Februray 3, 2015
For years, Austin developers have been significantly increasing their real estate entitlements by circumventing established land use regulations through the use of a flexible form of zoning called planned unit development, or PUD.
A planned unit development allows a city to set aside rigid zoning rules in order to mix and cluster land uses and dwelling types and provide more usable open space. Good PUDs can create large-scale, better-designed, better-serviced projects where people can live, work, learn, shop and play in one place (Think Seaholm). Good PUDs can create a more livable, affordable and sustainable community.
In Austin, these developments are processed in two phases, or tiers. Tier One is a basic review to determine if a project qualifies. Tier Two is where the project is enhanced through the use of negotiated bonuses and benefits. During Tier One, a development is reviewed for its size, use, consistency and compatibility. Large sites (10 or more acres) are required to accommodate multiple uses and provide space for effective buffering. In Austin, three recent South Shore PUDs are neither on large sites nor mixed-use (High-rise residential or office buildings with a ground floor coffee shop are not mixed-use). However, by calling them PUDs, all three developers were able to significantly increase project densities and heights.
In Tier One, a PUD is also reviewed for its “consistency” with adopted plans and its “compatibility” with surroundingneighborhoods. Several currently proposed Austin PUDs fail both of these criteria. A developed low-rise office park on North Mo-Pac Boulevard designated as a low-intensity neighborhood center in Imagine Austin seeks to quadruple its height and density. And a vacant tract on Loop 360 zoned residential and restricted by Hill Country regulations wants to switch to offices and move a lot of dirt. Many Austin PUDs should not go beyond Tier One.
Tier Two is the negotiation or bargaining phase. Starting from a baseline, which is current zoning, developers may be given bonuses, such as added uses, density and height, in return for providing benefits that make the project “superior” and the community better. This phase should always result in a “win-win” situation for both parties. The value of bonuses should closely equal the value of benefits. The purpose of a planned unit development is to create a better project. Increased real estate value and profit is a byproduct.
Other cities do a much better job than Austin in negotiating PUD benefits. While Austin accepts the “reservation” of public facility sites for future purchase, other cities require actual dedication of sites and construction of facilities. While Austin accepts land in flood plains or in the path of future roadways for parks, other cities require actual dedication and improvement of usable and accessible sites. While Austin accepts monetary contributions for off-site affordable housing, other cities require provision of on-site affordable units. And Austin accepts “two stars” out of a “five-star” energy rating system. To most individuals, achieving only two out of a possible five of anything is not a superior accomplishment.
In Austin, the playing field on which PUDs are negotiated is heavily tilted in favor of the developer. This is because, in its effort to be “big business friendly,” the city has become overly deferential toward developers. City staff also wrongly and regularly encourage neighbors to negotiate directly with developer attorneys and engineers. This is like sending David to meet Goliath without a slingshot.
The city has long known of its PUD problem but has done little to correct it.
Andres Duany, the highly-respected New Urbanist, once noted that Austin’s use of planned unit developments had been taken over by lawyers and become a “disease.” The city itself admits that its PUDs do not adequately guarantee superior results, and the public is often skeptical of these projects.
Austin should start using planned unit developments correctly, or not at all.
Duncan is a formerAustin planning director and current member of the CodeNext committee that is preparing a new land development code for the city.
James Duncan is a former Austin planning director.