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City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

by Robert M. Carnochan last modified Feb 10, 2006 03:08 PM
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City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Robert M. Carnochan at February 08. 2006

Hi All - I just received an email from Dean Barrera (of Metrohouse) regarding what seems to be a serious city council issue. Below is a copy of his email and a couple attachments.

Dear Modern Home Fan:

The city council of Austin is set to impose temporary and eventually
permanent ordinances that would further impose restrictions on single family
development in central Austin. They wish to limit the size of a new home to
2,500 square feet or only allow you to rebuild a home 20% larger than the
previously existing structure. They are also proposing other measures to
further restrict inner city redevelopment. Again, the council is
irresponsibly responding to a few vocal activists that do not want Austin to
change in any way. To date they have not proposed any restrictions on style
or architecture but given the fact that the Austin American Statesman front
page article (Saturday, February 4th) of this issue featured two modern
homes in South Austin, we believe that style and architecture will be their
next target. The sponsors of this bill and the activists claim that the
homes featured are not compatible with the existing homes in the
neighborhood. We believe that the building restrictions that they are
proposing are just the first steps in attempting to control style and

We need you help to stop the trampling of our private property rights. The
size of home that you choose to raise your family in should not be dictated
by Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley (Sponsors of the ordinance). Even
if they do not tackle architectural compatibility, Metrohouse believes that
a few people on the city council do not have the right to impose their
opinions about your family's home. We already have plenty of restrictions
in place for development in central Austin that are more restrictive than
most cities. These restrictions force prices up and further restrictions
will cause them to go even higher. Our ability to offer modern homes in
central Austin at a relatively reasonable price will be greatly affected.

There are many other issues that will be affected and we urge you to read
further in the enclosed attachments. Please help us to stop FURTHER
RESTRICTIONS OF ANY KIND by writing to the council members via group email
at the link below:

Even if you think that some of homes being built in central Austin are too
large, ugly or it wise to relinquish our private property
rights? Once we lose them it will be doubly difficult to get them back.
Metrohouse would rather live with a few obscene examples of poor taste than
to relinquish our rights to a few council members.

Thank you,

Dean Barrera

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Emily Bankston at February 09. 2006

I'm curious what others on this board think about this issue. I live in a 50's home, in an older neighborhood, and I really love a lot of the new, modern houses that are being built around town, including in older neighborhoods. I'm sad when modern architectural homes of decades past, or even older homes in perfectly good condition get torn down for new construction that's just plain cheap and ugly. (And it doesn't seem to me that the large, ugly, obscene examples are few in number.) I think trying to build new construction to match the original character of an older neighborhood is ineffective as well and would rather see modern design where there is an opportunity to develop the character of a neighborhood. Some of the neighborhoods around town that have MCM homes mixed in with older homes I think are a great example of how this can work (though I'm sure they were controversial then, as well).

Do you think there any sort of happy medium between protecting older homes and neighborhoods, protecting personal property rights, and encouraging style and construction that really contributes to the redevelopment of central Austin? I know a lot of it is subjective, which makes it a hard question. I'm still learning about this issue and forming my own opinions and would appreciate hearing other people's perspectives. Thanks!

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Mark Meyer at February 09. 2006
For those who care, here is the link to the PDF draft ordinance:

Draft ordinance

Also the Public Hearing is "supposed" to be at 6:00

Mark Meyer

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Mark Meyer at February 09. 2006

OK, to be perfectly honest, after reading the draft ordinance, I find no fault with it. A 2500 s.f. house taking the place of a smaller house, is more than adequate on a standard inner city lot, for any normal family. The way I see it, is that this will actually make affordable modern more acceptable to current neighborhoods, as by virtue of construction and design the massing of many of these sorts of projects is more in line with current existing housing stock than the 3000 s.f. big-dumb-box mentality of the schlock developer drivel.

I can see an issue with MetroHome's business plan, as almost all of their properties have been tear-down re-developments, and most of the duplex units are larger than 1250 s.f. (per side). I can see where that would get Dean's goat, but does someone that is buying a condo really need 1500-1800 s.f.? Methinks not, as quite typically the whole idea of buying a condo is to have minimal space requirements, but in an inner city location, with proximity to all of the social interaction that defrays the need for gargantuan amounts of space.

Also of note is that this SOLELY applies to tear-downs and additions, not to ground up construction on empty lots. Of course that may all change as the ordinance winds its way through the arcane City Council process, but as currently written I think it is OK.


Mark Meyer

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by tom mot at February 09. 2006

I agree with Mark. A 2500sf limit is more than reasonable for a single-family dwelling in the inner-city area of Austin - or pretty much anywhere else in my opinion. Most of the existing homes there now are probably under 1500sf and it seems that many barely breach 1000sf. Building a 3000+sf behemoth amongst the multitudes of modest houses is just too much in my opinion.

Also, the letter posted above has the following sentence, in which the latter half reads quite a bit different than the actual ordinance wording. It bugs me a bit and is inaccurate:

They wish to limit the size of a new home to
2,500 square feet [em]or only allow you to rebuild a home 20% larger than the previously existing structure.[/em]

The first part is correct, but the last part makes it seem that rebuilds, which I imagine are the bulk of the redevelopment in East Austin, and interestingly enough the bulk of Metrohouse's projects (according to Mark), are even more drastically limited. But if I read the ordinance correctly, rebuilds are NOT strictly limited to 20% of the original structures square footage, but rather, they're limited to the GREATER of the following:

a. 0.4 - 1.0 floor-to-area ratio
b. 2500 square feet
c. 20% more square feet than the existing or pre-existing structure

So if you're rebuilding a small structure, you can still go up to 2500sf on the new construction. Actually the 2500 limit can be exceeded a bit, provided you're rebuilding a structure that was over 2100sf.

After reading the wording of that letter, and hearing Mark's insight, I get the feeling that this ordinance is more of an issue to developers like Metrohouse, who stand to profit from larger square-footages, rather than for individual consumers, the majority of which I believe would be satisfied with well-designed homes 2500sf and under.

Also, does anyone here think this ordinance might be a reaction to the rampant development of over-priced and under-inspired large developments a la the Pedernales Lofts?

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Mark Meyer at February 09. 2006

I need to clarify this issue a bit more. As written even the duplex projects MetroHomes undertakes would not be greatly affected, as the floor to area ratio (FAR) begins to take affect. The minimum duplex sized lot is 7000 s.f. At the .4 FAR that would allow for a 2800 s.f. residence or two 1400 s.f. duplexes, which is more than adequate space.

As for what this is a reaction to, it has zero to do with the condo projects, as those are multi-family (MF) or mixed use (MU)zoned properties, and already have very stringent compatibility standards that protect adjacent resodentially zoned properties. What it does have to do with is 3000 s.f. poorly built three story boxes that tower over neighboring 900 s.f. homes.

Looking carefully at MetroHome's list of properties it is easy to see that their unit size is growing. The newest ones (yet to break ground, hence the sky-is-falling attitude) are a bloated 1900 s.f. per unit. Draw your own conclusions.


I guess it's an issue of whose rights - resident or developer

Posted by Michael Green at February 10. 2006

I attended the meeting last night and originally signed up to speak in opposition to the plan. My objections were based on the initial, poorly communicated, restrictions that did not mention the FAR limitation, or how porches and garages would be treated. This misinformation was communicated in the Statesman and via the AIA email newsletter. At the meeting it made clear that the FAR included, effectively, only airconditioned square footage. This means that the typical 50x150 city lot can have 3000 ft of living space. I have a difficult time seeing this as burdensome, confiscatory, or any in way unreasonable when the typical existing home in those areas is probably less than 1500 ft.

I did notice that the majority of homeowners in attendence, who initally opposed the plan, were MUCH more supportive when this was explained to them. The primary, well coordinated, opposition came from those people with a financial interest (investors and developers) in redevelopment of urban Austin. The strength of the opposition reminded me how out-gunned resident homeowners are in trying to protect their interests.

For me this is shaping up as a fight of WHOSE private property rights are at risk. Dean Barrera apparently feels that resident homeowners have none. I disagree. As surely as a .4 FAR limites his ability to build, and _some_ of his property rights, a three story 7500 ft home overlooking my backyard impacts _my_ property rights. Take a look at the Austin City Homes project on Westover; Does Dean really believe that the sudden appearance of a 23' tall, front-to-rear setback wall, with the attendent _4_ airconditioning condensers facing the adjoining home doesn't impact its livability and, consequently, value? Developer and resident homeowner interests and NOT well aligned and this is and effort to balance them; I think it's a good start.

Michael Green

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Mark Meyer at February 10. 2006

As was made evident last night, and was COMPLETELY unclear in the written draft (damned city staff!!!) the interim ordinance is only meant to apply to SINGLE-FAMILY USES, so in essence MetroHomes and Austin City Homes (as well as a few clients of mine) can continue their particular status quo business plan. Duplexes aren't affected, even though I think they should (and based on the Mayor's continuing reiteration, will) be incuded in the ammended ordinance which will surely pass next week.

This is VERY interesting, in that according to staff interpretation this emergency ordinance (although misleadingly couched in terms of drainage) is aimed squarely at big-box McMansions. This should give us all a bit of joy. Interestingly enough the Statesman ONCE AGAIN propagandizes the issue and gets a bunch of mis- and under-informed folks riled up against a City Council that is for once looking out for our interests as citizens.

Curiously it seemed to me that the link to what is in reality a true emergency, the drainage issue is something this ordinance WILL NOT aleviate. There is already plenty of verbiage on the books to help allay drainage issues in the form of what can only be considered POORLY enforced impervious cover requirements. The only enforcement associated is self-reporting at the permit application stage. Once a certificate of occupancy is issued, the problems begin. It seems a better focus of our time and energy would be to craft a mechanism by which the city would go out to troubled drainage areas and pass out fines to those that are flagrantly and dangerously flaunting the impervious cover regulations, no grandfathering allowed, unless the development dates back BEFORE we had ANY impervious cover regs. Also I feel that Landscape companies need to be held accountable for their landscape plans, and required to permit their projects, so that staff can enforce the imp. cover requirements, since buildngs are already adequately enforced.

All in all I don't see this ordinance as hurting anyone, as it is VERY premissive to development as it exists. If you think you need a 3600 s.f. house I'd like to see the orphange you are running. I've recently designed a very gracious 1700 s.f. house with 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a large artists studio, so God only knows how many kids you'd need to fill up a 3600 s.f. home. The excuse that the trending of the average home size is up-up-up is a bogus and dangerously mis-leading bit of data. It means nothing to good development, just like the upward trending of the average American body size is no indication of good health. We need to kill this bigger is better selfish mentality while we have a chance, and we all know it deep down inside.

Mark Meyer

On impervious cover

Posted by Michael Green at February 10. 2006

I think people may be missing the point on how these regulations impact impervious cover and hence drainage. Very few people are going to put all of the square footage in a single story; the costs are prohibitive when compared to multi-floor structures and it eats up yard space. This facts alone virtually ensure that these regulations will result in an effective decrease in impervious cover ... but they still leave homeowners some flexibility.


Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Robert M. Carnochan at February 10. 2006

As a private resident (just a regular consumer, not connected to the business side whatsoever) who lives in area 4 in a newer house (2 story, 1800 sq ft shot gun style home built in 2002 by Dan Day) the thing I’m most concerned about is my fear that this issue is headed toward regulating aesthetic. Here are my thoughts . . .

I think a 2500’ sq ft house on a 40’ – 50’ x 130’ - 150’ city lot is PLENTY big (too big in fact). I think we need to have “reasonable” laws that support the rights of the current owners of neighboring homes. I think these super SF homes are getting out of control and stand out as a distraction to other homes and the landscape of the neighborhood - even the ones by architects/builders of whom I like, e.g. Austin City Homes/Don Harris. Their current project on 45th near Duval is one I drive by all the time, and while I like the look of these homes individually, three of these in a row that are clearly designed with the bottom-line of profit in mind seems irresponsible.

But, the thing I’m most concerned about for the future – and this is VERY slippery slope – is that if the City Council gets honest about disliking the McMansions for their appearance (and I’m at the top of that list), what’s going to keep them from saying they also don’t like the lines of a James Cormier, Travis Young, Don Harris, Mark Meyer, Chris Krager, Odem-Turner, MJ Neal etc, etc, style home? I don’t mind responsible size restrictions that lead to better drainage and size context, but I don’t want the government to be able to legislate aesthetic. I’ve got no solutions, but I hope the people in charge put A LOT of thought behind any decisions they make.

That’s my $0.2


Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by carl schuelke at February 10. 2006

I'm in Tarrytown. The street behind me has had three homes torn down and three McMansions built taking up all of the impervious cover limits, if not more. In addition, one other house has probably seen its footprint double. All of these are higher than our street. Since this has started, I've watched four houses on my street start flooding and all have had to install expensive drainage systems. I don't think those on my street thing the drainage is a non-issue.

We are also in the process of remodeling, and our project would have no problem passing the new regulations. Of course our family of four is taking our 1950s 1100 square foot mid century modern to 1300 square feet.

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by Mark Meyer at February 10. 2006

[quote:cbs format=text/plain]...three McMansions built taking up all of the impervious cover limits, if not more...[/quote]

See, it is impervious cover that is driving the drainage issue NOT F.A.R. I am for this interim ordinance, but rest assured the ordinance will make little to no impact on the drainage problem. To truly fix this we'd expect a more stringent limit on impervious cover, which in problem areas I'd be all for.

For a typical 50'X 125' inner city lot (6250 s.f. lot area) the available square footage under the new FAR is 2500 s.f. The allowable impervious cover for the building is 40% (.4 = same as FAR ratio) or 2500 s.f.

So if I designed a 5000 s.f. house that maxed out the impervious cover, we'd still have the EXACT same impact on drainage issues as if I'd designed a single story 2500 s.f. home.

Or if I was more concerned about limiting my impervious cover I could design a three level home of 1250 s.f. and have 20% impervious cover for the building, but an FAR of .6

As you can clearly see the FAR has NO direct bearing on impervious cover and thereby NO direct bearing on drainage issues.

That is PRECISELY why the couching of the McMansion ordinance in drainage terms peeves me. It is disengenuous at best. Dig deeper and we find that the only way to implement a MORATORIUM is by declaring an emergency situation, and to do that one must come up with findings. There are no easy findings to show detriment to the public good with building McMansions (not that there aren't any). Ergo the drainage issue is an issue of legal convenience to implement an emergency interim odinance. It was patently obvious this is the case as Legal staff was front and center last night, and that isn't usually the case.

For all of that I still think this is a perfectly acceptable ordinance, I just wish Council and staff had the cojones to own up to it, and NOT hide behind the spectre of a public health issue.

Mark Meyer

Re: City Ordinace issue - meeting tomorrow (2/9)

Posted by carl schuelke at February 10. 2006

I don't think I disagree with you that impervious cover is the big culprit and that drainage may be a pretext to get emergency status, but I do think FAR does play a role.

We've got impervious cover limits right now. They aren't working. FAR provides an extra limit. If you want a one story house, it can be 2500 sq ft under your calculations. However, if builder/architect wants a two story house or sits on one of those lots where 3 stories will get you a view of downtown, the FAR limits will require the footprint to be something less than the 2500 sq ft. That has an impact on drainage. It might be a minimal affect, but it's not fair to say it's totally unrelated.

I'm not an engineer, but I also wonder if the huge wallspace that would be demonstrated by a 3 story max impervious cover property affects drainage. I can see how the much bigger wallspace could disrupt where rain is windswept and have an effect on runoff patterns (both positive and negative).

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