The city of Austin released its most recent version of CodeNEXT on February 12, a fix for the city’s existing zoning code. For some groups, such as the Austin Neighborhood Council, the current draft is insufficient for conflicting wants and concerns. One goal must be common among all groups involved: Housing density needs to greatly increase in the next draft.
The current draft zones much of central Austin’s residential neighborhoods as R2, meaning that a maximum of two units are allowed for each lot. While this is an upgrade from existing R1 zoning, at least three units are needed for many of these neighborhoods. Many of these residential areas lie along MoPac, IH-35, Lamar Boulevard and Congress Avenue, corridors that continue to grow in commerce and home prices. The structure of these attractive neighborhoods must adapt to accommodate demand for the opportunities in Austin.
Because plans are developing for a light rail system on Guadalupe and North Lamar — combined with an expansion of Capital Metro and sidewalk improvements — land around these streets must maximize their potential for dense living. This means the R1 neighborhoods between the streets, not just directly along them, should be zoned to allow for apartments and other more dense developments. A greater concentration of residents can share the rising cost of a lot while workers utilize efficient public transportation. Increased density will not only reduce congestion but slow rising home prices and increase productivity too.
Many central Austin homeowners understandably do not want to see their neighborhoods change. It is easier for myself, a non-native Austinite, to talk about change being for the better. But when citywide elected officials adopted the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, citizens became committed to “favoring compact growth (that) presents an alternative direction to earlier decades of sprawling, low-density development.” Increased housing density is necessary for a city population projected to grow by more than 45 percent from 2014 to 2040.
If Austinites do not pass a compact code, then they should understand the alternative: less efficient transportation, pollution and — among other issues — more intense inflation. The infrastructure required to support a sprawling city will weigh heavily on taxpayers. Residents will also see effects of low-density growth on the environment when existing zoning is not used to its maximum potential. Runoff pollution and air pollution alone are just two of the many environmental problems associated with urban sprawl.
UT students should be particularly concerned about the newest CodeNEXT draft. Anything that limits housing development would greatly increase costs of apartments and houses in the city’s future. Past and enrolled students should participate in CodeNEXT’s future discussions if they want to avoid paying ever-increasing rent in a sprawling jungle.
The way people live is changing. Almost two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities that will produce up to 80 percent of global GDP by 2030. “We all want Austin to prosper, innovate, and lead,” the plan says. “Creating a more compact and efficient city is critical to our ability to connect people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to homes, jobs, schools, arts and cultural amenities.” The city must remain true to its vision and strengthen its urban core in the next version of CodeNEXT.
Kosinski is a journalism freshman from San Rafael, California. Follow him on Twitter @willkosinski.