Refined form standards help strike a balance in CodeNEXT Draft 2

Sep 28, 2017 - 9:44 am

Refined form standards help strike a balance in CodeNEXT Draft 2

When thinking about zoning, many people think of the kinds of housing or businesses located in a given area – what planners call use-based zoning.  But, that’s only part of what needs to be considered when planning for livable cities.

Another consideration is the form standards that define such things as building facades, the shape and positioning of buildings on lots, and how structures relate to nearby buildings and the street.

Regulations that control a building’s form have a significant impact on the character of neighborhoods. Cities that carefully craft form controls can create places that feel comfortable to walk around in. When buildings are compatible with one another, and with the public streetscape, it promotes more livable environments and helps cities protect the physical character of individual neighborhoods.

In 2010, Austin adopted a set of Residential Design and Compatibility Standards, also known as the McMansion Ordinance, to address concerns about the impact new construction, remodels, and additions were having on neighborhood character. These regulations provided more control over the form of buildings by more precisely regulating building elements like height, the length of an uninterrupted wall face, and roof forms. Because these standards were inserted into the existing land development code as a new subchapter and were applied according to a standalone map, they required code users to search in multiple locations within the code to determine what standards were applicable to them.

The Residential Design and Compatibility Standards in Subchapter F sought to promote neighborhood-scale residential development that was compatible with existing neighborhood-scale residential properties. Additional compatibility standards in Chapter 25-2 Article 10 provide standards to promote large scale residential, commercial and mixed-use development that is compatible with nearby neighborhood-scale residential properties.  In some cases, these standards don’t do enough to ensure that buildings are compatible with one another or that there are appropriate transitions between different parts of the city, such as from a commercial center to a nearby neighborhood. In others, the standards create design limitations that impede other community goals, like accommodating additional housing along Imagine Austin Corridors and Centers. The applicability of compatibility standards in Article 10 are also determined by land uses, which change over time more frequently than building forms or base zoning, making it difficult to predict the long term efficacy and effects of these regulations.

Current compatibility standards rely heavily on distance to achieve compatibility by constraining the height of new development near residential buildings. Relying solely on height doesn’t account for other physical elements, like building orientation, topography, building design, and more. Current standards also fail to provide long-term predictability, because they are tied to building uses, which can change over time. Additionally, they currently apply only to low-intensity residential properties, when any property -- whether single-family, multi-family, or commercial -- could be affected by incompatible development.

CodeNEXT, the rewrite of Austin’s land development code, is meant to strike a balance between fostering the protection of neighborhood character and enabling appropriate areas to absorb more growth through carefully crafted form standards.

Rather than adding regulations on top of zones, form standards have been incorporated into appropriate base zones. This helps ensure new development will be predictable, and that new structures will be more in keeping with the look and feel of existing communities. The new code doesn’t set out customized regulations for every possible situation, but it offers standards that, when properly implemented, should do a more effective job than what is currently in place. For special cases, there is still a process in place for handling exceptions and modifications.

Among other things, CodeNEXT calls for a transition between new development and existing single-family houses. It allows for more housing types that fall somewhere between single-family dwellings and large multi-family buildings; for example, townhouses, row houses, and house-form multiplexes. Under the existing code, form considerations could be affected by properties  up to 540 feet away from the property under consideration.

The new standards in CodeNEXT are based on adjacency. These new standards are designed to help accommodate smaller infill projects in areas envisioned to achieve growth where today it would be difficult to achieve because of the restrictive and inflexible compatibility standards. This can create more housing opportunities and a mix of uses to foster complete communities, where people can meet their daily needs within walking or biking distance of jobs and amenities. It is also important to note that legacy environmental standards, like the Save Our Springs Ordinance and impervious cover limits, were carried forward.  

CodeNEXT Draft 1 improved upon the current code by creating refined tools to help protect the physical character of neighborhoods and provide single-family neighborhoods with a buffer between their existing neighborhoods and new development. In the first draft, multiple tools were used across zones, and the approach to standards varied. Feedback we received from the public revealed concerns that the standards were not applied consistently and that additional transitions were needed between single-family houses and new development.

For Draft 2, we’ve recalibrated the form standards and applied them more consistently across zones. We’ve refined regulations concerning landscape buffers, building setbacks, and height stepbacks to make them more effective and provide smoother transitions between different areas.

Additionally, we heard from the community that Draft 1 form controls were not flexible enough to handle the landscape of Austin’s neighborhoods, which have changed over time, making a consistent pattern difficult to find. The standards in Draft 1 created unintended non-conformities in existing buildings.

Draft 2 took a new approach to balancing the need for additional form controls by allowing the flexibility needed to accommodate the diverse nature of Austin’s neighborhoods. Standards that have been recalibrated and made more consistent include:

  • Height standards: Simplified and made consistent across zones
  • Lot dimension standards: Simplified to measure only width and area
  • Building placement standards: Made more flexible
  • Other building form standards: Made less prescriptive

Finally, Draft 1 added new zones which allowed for some non-residential uses in house form buildings. This was developed to accommodate what exists along many of Austin’s corridors, where single-family house style buildings are now home to commercial or office uses. This type of zoning was written to accommodate goals in some of the neighborhood plans and helps to ensure that businesses in house-form buildings did not become nonconforming. This is an improvement over existing zoning, which does not specifically allow non-residential uses in residential buildings.  

Public feedback revealed that, while form controls in mixed-use areas are desirable, some uses are incompatible near residential neighborhoods.

Neighborhood-open zones have been reconfigured in Draft 2 to Mixed-Use zones to more clearly identify these zones as allowing a variety of uses. The new Mixed-Use zones have been recalibrated to allow flexibility, while maintaining the house scale in certain zones. The allowed uses have also been refined; in some zones those uses were narrowed to maintain compatibility with nearby residential areas.

Community input has helped us improve the form standards in Draft 2 of CodeNEXT. We hope you’ll continue to offer your feedback on the Draft 2 so we can create a product that is better for all of Austin.