austin compatibility

We reported last week on the Austin City Council’s “midnight special” proposals to reduce the compatibility of corridor buildings with adjoining or nearby residential uses. The details will remain unclear until the city releases the council’s amended Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) ordinance and its resolution dealing with proposed general changes to compatibility standards. But the council’s discussion highlighted a consistent challenge for the city in code revisions: making decisions based on complete and accurate data.

For example, the council proposed new parking standards for VMU corridor buildings, but the new parking reductions were clearly arbitrary and without supporting data. And in choosing the affordability requirement (the percentage of affordable units) for VMU developments receiving relaxed development standards and greater height, the council adopted a lower requirement instead of a higher one, admitting they didn’t have the data to make such a choice and had to rely on anecdotal information from “stakeholders” (developers), who naturally wanted to provide less affordable units for greater profitability.

Then there was the incorrect data provided by the city as fact. In support of relaxing compatibility standards, the city produced a bar graph comparing Austin’s compatibility standards with those of other cities, claiming Austin’s compatibility regulation are more restrictive than other cities. Now, Austin has long valued compatibility for commercial or high-density residential uses with single family neighborhoods and has required more separation for 5-10 story buildings than other cities. But pointing that out wasn’t enough. The city’s bar graph exaggerated those differences between Austin and other cities with cherry-picked, and in some cases incorrect, facts.

For example, the bar graph showed that cities like Dallas and San Antonio allowed 90-foot buildings only 50 feet from single-family homes. On its face, this was preposterous. In fact, Dallas allows only 16.6 feet in height at the 50-foot setback line, and San Antonio allows only 35 feet in height 50 feet from single-family homes. Some cities on the chart actually limit corridor height near neighborhoods to 50 feet, not 90 feet. Tellingly, the inaccurate data in the bar chart aligns with the city’s previously abandoned CodeNEXT 50-foot compatibility standard.

Access to light and air has long been recognized as integral to a quality urban life and as a fundamental part of zoning. This protection is more important as redevelopment occurs and cities get more dense. Compatibility between structures and uses, not incompatibility, is the foundation of affordable, livable large cities. We can debate levels of compatibility appropriate for corridors, but those debates cannot be against a backdrop of misinformation supplied by the city. Notice, public input, and facts are the foundation of good public policy.