Public Notice: Threading the Needle

Is this the year of urban planning?

Public Notice

Early last year, Mayor Steve Adler declared that 2016 was to be Austin's Year of Mobil­ity. The Uber/Lyft overreach created a temporary detour, but by year-end, Hizzoner had achieved a major triumph with the passage of a $720 million mobility bond, finding just the right balance of suburban roads, urban bike routes, and the redevelopment of major transit corridors, that could pass voters' muster (quite easily, as it turned out), and hopefully make a real dent in Austin's transportation snarl – though it will take at least eight years to see if the benefits are as advertised.

No time for resting on laurels, though, because 2017 brings an even bigger challenge, that will have to roll out over an even longer time frame: This year's big push is going to be finding the sweet spot in planning and development regulations, that can create the conditions to make a real dent in property costs and availability in the long run, without meanwhile forcing current residents out of existing neighborhoods, or destroying their character.

CodeNEXT, the new Land Development Code, is intended to embody and enable the Imagine Austin master plan completed a few years ago (and already due for an update this year). And Imagine Austin is built on two competing promises and goals, repeated in various ways throughout the 350-page document: that Austin must grow in density, because the existing sprawl scenario is toxic and the urban core has structural problems; and that existing neighborhoods and districts must be protected, because they provide much of Austin's character and are under increasing pressure from market forces (largely the cost of the dirt they sit on).

One thing just about everyone realizes (though the rhetoric sometimes indicates other­wise) is that CodeNEXT, or any building code, cannot create anything: It can, at best, create the conditions for market forces to create the sorts of development the planners want to see. Planners can look at a certain area, for instance, and decree that there should be a multistory mixed-use complex on the corner, stepping down to two- or three-story multifamily and commercial buildings along the main streets, and single-family cottages further into the neighborhood. But they can't make anyone build that stuff. And if a landowner decides it would be more profitable to put an office tower on the corner, and luxury townhomes on the rest of the property? Well, that's where the code comes in. It has to be flexible enough to allow that conditions might change, and neighborhoods might evolve, over the multi-decade life of the code, but also firm and well-defined enough that it will actually work to guide development the way it's intended, without the need for continuous amendments and variances.

A perfectly successful building code rewrite would put development attorneys and lobbyists out of business: Code would be specific enough, and accurate and flexible enough, to provide the clarity and transparency that everyone on all sides of the issue has been clamoring for. Developers and neighborhood activists alike complain that the current regulations are unclear, complicated, and subject to interpretation and modification, often based on political considerations and who has the loudest or best-connected voices at City Council. Want to build 10 feet closer to the property line than code allows, and bump up the impervious cover? You might be able to do that, with the right attorney. Want to block that three-story apartment building that's going up right outside your bathroom window? You might be able to do that, with the right attorney.

Is that any way to run a city? Of course not. Whatever LDC the planners wind up writing, it has to be adhered to: If CodeNEXT becomes merely the new starting point for developers and neighbors to negotiate variances from, it will be a failure. So the pressure will on the Planning and Development Review Department, and especially the current and future City Councils, to have the discipline to hold the line on the new code, and keep it from being varianced into meaninglessness, as is the current situation.

All of this implies a level of place-specific detail (the long-anticipated "mapping" stage of the CodeNEXT process) that some council members have shown little patience for – and that has often frustrated the development hawks on the dais and in the public, who tend to reflexively view small-area plans and compatibility rules as NIMBY tools, and have repeatedly pressed for new regulations to be applied on a blanket basis citywide, with no local exceptions.

Mayor Adler has repeatedly promised skittish neighborhood associations that – especially with the new, development-friendly corridor plans just approved – there can be enough new density built along those transit corridors to tip the supply-and-demand balance toward affordability while actually easing the economic pressure on existing neighborhoods and small businesses.

The mayor explained his "80%" strategy early on in his tenure: a compromise that makes 80% of the people happy on both sides of any given conflict, is probably about as good as you can ask for. Last year Council threaded that needle on the mobility bond: It checked enough boxes to get buy-in from the road warriors and the bicyclists, and the transit evangelists and the neighborhood preservationists. This year, Council will try to duplicate the feat with CodeNEXT, and while they won't have to get voters' approval for the final results, they will have to achieve a consensus on the dais, with a council that's philosophically just about split down the middle between the housing supply-siders, and the "neighborhood defenders."

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CodeNEXT, Steve Adler, Imagine Austin, Planning and Development Review Department

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