Public Notice: Break Out the Sharpies (or the Sharp Knives)

Planning Commission demands more public involvement in CodeNEXT

Public Notice

I write this with distinctly mixed feelings, because I have a good feeling generally about CodeNEXT and the staff working on it, including lead consultants Opticos Design, Inc. They seem smart and well-intentioned, and I actually believe they intend to build a better Austin. But ...

Zero to 60 in 90 words: CodeNEXT is the ongoing process to rewrite the city of Austin's Land Development Code; Sound Check is the upcoming, weeklong public event to show the work that's been done so far and to gauge public reaction to it; and last night, the city Planning Commission weighed in pretty heavily that staff needs to be a lot more transparent, and will have to trust the public with a lot more detail about just what they have in mind, before they can even start to ask for informed consent.

In the end, the commission voted unanimously to send a letter to Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey, outlining five recommendations – essentially that, because there has been so little information released to the public thus far, "we have concerns about the reliability of feedback gathered through the Sound Check," so "a separate process [should] be planned to elicit feedback from both the land development community and from the general public" – with the PC's involvement. They also asked for some specific information to be included in Sound Check, and that, "going forward, the Planning Commission [receive] copies of the deliverables outlined in the contract between the City of Austin and Opticos [and] be notified of all Public meetings held by Opticos." In other words, the public process thus far has not been sufficient; Sound Check will not produce informed feedback.

"Just by way of example, we have a meeting every two weeks," said one commissioner. "In advance of that, we get the agenda backup; so by the time we get to the meeting, we're ready to get things done. If we didn't get that agenda backup beforehand, these meetings would be a mess. The public should have gotten the agenda backup for CodeNEXT before the meeting."

Katie Matlack has an excellent story on the process so far (see "CodeNEXT Prepares to Rewrite Austin," Nov. 13), but there are elements about this that really stick in my craw, especially from comments made at Tuesday evening's meeting. Project lead Matt Lewis, in particular, sounded out of touch when he pleaded that "the Sound Check is to roll this out and to have the conversation about how you live in Austin. It's not about the particular, you know, 'What do you think about a 25-foot setback? Who's for five? Who's for nine?' You're not having that level of dialogue with the general public. That's not a meaningful conversation. They don't necessarily think in those terms. ... They know what it feels like, they understand if they're comfortable or uncomfortable in it."

Okay. That's possibly true of the very general public. But there's a large community of involved citizens in Austin (a community which events like Sound Check are trying to expand and broaden, by the way), who do know what setbacks and impervious cover limits are, and who are anxious to know what the city planners have in mind for their city's future – and who don't necessarily feel reason to trust those planners.

And in that light, it is problematic that in conversations with The Austin Chronicle (again, see "CodeNEXT Prepares to Rewrite Austin," Nov. 13), CodeNEXT staff opined that “some homeowners prefer ‘the maze’ [of development regulations] because it slows everything down” – with no mention of the obvious corollary: that much of what is being slowed down is the endless cycle of exceptions and variances granted to projects that clearly don’t meet current code. In the fight between developer lobbyists who earn their livings specifically by fostering close, ongoing relationships with Development Review staff, and neighborhood activists who generally turn out in opposition only when some individual project is threatening their proverbial backyard, city staff wants to appear neutral, but there are clear signs of institutional bias.

There is considerable skepticism among the public, and within city government, that the same Planning & Development Review Depart­ment that got us in the current mess – that got an absolutely scathing review ("the worst we have seen in our national studies") from a respected outside auditor just this year; that is largely viewed as being way too cozy with large development interests and being capricious in its code interpretations – should be allowed free rein to completely rewrite the LDC with no public oversight.

But like I said at the outset, I do want to believe in this process, and the people leading it, so, let's close with Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza's closing remarks to Matt Lewis: "I just want to encourage you to trust the community, to know that, at some point, the details will be there. And they will be responsible with that information; they will give you the feedback that they will either give you now, or give you in five months. ... This is a huge event, and I'm sure you all will do an amazing job, but I believe wholeheartedly that there needs to be a separate process to gather input after people have had the ability to discuss this."

In anticipation of the upcoming political season, the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter Political Action Com­mittee will host a fundraiser at its Austin office, 1202 San Antonio St., from 6-8pm on Saturday, Nov. 14. Or contribute at (Remember, the more zeros after the first number the better!)

SouthPop 2015 Holiday Season Pie Social Fund­raiser is Sun., Nov. 15, 3-7pm at the South Austin Popular Culture Center, 1516 S. Lamar. SouthPop does great work collecting, conserving, exhibiting, and keeping safe the culture and history that makes Austin the live music capital of the world. Help them raise money for conservation supplies, collections management software, and a little something to support the staff. The event will include pie tastings and a pie auction, along with beer, wine, and live music on the iconic SouthPop stage! $10 in advance at, or $15 at the door ($5 off for members).

Unbound: sin fronteras, a new breed of mobile library from the Austin Public Library. The bike trailer and trike will make their debut appearance touring the central Eastside on Saturday, Nov. 14, during the East Austin Studio Tour. Follow #APLunbound for up-to-date stops and pop-up libraries throughout the day, including an 11am Dual Language Storytime at Terrazas Branch, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez, and a 2pm Intro to Web Programming session at Carver Branch, 1161 Angelina.

McCallum High School's newspaper, The Shield, is a finalist for the 2016 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Crown Award – one of only 23 high school print newspapers in the country to earn that honor.

The Austin Animal Center is offering a Veterans Day special through Nov. 15: a $25 adoption fee for all pets, but free for veterans and military personnel.

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