CodeNEXT: Learn to Love It
Trying to make sense of a deeply flawed first draft
"The code we have now does not do what we want it to do." That was Mayor Steve Adler at a recent CodeNEXT meeting. He's having to remind people how bad the current code is with some frequency, because as bad as it is, people really hate the draft release of CodeNEXT – and while that's often the sign of a good compromise, there's ample reason to believe in this case that it's largely the sign of a bad product. There are enough areas where all sides agree, and enough good points about the new transect, or form-based codes, to suggest that this process could actually yield a very good result. But it's in need of a lot more work, and desperately in need of top-level policy direction.
It's been pointed out that cities don't usually jump from a generalized, aspirational plan like our Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, to a code rewrite, without an intermediate step of a detailed, and up-to-date, planning document. The last Council left a lot of questions unanswered, and policy disagreements unsettled, when it last visited Imagine Austin. Mayor Adler's 10-1 Council has in fact never considered Imagine Austin. It's time for them to do so, and to make some serious policy decisions, before the planners go any further down the rabbit hole. CM Alison Alter put it bluntly at Tuesday's work session: "There's no point in the boards and commissions spending any more time on the current draft."
But the question isn't whether to slow down, but how to move ahead. Most fundamentally: Do we want to continue with the three-part code (see map and key at left) that virtually everyone has slammed as overly complicated and hard to use, and that has no exit strategy? If so, Council needs to declare that and shut down the conversation; if not, they need to declare that, and start a new conversation.
But that's just one thing. While we're at it, here are a few other questions that require policy direction from the Council:
• Do we want to encourage further density in Imagine Austin corridors and centers, where Mobility Bond money is already headed?
• Do we want to monozone Clarksville, Heritage, East Austin, and other neighborhoods that currently have more varied patterns?
• Do we want to leave the least dense of current neighborhoods – notably large swaths of West Austin, essentially untouched?
• Do we want to unravel the PUDs, NCCDs, TODs, and other negotiated small-area plans?
• Do we want to make an effort in the code to reduce the rate of demolition of market-rate affordable housing? Or is our primary goal in zoning to increase the housing supply (of units, not necessarily bedrooms)?
Council is scheduled to consider all these questions and more in this month's work sessions, but at present, not to actually provide formal policy direction. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. CodeNEXT's second draft will be underway soon, and those vexed issues will just roll forward another few months, still unsettled, and still potentially unsettling future drafts of the code.
We can do this now or we can do it later, for the next 40 years, at PC and ZAP meetings, and at City Council's public hearings, week after week, as is the current practice. But one of the goals here was to design a reasonable code that wouldn't have to be coming back to Council to be amended several hundred times a year (a process unthinkable in any other area of city law).
That's why people who are saying we need to just power through to stay on schedule, are just as unrealistic as the folks who think we can stop the whole process in its tracks. The problem with the latter, of course, is that we're stuck with the current code, which is creating results that no one likes. But the problem with "powering through" is that most observers – including all of the advisory bodies that City Council relies on to actually understand this stuff – seem to agree that we're on a fundamentally wrong course.
This process can indeed be saved, but not on the route we're currently on.
Council is holding eight special CodeNEXT work sessions this month (Tue., 9am; Wed., 1pm); see specific agendas on the Council message board (austincouncilforum.org/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=914).
Making Policy by Default
CodeNEXT planners have said they haven't made policy changes, but that's not true: Not all properties are simply translated into the most similar zoning in the new code. And quite a lot of regulations have changed. As MPT Kathie Tovo pointed out Tuesday, "there are increased unit counts in every zone; parking requirements, compatibility, McMansion rules, lots of other things ... There is no one [outside of perhaps some NCCDs] who will be left unchanged. ... People need detailed factual info about what those changes are." A few of the more notable ones:
• T3 zones allow more units than the current SF zones they replace in most of the central city: at least three units per lot, and up to six, depending on the lot size.
• The non-transect LDR zoning allows accessory dwelling units, unlike the SF-2 it replaces in much of West Austin.
• Parking requirements are slashed across the board.
• Compatibility standards are replaced and in many places weakened.
• Even properties slated to stay under the existing "Chapter 25" code may be subject to new procedures and rules.
• Quite a lot of tracts are proposed to be upzoned, and others downzoned, with no apparent logic.
• Rules, regulations, and policies are changed for everyone. And as Citizens Advisory Group Chair Jim Duncan put it at a recent meeting, "Too much authority is given to staff by CodeNEXT. Deviations, exceptions, and waivers from our codes should be granted only after a thorough and transparent public vetting, and not behind closed doors by staff and entitlement attorneys."