The Austin of Change Part 1 of 4

September 11, 2009

By Travis G. Young, AIA

Principal, Studio Momentum Architects, PC

This is a partial response to an article posted by Roselind Hejl, CRS, concerning the effect of the McMansion Ordinance on the City of Austin.  I do not agree with all of her positions or arguments, however, she is correct when it comes to the costs associated with remodeling older, inefficient structures in existing neighborhoods.  My comments below are my personal take on the Residential Design and Compatibility Standards (RDCS) and how it affects Austin’s growth.

Having worked within the City of Austin central core since 1991, I have seen many of the changes and heard the arguments surrounding change, density, and growth.  Austin has a struggle with, and is constantly arguing about, how nostalgia for the past must trump vision for the future and vice versa.  I have found myself squarely on the “vision” side of the debate, and my reasons are many.  First, people want to live here, and as long as they keep coming here, we need to figure out how best to accommodate them.  Second, other cities within the United States have grappled with this problem, and we as Austinites should look to the most successful cities to create a roadmap for our growth.  Third, a vibrant city is one that is diverse and includes families from the widest possible spectrum of income, size, and employment categories.  And last, a healthy city is one that is sustainable, maximizes public and alternative transportation options, recycles, and uses water and energy wisely.

I intend this article to be the first of four concerning the points noted above, and how the RDCS is both a symptom and a reactionary response to a City in the throws of change.  As an architect, the complicated ordinance has become a source of work.  Homeowners must hire an advocate familiar with the ordinance in order to obtain the necessary permits to remodel and add to existing structures.  Further, size regulations force smaller, efficient structures that creatively share space.  In this regard the ordinance is a success.  In relation to handling the inevitable density that we need, it has become a roadblock.

People are moving to Austin.  It is one of the few cities in the nation that continues to experience consistent growth.  Even through economic downturns, depression and wars, Austin has grown.  It appears that this will continue to be the case.  Several studies and responses from local government address the issue of Austin’s consistent growth pattern.  Cid Galindo’s Sustainable City Initiative, The Envision Central Texas Plan, and Mayor Will Wynn’s Climate Protection Plan and currently, the City has embarked on a new Comprehensive Plan, that will shape our future.  Mr. Galindo, a former Planning Commissioner and local developer, created an insightful plan for focusing the population growth away from our vital resources such as the aquifer recharge zone, and toward a re-densification of the City core, and expansion to the less environmentally sensitive north east and south east.  This makes sense; unfortunately the exact opposite is occurring.  Austin’s highest growth rate is over the recharge zone to the South West part of town.  Chris Bradford the Austin Contrarian, makes note of this on his recent discussion of density and the Tale of Two Cities.

How do we accommodate this growth, and where will Austin’s future families live?  These are questions we can all grapple with.  Change is coming, and one can shape and embrace it, or tilt at windmills….so to speak.   More urban density will continue to result in fractious debate posing NIMBY’s against Developers, and Neighborhood Groups against Corporations.  But educated responses, and thoughtful consideration will trump angry outbursts from the “No-Changers”.


So, exactly where are we supposed to put all of our incoming population?  Current emphasis within the City of Austin has been on the development of highly dense corridor streets with mixed-use buildings that line the perimeter of existing neighborhoods.  City Staff have implemented this strategy through the VMU overlay as neighborhood plans have been approved.  Steven Oliver, current AIA president, recently commented on this in his article on the Austinist Blog.

Also, we have seen pocket developments starting to occur around the hopefully future light rail.  Called TOD’s (transportation oriented developments) these typically have a required “affordability” requirement, in order to establish greater density than currently allowed in existing zoning regulations.  Numerous parking reductions, open space requirements, and pedestrian linkage to the associated train stations, are intended to minimize reliance on the car, focus participation in public transportation, and provide mixes of commercial and residential structures.  The Triangle development, although sadly not the most inspiring of architecture, works from a planning perspective, and has resulted in vibrant “community-within-a-community”.

Hopefully these efforts will result in providing some of the housing stock we will need in future years, and provide the density necessary to support the public transportation infrastructure we are investing in currently.

Traditionally, there have been other methods to accomodate density within existing neighborhoods.  The City Land Development Code currently has three defined uses associated with these methods.  Those are:  Two Family Residential, Duplex Residential, and Secondary Apartment.


Duplex and Secondary Apartment development have proven historically to be a method to obtain affordable rental housing, secondary income for property owners, and a means to house the extended family.  The new RDCS has severely restricted the options for duplex development, and redefined Two Family Residential to be essentially Single Family with a garage apartment.  Secondary Apartment is allowed only on lots of significant size, although a few neighborhood plans (Brentwood being one) have adopted the smart growth amendments that allow SA on smaller lots.  The RDCS, in failing to promote this type of development,  has missed a great oportunity in Austin’s progress toward a renewed, sustainable city.

The RDCS Ordinance not only affected the size of a single family home, it also rewrote the duplex ordinance language FOR THE ENTIRE CITY, even areas outside the central core.  Some of the changes include requirements for a common wall, perpendicular to the street address, and a common roof where living units must be connected by spaces other than carports or garages.  These two changes force the duplex structure to be a single massive building, as opposed to two smaller separate buildings.  Further the common wall and common roof requirements make access to daylight, cross ventilation, and privacy difficult—if not impossible, given the configuration of most existing lots.  The goal was to make the duplex look like a single house, however the negatives affect the quality of life of the occupants, and therefore make this type of development less desirable.  The density afforded duplex development, ie. two families on one lot, is compromised.  Further, the form and shape prescribed by the RDCS Ordinance has disregarded traditional forms for duplexes, and created something very prescriptive with little ability for the designer to innovate.  When one attempts to place duplexes on the inner city lots where the RDCS Ordinance has created it’s “tent” and FAR restrictions, it becomes even more difficult.

Secondary Apartments were described in Austin’s Smart Growth Amendments, and are defined in Austin’s Land Development Code, as small second living units on existing lots.  They are a maximum of 850 s.f. in size, and must be set in the “rear” of the lot, behind an existing house.  An additional parking space is also required over and above the minimum two spaces required for the single-family house.  Recently, Austin has embarked on the Neighborhood Planning Process, that enables neighborhoods to adopt the Smart Growth Amendments if they choose.  In regards to Secondary Apartments, the Smart Growth Amendments allowed the use on lots smaller than the LDC required 7,000 s.f.  This would open up the potential of secondary units on many more lots in existing neighborhoods.  Unfortunately many neighborhood plans were being resolved while the Mcmansion debate raged.  Therefore the smart growth amendments in many neighborhoods were seen as further disruptions to the existing housing morphology.  The tent and far restrictions of the RDCS have a detrimental effect on even these small structures unless a lot is significantly larger than average, or the lot backs up to an alley.

That’s enough for now.  In my next article, we will look at cities that have embraced density and have attempted to control inevitable development in interesting and progressive ways.