Someone must have decided that the City is "soft" on duplexes. That's the only conclusion one can draw from an ordinance that the City Council is scheduled to consider tonight. This ordinance will make it next to impossible to build dupexes on long, narrow lots.
Duplexes are one of the last affordable options for central Austin. The McMansion Task Force nevertheless did its best to discourage them by drastically curtailing the allowable footprint and mass of structures on central Austin lots.
But the McMansion ordinance apparently didn't do enough to dampen duplex construction. Architects and developers are still managing to fit duplexes on narrow lots while complying with the McMansion ordinance's strict "building envelope" and floor-to-area ratio limits.
We should be saying, "Bully for the architects and developers." Instead, the Residential Development Regulations Task Force (a/k/a the McMansion Task Force) has proposed redefining "duplex" to require the units to sit either side by side or on top of one another. Developers will no longer be permitted to put one unit at the front of the property and one unit at the rear.
(Two units technically form a "duplex" when they share a common wall or floor/ceiling along 50% of the building's depth. Today that depth can be measured either from the front to the rear of the lot or from one side of the lot to the other. The ordinance will mandate that the common wall be perpendicular to the front lot line. In other words, the units must sit side by side or be stacked, which is more expensive and less desirable to prospective owners/tenants.)
It is impossible to put duplex units side-by-side without a sufficiently wide lot. Consider a 60-foot lot. With, say, 10-foot side setbacks, that leaves just 20 feet of width per unit -- and the code-mandated garages/carports alone will require almost all of that space. (Just in case someone could manage to sneak in a garage and front entrance, though, the Task Force is also recommending that the front entrance have a "porch," presumably to leave less room for the garages/carports.)
The Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects has politely pointed out that this ordinance is a bad idea. It put together some nice diagrams illustrating the proposal's impact, which I am putting below the jump.
This ordinance, like many of Austin's other anti-affordability measures, frankly stumps me. I expect central Austin homeowners to support restrictions on the housing supply, but I do not understand why everyone else gets snookered so easily. There certainly is not any aesthetic principle at stake here; on the contrary, duplexes arranged front-to-back are less cookie-cutter than those arranged in the standard side-by-side configuration. Nor is there any issue of massing or scale; the McMansion ordinance already takes care of that. All I can conclude is that some people think we have too many duplexes and therefore want to take some of the lots out of the available pool.
Update: Council adopted the ordinance in its entirety on all three readings. Strangely, there was no mention of the Planning Commission objection.