Why Does Everyone Hate CodeNEXT?
And can a polarized Austin reach consensus on land use?
If CodeNEXT were a Broadway musical (just imagine the pitch meeting), it would have closed in previews. The massive, years-long attempt to revise and update Austin's complex land development code of ordinances – tentatively scheduled for City Council approval next spring – was getting bad reviews even before the first draft was released, and the drumbeat hasn't stopped since the (partial) draft text was followed by the draft maps. Last Wednesday, Council itself spent a couple of hours grilling the consultants – for not releasing enough information, and for releasing too much bad information. Like many of their constituents, council members had been flummoxed by posted draft spreadsheets (a planning estimation tool) that seemed to indicate aggressive redevelopment and dramatic residential "displacement" threatened by the new code. They were only partly reassured when told that the (since updated) draft spreadsheets had been mislabeled, misleading, and misunderstood. (Although it's considered heresy in Austin, there is such a thing as too much transparency.)
Keep that word "draft" in mind – or more accurately, draft of a draft of a ... – but the barely born CodeNEXT has already assumed the blame for all of Austin's ongoing growth pains: unaffordability, inequality, congestion ... essentially every negative aspect of high-speed urban change. At the edges, the criticisms sound contradictory: 1) CodeNEXT will accelerate growth and encourage the destruction of traditional single-family neighborhoods via intensive redevelopment; 2) CodeNEXT will prevent the necessary redevelopment of exclusively single-family neighborhoods for the housing supply needed to accommodate Austin's growing population.
Mayor Steve Adler himself declared some weeks ago, "The maps will be wrong" – and the usual kibitzers have been only too happy to agree with him. Right now, for most Austinites, CodeNEXT is more rumor than news. Nevertheless, people closest to the process – who are either actively engaged in the work or else following it professionally – say that they remain (very cautiously) optimistic, and are trying to withhold judgment while the initial skeleton is fleshed out over the next few months.
Nuria Zaragoza is a longtime neighborhood advocate and city volunteer, and currently both a Planning Commissioner and a member of the Land Development Code Advisory Group working regularly on CodeNEXT. Asked for her perspective, she responded that the "work seems so massive right now it's hard to see what to say." The preparatory work preceding this draft has been lengthy, she said, but "there was very little discussion on specific direction before the draft code came out. We've truly been at this only a couple of months in earnest."
The existing land development code is already intimidating in scale, Zaragoza said, so it's not surprising that the "information dump" of the new draft would appear overwhelming. She expects that the initial revision timeline – with deadlines for public input this week and July 7, before the next draft – will have to be pushed back, yet she's not ready to form a judgment on maintaining the one-year timeline for Council approval. The most important task currently, she says, is to "get the information out to the public in a way that's accessible."
"It's very difficult to see the forest for the trees right now," Zaragoza said. "But the timing argument is less important than the substance. It's much more important to get it right than to get it fast."
Zaragoza reiterated a common early complaint – that inner-city neighborhoods will be asked to carry more than their fair share of the changes imposed by growth, while outer neighborhoods – especially far Westside neighborhoods with expanses of single-family subdivisions – will escape much of the disruption. A similar point was made indirectly by Mark Rogers, executive director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, which builds affordable housing for working-class families in East Austin.
"CodeNEXT is an attempt to make the land-use code reflect what Imagine Austin [the city's comprehensive plan, formally adopted in 2012] said to do," Rogers said. But "the draft doesn't reflect the 'corridors and nodes' approach of adding housing; instead, it's got these 'neighborhood transect zones' that have kind of a cookie-cutter approach. The trouble is, we don't have cookie-cutter parcels of land."
Nevertheless, Rogers says he's "trying to be optimistic" about the revision process and the planners' intentions to accommodate public feedback, noting in particular that the proposals concerning affordable housing and density bonuses have not even been released. Right now, he said, "The cake is half-baked and not tasting good. When we begin to see revisions with public input ... I think they'll make changes to make us closer to where we want to be."
Other early judgments have been much harsher. The land-use activists at AURA quickly denounced the draft and maps as utterly inadequate to Austin's needs for much greater housing supply. "The CodeNEXT maps ... are so deeply flawed," said AURA's Josiah Stevenson, "that further tinkering block by block around the edges of a few neighborhoods and corridors will not be enough to enable CodeNEXT to meaningfully address Austin's worsening affordability, mobility, environmental, and segregation problems." Similarly, Niran Babalola of Desegregate ATX wrote, "The draft CodeNEXT maps are a shameful commitment to the status quo that has created an Austin for the wealthy."
So there are plenty of early misgivings, but the consistent undertone to the responses from those in the middle of the process is: watching and waiting. Mandy De Mayo of HousingWorks noted the absence of the density bonuses at this time, and said simply, "Thus far, I have way more questions than answers." She said it's far too soon for a "major analysis," and noted as well the polarized opinions that predated the first drafts. "Some people are suggesting that enormous 'upzoning' [for more intensive uses] is going to ruin our city," De Mayo said, "while others say that the intent is to downzone everything and make it harder to increase density. It's difficult to believe that both opinions can be correct."
De Mayo does say she has general concerns about the potential implications for low-income communities "especially in Central East Austin, if it all gets developed." She said the drafts seem to suggest an attempt at encouraging "gentle density" via accessory dwelling units, but that "the setback requirements for building them make them infeasible in much of Central Austin." Moreover, she said, there appears to be little provision for similar density west of MoPac: moving from "SF-2" (large lot residential) to "LDR" (low density residential) does appear to allow ADUs, but otherwise looks like little more than a change in nomenclature that consequently raises fair housing issues.
As for the practicality of the timeline, De Mayo said, it will depend entirely on "an enormous level of public input ... beyond 'what are the implications for my property and my neighborhood?'" She worries that the currently diametrically opposed opinions will make it impossible for staff to take that input and "come up with a draft that makes sense for the whole city." But, she added, slowing down presents its own risks: "If we give ourselves five years, we would just fill up that time with more arguments."
Mark Rogers, whose business mission is to provide family housing for people who would otherwise be pushed out of East Austin, says it's a mistake to equate density with affordability – "that hasn't worked Downtown, nor in Brooklyn, another common example" – and that people need to begin thinking more about "more bedrooms" rather than just "more units."
"That's the 'missing middle' that everyone's advocating, and the people opposing it are less worried about 'density' itself than about losing the character of their neighborhoods," Rogers said. "There are ways to achieve density without doing that – to preserve neighborhood character while still increasing the number of units. That's what the revisions have to attempt."
Another member of the CAG, Dave Sullivan, noted that it's still very early in the process, and that despite all the early worries on all sides, "I still feel optimistic, and positive." In response to fears of "ruinous" effects expressed in his Westside neighborhood newsletter, he wrote a piece emphasizing the many layers of review in the works – official and unofficial, individuals and groups, professional staff and elected City Council – and said, "I believe we can arrive at something better than we have now.
"I think we can do it; it depends on the political will, or whether people will instead want to throw away all the work that's been done." He added that the effect on affordability will not rely solely on CodeNEXT, but on all the tools available to the city: Council policy, land banks, ADUs, micro-units, and more. He cited the similar arguments preceding the successful 2016 mobility bond, and quoted a friend's summation: "It's going to pass; some people will be unhappy; it'll be better than what we have now; and we're going to make mistakes."
Jeff Jack, president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, says he's worried that the missteps actually began earlier: "There are still questions that should have been answered during the Imagine Austin process. There hasn't been enough concern about affordability for existing residents, nor has there been enough consideration of unintended consequences." On the latter point, he said that reading the current draft he could already anticipate a major spike in cases for the Board of Adjustment – where he's served hard time – and that with all the enthusiasm for increased density, "there's been little consideration given to the effect it would have on infrastructure like roads and waterlines, and the potential costs."
Like De Mayo, Jack worries that the outcome will be to put "all the density in the urban-core neighborhoods," and avoid the hard political task of making outer neighborhoods share the burden. The process, he says, "doesn't have any empathy for the central city and homeowners, and threatens to turn over our planning efforts to the market." Does he think the process is salvageable? "It will take a lot of time, and political courage."
Former City Council Member Chris Riley was around for the Imagine Austin plan, and he's got a personal and professional interest in the CodeNEXT outcome. (He's consulting on the process for the Austin Board of Realtors, "so I can devote the time and effort without it being completely volunteer.") Like many of the advocates, he remains optimistic. "I concur with the general sentiment that it's pretty messy at this point," he said, "but it's on us, as the whole community, to weigh in for improvements." He emphasized that this is a job the city committed itself to when it rewrote Austin's comprehensive plan, and committed the city to a more "compact and connected" community. Riley can itemize his own disappointments with the draft text and maps. "Why do we have so much legacy zoning, even in the corridors? Do we really need three zoning systems [legacy, transect, non-transect] side by side? Why is it so hard to achieve the housing options that so many people have been hoping to see in virtually all the zones – the 'missing middle' and other housing types in any of the proposed districts?"
Despite those criticisms, Riley insists, "I don't view CodeNEXT as a plot on anybody's part. It's an effort to align our land-use code with our new comprehensive plan, and it's an enormous and difficult undertaking. There's a very long way to go before our final adoption, and it's a long-planned process we need to go through as a community."
Regarding the given schedule for all this work, Riley echoed De Mayo's prediction that delaying the inevitable only means "pushing the difficult conversations and decisions down the road."
"It's going to be hard and painful no matter what," he said. "I'm taking the deadlines seriously, and expecting that we will operate on that timetable. ... The conversations are going to be sensitive in any case; people are very anxious about affordability and displacement. That it will take difficult conversations is not a surprise." He acknowledges that if we are to "get it right ... there is a lot more work to do to get the changes in the right places. What you always hope for is a calm and reasonable civic discussion about the code, and one that we all can engage in.
"There's no avoiding it, as a community," he concluded. "We need everybody at the table. It's time to sit down and keep working at the task that we know is before us."
Despite all the fears and worries now dominating the public conversations about CodeNEXT, most of the folks working or following the process continue to share Riley's hope that we'll end up with a land development code, in Sullivan's words, "better than we have now." But where we're standing at the moment, it's difficult to see the end of the road.