supply, which is Yoshi metal. They had sheeted the entire building in metal, which had actually done a really good job of preserving the building.

With discussions about the history and trying to figure out what to do with the building, they eventually got the idea to turn it into a music venue. They started with an outdoor event that was a fundraiser for the Montopolis Neighborhood Association, which was a big hit. From there, they started booking more shows and events, and things just kind of took off. The venue has become very popular, and it’s been great to see the community come together to enjoy live music in such a unique space.

How the Demolition Became a Big Deal

How did the issue of the church’s demolition become such a big deal in the community? The church’s historic nature and the city’s actions to tear down a black community facility to build it have added to the controversy. This act has broken the history of the community, and the church’s remnant was left unattended. The problem mainly lies in the zoning laws and the future land use maps that dictate zoning and planning. 

Most single churches in Austin get changed to single-family zoning if they’re in a neighborhood, and any change has to go through the future land use map process, Planning Commission, and Council.

This issue ties back to the complexity of the city code, and trying to change something that’s been vacant for 40 years and is not operating as anything presents enormous expenses. 

To change the zoning, the city staff could be the applicant on the church’s behalf, but when community advocates wanted the city to purchase the church, everything went off the rails. 

At that time, the city didn’t have the funds to buy the church, but during the process, a rare partnership between Kathy Tovo and Ellen Foxley changed the rules, allowing the city to draw from a new fund that could pay for the church. However, the problem arose when the government determines the fair price for the property through eminent domain. 

Any government entity can take whatever they want and pay whatever they think is fair, and the City of Austin spends a lot of money on individual appraisers to give whatever value they want.

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