CodeNEXT Is Coming
Special called meeting signals new day forward for land development
City staff told City Council members last week that the long-awaited draft version of the land development code (CodeNEXT) rewrite should land on their desks by January. That means that even as voters grapple with Mayor Steve Adler's $720 million transportation bond proposal, the stage is being set for the great policy battle of 2017. The fight promises to be an existential showdown between advocates for denser, urban growth and champions of the city's traditional single-family neighborhoods.
Both sides have been trading paint since the rewrite formally began in 2013, with the hiring of Opticos Design as the effort's consultant. A citizens advisory group, or CAG, funneled community input into the effort. In the years between, the CAG's routine, off-the-radar meetings have incubated the density vs. preservation arguments that should begin to take the spotlight once Council starts wrangling with the incoming draft.
To get ahead of the expected squabbling, Adler convened last week a special called meeting of Council at Austin Energy headquarters on Barton Springs Road. The location afforded more room to accommodate the meeting's featured guests: members of the CAG, city staff, and representatives from Opticos and its subconsultants. The participants sat around a square of tables flanked on two sides by an audience of Council aides, journalists, and curious stakeholders. In opening the meeting, Adler observed, "It feels like we should be deciding peace in Europe." An audience member mumbled in response: "This is more important."
While land use rarely carries the weight of administering postwar Poland, it's safe to say that CodeNEXT has thus far been fraught with controversy. The code's draft was originally scheduled for delivery last September (2015), but the bloodless coup that wrought Council's new era of single-member districts delayed the process' expediency. Making matters worse, Matt Lewis, the city's top executive leading CodeNEXT, quit over the summer amid a city investigation into claims of harassment, and project manager Jim Robertson left a month later for the greener and perhaps less contentious pastures of Boulder, Colorado.
Despite the setbacks, CodeNEXT marches forward. When the effort gets completed, it will directly shape for the next several decades the physical form of Austin's growth. The rewrite springs from Imagine Austin, the comprehensive plan that Council adopted in 2012. That massive document includes eight priority programs, the last of which mandates a revision of Austin's "development regulations and processes to promote a compact and connected city."
That formula necessitates increased density in the form of the so-called Missing Middle, the strata of housing units that fall between single-family homes and large apartment or condominium buildings. The Missing Middle includes garage apartments, duplexes, quadplexes, and small courtyard apartments. To get there with minimal disruption to the character of existing neighborhoods, Opticos is promoting a form-based code, which differs from the conventional kind (known as Euclidean zoning) in that it distinguishes largely between the look of development rather than specific uses.
Imagine Austin states several times that the city's predominantly single-family fabric must be altered to allow these low-intensity forms of density. "Neighborhoods should include a mix of housing types," the language provides so bluntly. In an Oct. 14 letter sent to the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Adler seemed to elaborate on the decree of Imagine Austin. "To those that urge more permissive housing tools being applied indiscriminately in all parts of our single-family neighborhoods, I suggest our city does not require that additional measure of housing supply to meaningfully impact our affordability challenges," he wrote.
Rather than opening that position up for discussion at last week's meeting, Adler explained that his intent in calling everyone together was to essentially break the ice between various camps. The mayor said he wanted to "have a conversation about CodeNEXT and to have a shared understanding about what it is, the roles and expectations, and to have the opportunity to have the CAG share with us what they've heard from the community."
The members of the CAG for the most part also avoided tripping any wires that could have triggered contentious debate. Instead, AISD appointee Susan Moffat (who is married to Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro) warned of incentivizing the demolition of existing housing stock. Council Member Leslie Pool's CAG appointee, Kevin Wier, urged anyone considering the city's affordability issues to keep in mind the plight of seniors living on fixed incomes.
While the meeting was long on comity and short on fireworks, it did yield one jarring piece of news: Planning and Zoning Department head Greg Guernsey told the assembly that CodeNEXT's "very ambitious schedule" could produce a final version of the code, ready for approval, as soon as May 2018. That gives the city plenty of time to rend itself asunder over whether to allow more people to live within Austin's increasingly exclusive urban core.