CodeNEXT has been out for a couple of weeks and even many land use professionals do not yet know what’s in the code. I doubt that anyone outside the coders themselves and (I hope) the planning staff has mastered CodeNEXT’s nuances and complexity.
I have not become a CodeNEXT expert in two weeks. But after spending more time than I’ll admit reading the code, both alone and in groups, I think I can shed light on some of the regulations. In this part, I will take a stab at explaining CodeNEXT’s transect zones.
I have to make an important caveat. The planning staff has released the draft code whole without any detailed explainers of its own. There has been no public input session other than the initial roll out event, when no one knew enough to ask intelligent questions. The form-based code contains some fuzzy concepts. The public has not been given a chance to ask for clarifications (or, at least, none have been given to date). Nor has the public been able just to ask a warm body, “Did you really mean this?” It’s possible I’ve misinterpreted something. If so, I’ll revise this to correct misinterpretations or errors as I discover them.
We are getting two zoning codes.
CodeNEXT takes a lot of work to understand. The reason (in part) is that CodeNEXT is actually two zoning codes. One of the codes is a New Urbanist, form-based code built around “transects.” It has lots of new regulations governing the massing and dimensions of business and is preoccupied with building types and building footprints. It regulates uses, too, but its use regulations encourage mixed-use development. Every transect zone permits some form of residential housing.
CodeNEXT’s other code is a standard Euclidean code that carries forward existing code to one degree or another. The nomenclature has changed, but there are still the equivalent of the SF-3, multi-family and commercial districts that we have today. It strictly segregates commercial and residential uses except in mixed-use districts, downtown, and a few types of special districts and PUDs.
Where will the form-based code apply?
We expect the form-based code to apply in most of Austin’s urban core. Opticos, the code writer, has stated that the form-based code is intended for the walkable urban core and the traditional Euclidean code is intended for the drivable suburban areas. Opticos has also explained that the traditional code, in particular, is reserved for areas that are still developing or that need further planning before being ready for a form-based code.
The transect zones probably will apply to most if not all of the “urban core,” defined as the area bounded by 183 on the north and east, Ben White on the south, and some concatenation of MoPac, Lake Austin, and another to-be-determined boundary to the west. But the form-based code might also apply to the neighborhoods between Ben White and Slaughter and to the neighborhoods north of 183.
But, again, we are all guessing until the zoning maps are released. One thing we know for sure: industrial land will be governed by traditional zoning because there are no “industrial” transect zones.
Large scale suburban developers will care more about the traditional zoning code being carried from our current code than the form-based regulations. Infill developers, commercial corridor developers and home remodelers will care more about the form-based regulations.
What is the transect?
The transect is the cross-section of development patterns, from most rural to most urban. Here is Wikipedia:
The urban-to-rural transect is an urban planning model created by New Urbanist Andrés Duany. The transect defines a series of zones that transition from sparse rural farmhouses to the dense urban core. Each zone is fractal in that it contains a similar transition from the edge to the center of the neighborhood. The transect is an important part of the New Urbanism and smart growth movements. Duany's firm DPZ has embodied the transect philosophy into their SmartCode generic planning code for municipal ordinances.
The importance of transect planning is particularly seen as a contrast to modern Euclidean zoning and suburban development. In these patterns, large areas are dedicated to a single purpose, such as housing, offices, shopping, and they can only be accessed via major roads. The transect, by contrast, decreases the necessity for long-distance travel by any means.
The CodeNEXT materials recognize six transect categories, from most rural to central business district. Because the form-based code will be applied to the existing built up area, the code only regulates categories T3 to T6. Zones T1 and T2 will be regulated by the standard zoning code.
Here’s the key takeaway if planning theory makes your eyes glaze. Transect zones are just zoning districts. They do what zoning districts do – they specify use and development regulations. They are underpinned by a different planning philosophy and use different nomenclature than standard zoning. But, legally, there is no difference between “transect zone” and “zoning district.” And you don’t have to grasp the theoretical planning differences between transect zones to understand the regulations in each.
For those seeking zoning changes, however, it will be necessary to understand the philosophical differences. You can’t ask Council to rezone your property from T3N.DS to T4N.IS unless you understand what kinds of places these zones are trying to create.
Land use professionals need to brush up on their New Urbanism.
What are these weird new transect zone designations?
The name of each transect zone – T4N.IS, for example -- is a sort of code that can be read using the CodNEXT decoder ring. “T4N.IS” contains three pieces of information: the transect category (T4), the “form description” (N) and the “character component” (IS).
The first two characters, as discussed, designate the transect category. T3 is a suburban form, consisting mostly of detached single-family housing or duplexes. T4 is (or is supposed to be) a “general urban form,” containing a denser mix of small- to medium building types, at sufficient densities to support transit. T4 transitions to T5, a truly urban form with block-size development. T6 is reserved for downtown and possibly the Domain.
After each transect designation is a “form description.” These designate the type and mix of buildings in the zone. The “NE” (“neighborhood edge”) zone consists primarily of detached single-family homes. The “N” (neighborhood) zone consists primarily of detached residential buildings, although a more varied building type than NE. The “MS” (“main street”) zone consists of low-rise (T4) or mid-rise (T5) commercial or mixed use, presumably along existing arterials and commercial corridors. “U” refers to attached buildings with block-scale envelopes. “UC” refers to high-rise development (basically, downtown).
Most of central Austin today would be classified either as “N,” NE” or MS.” Our dominant building pattern consists of a commercial street (S. Congress, N. Lamar, etc.) – the “MS” -- backing up to predominantly single-family neighborhoods -- the “N” or “NE.” It’s not clear that we have any areas that would be classified today as “U” other than West Campus (which will continue to be regulated by the UNO regulations). South Lamar and Burnet and a few other streets have mid-rise VMU buildings that are the bread and butter of a “U” zone. I suppose it will be easy enough to replace the VMU designation with the U designations on these streets and call it a day. But “U” zones are not supposed to be limited to main streets. (That’s why we have the “MS” form.) We won’t know where planners think the “U” neighborhoods are supposed to be until the map is released.
Some transects zones are further classified by the depth of the front setback. Some zones have buildings with “deep” setbacks ("DS"), such as single family homes set well back from the street (Northwest Hills, for example). Other zones are characterized by "intermediate" building setbacks ("IS") (Central East Austin) or short setbacks ("SS") Each of these setback "components" gets its own zone. This is called the “character component.” If there is no separate character component in the zone name, a zero lot line is presumed. The theory is that setbacks are an important component in determining the look and feel of a neighborhood, and so the regulations should specify uniform setbacks throughout the zone.
Finally, seven of the transect zones have an “open” sub-zone, permitting a broader range of uses. In most cases, the purpose is to permit more commercial, retail and office uses in a neighborhood type than we would be comfortable allowing across the board. For example, the regular T5U.SS zone does not allow general retail, but the “open” sub-zone does.
Counting open sub-zones and regular sub-zones as different zones, there are 20 distinct transect zones.
What does the form-based code regulate?
A lot. A lot more stuff than today.
Despite its notorious complexity, the current code uses just a few rows of a table to regulate the form of new development. It regulates minimum lot area, minimum lot frontage, building setbacks, height, impervious cover, building coverage, floor-to-area ratio and, for multi-family, minimum site area per dwelling unit. These all have been part of zoning’s standard toolkit for nearly a century. Today’s code is complicated because of the add-ons – the special duplex regulations, the compatibility standards, the commercial design standards, the McMansion ordinance – and their interplay with environmental, transportation and other regulations.
Each transect zone’s regulations are set forth in a series of 13 tables plus an introductory “General Intent” section. Together, the tables take up about seven pages per zone. Each transect zone uses the same set of tables, but of course the specifics in the tables vary from zone to zone.
I will save a detailed discussion of the form-based regulations for another post, but CodeNEXT's key innovations are the “building form,” “building type” and “building footprint” regulations. “Building form” refers to the scale of development. The code distinguishes between “small house," "medium house,” “large house,” “block” and "large block" forms.
There are 19 distinct "building types." There are six types of single-family detached homes or combinations of detached homes, and three different types of duplexes, so there is less variety than one might surmise from the raw number.
Each building form is paired with a number of building types. For example, "cottage house," "small house," "duplex front-and-back" and "duplex stacked" are all instances of the "small house" building form. Certain building forms are allowed in each transect zone, but the transect zone does not necessarily allow all building types associated with that form. For example, below is the “building type” table for T3NE.WL. ("WL" here stands for "wide lot"). It permits the "medium housing form.” Within that form, it permits the "wide house," "duplex side-by-side", and "long house" building types. It does not permit, though, the “duplex front-and-back” or the "medium multi-plex" even though these are also examples of the medium housing form.
CodeNEXT also regulates the building footprint of each building type. (Ed. "building footprint" is my term. The code uses "building envelope.") For example, as the table above depicts, the main body of a "duplex: side-by-side" in the T3N.WL ("wide lot") zone must fit within a 70' by 35' footprint. In this case, a secondary "wing" is also permitted, which has its own footprint requirement. Here, the wing is allowed in front of the main body of the house. In most other cases, the wing must be located to the rear or side. The purpose of having a different "wing" footprint, presumably, is to break up the massing of otherwise bulky buildings. That job is done today by the McMansion ordinance, which will cease to apply in the transect zones.
This extraordinary level of detail, Opticos will argue, is a feature, not a bug, of the new code. Detailed regulations are not necessarily complex if they are clear and easy to apply. And the idea behind form-based regulation, as the name implies, is to exercise control over the form of a building. The code essentially tells you what your building must look like, within limit, and thus theoretically provides certainty about the form of development within a given zone. This is intended, among other things, to assuage opposition to new development.
One consequence of these detailed regulations, though, is that it is very difficult to do a side-by-side comparison with the old zoning code. The new code is less flexible than than the old code. That's just the nature of a form-based code. But it is possible that the new code nevertheless allows more building types than existing code by, for example, allowing ADU's or small apartment buildings in more zones.
This, though, is a discussion for another post.
Edit: 12/18/17 to correct number of building types and expand discussion of character components.
Disclaimer: The statements above are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the opinions of any client or other person or organization. Please see the About Me section.