How tall should buildings be when near single-family homes?

Thursday, June 9, 2022 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

There’s a building on South Lamar that looks like a stepladder. Well, maybe a stepladder if you put it on the floor. Or, maybe just a staircase – for a giant.

“As you move through Lamar, you literally see the zoning scheme,” said Maija Kreishman, director of the architectural office of Michael Hsu, who helped design the project.

Patricia Lim/KUT. The Lamar Union building has a ladder design due to compatibility rules.

The building, which is called Lamar Union, includes nearly 500 apartments, a dozen restaurants, an Alamo Drafthouse theater and parking lots. As you drive south, the height of the building gradually increases from one story to five.

This design isn’t necessarily the product of an architectural trend, Kreishman said, but rather a response to zoning rules that limit the height of buildings within a certain distance from single-family homes.

In Austin, those rules are called compatibility, and as residents struggle with the cost of housing created by a shortage of homes to buy or rent, elected officials are considering changing the compatibility rules to allow developers to build more.

“We’re downsizing dozens of units in favor of a few single-family homes,” City Council member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents East Austin, said at a council meeting earlier this week.

Wait, so what is compatibility, again?

Austin adopted its current compatibility rules in the mid-1980s. Jim Duncan, who then headed what would become the city’s housing and planning department, told KUT the intention was to protect those who lived in single-family homes.

“Shadow is the first thing,” he said. “People shouldn’t be turned away, especially if you’re there first and someone comes and builds and all of a sudden you lose your sun. … It’s privacy. It’s aesthetics. But I think privacy is even more important.

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City of Austin. When a developer proposes to build within a certain distance of a single family home or single family zoned lot in Austin, they are subject to height limitations.

According to an analysis by city staff, Austin has some of, if not the most, restrictive compatibility requirements compared to cities of similar size. In Seattle, for example, a developer can build up to 60 feet high once they move at least 50 feet away from a single-family area; to build this height in Austin, you need to be at least 300 feet away from a single-family home.

And there’s actually no need to be a house. A lot can be zoned for a single family home and be vacant, while exercising the same compatibility requirements.

austin compatibility other cities

City of Austin. It is much more difficult to build tall buildings near single-family homes in Austin than in other US cities.

“It’s kind of like this force field emitted from a single family home in Austin,” Jake Wegmann, associate professor of real estate at UT Austin, told KUT.

He said if you draw a line up from a single family home, a nearby future building must fall below. Otherwise, “this building must be knocked down at the point where it is below this line”.

Needless to say, some developers aren’t fans of compatibility.

“Other than that sucks?” Ron Thrower said, when asked if he wanted to add anything to the compatibility discussion.

Thrower, owner of land use consultancy Thrower Design, said he deals with compatibility limits on about 80% of the projects he works on. Even if zoning allows for a taller building, he said, a single-family home down the block often triggers additional restrictions.

Council members propose a change

Following a meeting late last year over soaring house prices, city council members are considering changes to compatibility requirements. They say the hope is for more housing, easing the housing crisis.

“We believe there is a consensus within this council to increase housing capacity in our corridors to meet our housing goals and support our transit investments,” Mayor Pro Tem Alison wrote. Alter in an online bulletin board used by the council.

A cohort of members – Mayor Steve Adler, Alter and Council members Leslie Pool, Vanessa Fuentes and Paige Ellis – have proposed reducing the distance at which a single-family home can exert power over a new development.

These Council members proposed allowing developers who build on busy roads to go a little higher. Without having to provide affordable housing (another part of the proposal), builders could go 5 feet higher than they currently can. Thus, 200 feet from a lot zoned single-family, a building could be 55 feet instead of the current 50 feet.

Council members also suggest that only zoning should be allowed to trigger compatibility, meaning that if a lot is zoned for an apartment complex but a single-family home has been built on it, the presence of that home does not would trigger no compatibility requirements.

The restrictions would be even looser, Council members proposed, if developers agreed to make some of the apartments they build affordable to people earning less than the median family income.

Some Council members, including Chito Vela and Harper-Madison, have suggested compatibility requirements should be even less restrictive, but it’s unclear if they have the votes.

This story was produced as part of the austin monitorreporting partnership with KUT.

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