Community Impact has a nice write up on the Land Development Code rewrite listening sessions the City hosted in September. It features two contrasting perspectives on the LDC's undeniable complexity:
The last time Austin’s code had a comprehensive revision was in 1984. During a public presentation, city staff pointed out that Apple Inc. introduced its first Macintosh personal computer the year the city’s code was last revised. The current code has grown to include more than 800 pages of information.
Because of its age and the amount of changes made, the code has become a challenging document for city staff to interpret, [City planner George] Zapalac said.
“Our existing code has been amended hundreds of times, in piecemeal fashion, but we’ve never taken a comprehensive look at how all those various amendments impact each other and whether they’re helping to achieve the kind of community that we need,” Zapalac said.
Zapalac said the code is overdue for a comprehensive rewrite. Some concerns that arise from a complicated code sometimes lead to confusion on the part of developers or residents looking to renovate or remodel their homes.
“Sometimes a person can prepare their plans, submit them to the city for review, be well along in the review process and then discover that a regulation they hadn’t anticipated will apply. They will have to redesign, or they may not be able to do what they want to do at all,” Zapalac said.
I think it's safe to say that that's the conventional wisdom at One Texas Center: the LDC is too complex and unwieldy. Even a complex land development code has its defenders, though:
Cory Walton, an Austin resident who lives in the Bouldin Neighborhood, attended one of the public workshops on the LDC rewrite. He said he sees the current complicated code as a positive development because the additional layers of complexity were necessary to address unforeseen problems in the code.
“Those are additional layers of protection that have come over the years because of past oversights or past loopholes or past abuses that had to be patched up,” Walton said.
I was working on a deep, thoughtful piece about the diminishing marginal returns to regulatory complexity, but decided to chuck it. Instead let me simply note that Austin's nice, central neighborhoods managed to develop as nice, central neighborhoods without complicated land-use regulations.
Take the Bouldin Creek neighborhood. Its nice street grid was set and the lots mostly platted even before Austin adopted its first subdivision ordinance in 1946. The neighborhood, in fact, had begun to develop before Austin adopted its original 1931 zoning ordinance, which is all of 20 pages. Most of the surviving original homes and commercial buildings on South First Street were built either under the 1931 ordinance or the 1941 revision which, at 50 pages, is still remarkably lean by today's standard.
By contrast, my copy of the current code devotes more than 23 pages just to the McMansion regulations. That's 23 pages spent doing nothing but regulating the setbacks, sizes and building envelopes of single-family homes. And, yes, you can find people who claim the McMansion ordinance doesn't go far enough and is riddled with loopholes.
The complexity of today's code has little to do with making nice places. It's instead a product of the lack of consensus about how the city should develop. In the 1930s and 1940s, people tended to be on the same page when it came to development. The people who initially settled in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, for example, had mostly modest incomes, and mostly built modest homes. I doubt there was demand for anything but relatively small single-family homes and small commercial buildings south of the river back then.
You don't need a very complicated code when almost everyone wants to build the same thing. You just write a code that allows what most everyone would build anyway, leave a little margin for error, and you're done. The only time the code will actually matter is when it's used to reign in the owner with highly idiosyncratic taste. But these owners are rare.
By contrast, today we have no widespread agreement on what sort of development ought to be permitted. There are lots of people who want to build things that are not authorized by the LDC, not just the rare, idiosyncratic property owner. Part of the reason is that our zoning code sets entitlements well below market demand, at least in the urban core. Many people want to build much larger structures than homeowners built in the 1930s or 1940s. (That's not a sign of a decline in good taste, or rising greed, or anything of the sort. People just tend to build one kind of structure on a lot that is worth $500 and a different kind of structure when the same dirt is worth $300,000.) The systematic underzoning is not the only reason, though. The city is a much larger, more diverse and more complicated place than it was in the 1930s and 1940s. It's only natural that there is less consensus on development.
This lack of consensus has consequences. We expect our LDC today to keep people from building stuff they really, really want to build. A code that is trying to keep a bunch of people from doing what they want to do will get complicated, fast. When you set the allowable development density or floor-to-area ratio or whatever below demand, then owners/developers will naturally build to the limit, which means they will constantly test the limit. I don't mean by breaking the rules, but rather by configuring their property or using their entitlements in creative ways to maximize their building space. This constant testing triggers a legislative response by those who want to maintain the status quo, which triggers more testing, and so on, and the Code thereby accrues layer after layer of complexity.