Public Notice: Deciphering the Code
CodeNEXT questions pile up faster than answers
At a trio of meetings this week, city commissioners and council members tried to figure out where we stand in the process of rewriting the city's land development code, and one striking thing was that all three meetings ended with members hurriedly listing off portions of their long lists of questions and suggestions that hadn't been addressed by the staff, or in the current draft code, CodeNEXT 2.0.
The Zoning and Platting Commission went first: In a quick session at the end of their regular Tuesday meeting, most of the commissioners shared specific suggestions for changes they'd like to see in a next draft, but in the end they passed a resolution unanimously, saying that draft three needs to be a pretty major overhaul, at its core: "The Zoning and Platting Commission finds that the CodeNEXT draft proposes far too many zoning categories. We also find that the zones lack the progression in both sizes and uses that we would expect to see in a well-organized code. We want to see a consistent, user friendly, simplified code with cumulative zoning. In addition, we ask that our previous recommendations and requests be considered and responded to."
In the interest of expediency, ZAP tabled a more specific and complicated resolution that essentially detailed some of those "previous recommendations and requests": asking for a red-line version noting the changes from the first draft, an interactive map which could show each zone and where it is applied citywide, mapping of localized and creek flooding, answers to the League of Women Voters' comments on public process and transparency, and reports from the Citizens Advisory Group and others, reporting where their recommendations on the first draft were or were not incorporated. In addition, commissioners noted, as many others have, that there are lots of plain errors, large and small, that indicate a very unfinished product.
That meeting rolled right into a joint ZAP/Planning Commission meeting, which started, like the Council meeting the next morning, with consultant John Fregonese repeating his housing capacity presentation for the fourth time. The highlight was his tantalizing teaser on affordable housing: "If you ask the question, 'Can we get more?' … with a number of programs that have been talked about, you could get a lot more. Do you want to see how? I wish you would ask, and maybe we could do that. … If you're interested in more affordable housing, that's an option that we could follow." But of course, that involves initiatives, and likely funding, that are outside of the scope of CodeNEXT, so it was agreed that would have to be tabled for now (though not before the Density Bonus Program came in for some frustrated words from irascible ZAP Vice Chair Jim Duncan; see "Quote of the Week," Oct. 6). In the end, only about half the commissioners got a chance to get their questions and comments in, and the meeting disintegrated among questions about how and to whom further input should be directed.
In a twist of brutally fitting irony, the commissions' final recommendations are due on Halloween night. Trick or treat?
The City Council briefing Wednesday morning unfolded in largely the same way, with second-run presentations and follow-up questions taking up the bulk of the session.
Predictably, the Council had to punt their discussion on the section of the code that governs administration and procedures yet again, even though that's an area that everyone agrees needs a lot of work, and that could be discussed independently of the thorny questions about specific zones and properties. Kathie Tovo finished the session by noting that she still has 15 pages of questions – many of them repeating things asked previously – that she hasn't gotten a chance to ask, let alone get answered, let alone have time to consider those answers, and perhaps make suggestions based on them, before staff goes into their cone of silence to prepare the third and putatively final draft.
So, now what? Repeatedly, staff – and especially the consultants – have emphasized the concept of "levers" that they can push, to allow more or less density, or affordable housing incentives, or compatibility standards. But they've done little to explain where those levers can be tweaked, and what tradeoffs are involved in using them.
With this latest draft released three weeks ago, staff has just now defined the tools and the language in which city planning policy is to be carried out (and there's not even full consensus on that, yet). And they have not yet begun the scenario testing with those tools that should inform those policy decisions. Everyone involved is still talking about "other scenarios that people want to see," as PC Chair Stephen Oliver put it, but where in the schedule is there time for that sort of scenario testing?
Meanwhile, ZAP has made it fairly clear that they're looking for a fairly substantial rewrite. But there won't be time – with only one more joint ZAP/PC meeting scheduled before the input deadline – to discuss what those changes should be. So in best CodeNEXT tradition, the next (and final?) draft will be drafted in a black box, without clear policy direction from commissions or Council, or accounting of how previous feedback has been addressed – and on the current timetable it'll be back next month, with many of those questions unanswered, and most of those policy decisions not yet made.
Please, please, please, folks – don't let that be the way this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity goes.
Impact Hub Austin is launching an Affordable Housing Accelerator, and hosting a happy hour mixer to introduce it to the public. The three-month program will focusing on "policy, innovation, and financing to … innovate solutions to this pressing social issue." Hear more, and "mingle with mentors," this Thursday, Oct. 5, 4:30-6:30pm at Impact Hub, 411 W. Monroe, www.facebook.com/impacthubaustin.
Austin B-cycle is still looking for volunteers to help run their bike valet system on both Sundays of Austin City Limits – to be held this year at Uncle Billy's on Barton Springs. Perks include food, a T-shirt, and half off on annual membership. www.austinbcycle.com.
After being closed to the public most of last month, the Austin Humane Society is reopening this Saturday and Sunday with a "Be a Harvey Hero" adoption event, trying to find homes for many of the more than 200 dogs and puppies they took in from the Houston area. $20 adoption fees for all. More details, of course, at www.austinhumanesociety.org.