Although I've spent the last ten days bashing it, I concede that an outright repeal of the McMansion ordinance is unlikely. But what we've got certainly can be improved.
Below is my proposal for doing that. My ordinance has three advantages over the current ordinance: (1) it is neighborhood specific; (2) it is intended to help neighborhoods urbanize gracefully, not to stave off urbanization forever; and (3) it applies only in neighborhoods that we know want it.
So here it is:
FAR requirements. The current ordinance fixes the FAR, or ratio of Gross Floor Area to lot size, at .4, regardless of the typical FAR in the neighborhood. It epitomizes the ordinance's one-size-fits-all approach.
It would be better for the City to adopt a separate FAR limit for each neighborhood. I'd suggest the neighborhood's average (mean) FAR plus one standard deviation plus .05. This would accommodate development at the upper end of "average," while preventing outliers from serving as a benchmark.
For example, if the mean FAR in a neighborhood is .25 with a standard deviation of .1, the new FAR limit would be .25 + .1 +.05 = .4, the current limit. (Under this proposal, the maximum FAR for many neighborhoods actually would decrease from the current max of .4.)
Here's the kicker: The FAR limit would gradually be relaxed and eventually phased out. I would add .05 to the maximum FAR per year for five years, and then eliminate it.
Minimum guaranteed home size. 2,300 square feet is too small for many neighborhoods. I again would use the neighborhood as a guide, and set the minimum equal to the average neighborhood home size plus one standard deviation (but in no event less than 2,300 square feet.) This would raise the minimum in places like Allendale and Barton Hills to a more neighborhood-appropriate 2,800 square feet.
Building height. It's now 32 feet. I'd return it to the former limit of 35 feet at the rate of one foot per year.
Building envelope. The current building envelope's boundaries are determined by imaginary lines running from the side to the top at 45 degree angles. I'd increase that angle by 10 degrees per year for four years, and eliminate the building envelope completely after five years.
Yard setbacks. Set the front and rear building setbacks at the neighborhood average minus one standard deviation. Reduce them at the rate of 2 feet per year or so until we're back to original setbacks.
Height measurement. Measure building height from finished grade (the old rule), with a narrow exception aimed at "pedestals."
Garages and second-story porches. Exclude these from the calculation of Gross Floor Area.
Basements. Allow them to stick a couple feet above finished grade. The current ordinance does not permit basements to have any natural light.
A vote. Require neighborhoods to opt in rather than opt out, and require them to do it through a fair election -- i.e., one that complies with the Texas Election Code. The ordinance entrusts the opt-out decision to neighborhood planning groups. The neighborhood groups have erected a number of barriers to the franchise. If they're going to be delegated real authority, the City had better make sure their elections are up to code.
By writing a sunset provision into the the McMansion ordinance, we guarantee our neighborhoods an opportunity for appropriate development. By gradually relaxing the McMansion restrictions, we guarantee our neighborhoods an oportunity for a graceful transition. When the restrictions will be the tightest -- at the beginning --developers and lot owners will have an incentive to develop just the large lots; neither this proposal nor the actual ordinance will have much effect here. Think of 12,000-15,000 square foot lots in Tarrytown. But the phase-out will encourage owners to hold the marginal lots (i.e., the small lots) out of development for a year or two or more. This will save us from the most jarring mismatches when the small lots are finally developed.
Anyway, that's how it would work in theory. At least we'd know that we haven't stuck ourselves with perpetually substandard housing stock.