Point Austin: Postponing the Code
CodeNEXT rewrite generating inexplicable panic
I can't have been the only one who noticed a disturbance in the Twitterverse on Tuesday during City Council's work session, when council members discussed the question of delaying the current April 2018 deadline for their vote on CodeNEXT. The nominal subject was a proposed increase to the CodeNEXT consultants' contract (Opticos Design) – another $2.3 million, bringing the current price tag to about $8.5 million – but the conversation quickly devolved into the larger question of the entire project: of entirely rewriting Austin's land use code.
The cost increase became the least of it. The day before, Council Member Leslie Pool wrote to her colleagues, "I would ask that we consider adjusting our current timeline and adopt a new goalpost, such as Winter 2018, Spring 2019, or another timeframe that Council finds acceptable." Whatever you think of CodeNEXT, the thought that City Hall and the Austin public – or at least its policy-wonkiest denizens – would spend yet another year arguing hyperbolically over arcane zoning regulations should not make your heart leap in eager anticipation. (Hence the predictable tremors online.)
Whatever else a year's delay might do – and city staff has been working on revising the land use code in accordance with the 2012 Imagine Austin comprehensive plan for roughly five years – it certainly won't lower the cost. But perhaps we should be happy that today (Oct. 12) Council will only be contemplating a year's delay. One of the groups opposing CodeNEXT altogether ("Community Not Commodity") is circulating a petition that would push the effective date of any land use code revision until at least June 2019 – that is, "until the June 1st following the next regularly scheduled council elections after Council adopts CodeNEXT," to be followed by a public vote on the code at "the next available municipal election."
I would imagine even the strongest partisans would be tired of talking about all this by November of 2019 (or November 2020?). But the opponents would have succeeded in their real aim, which is to abandon code revision altogether and stop the entire process in its tracks.
To be certain, there was immediate Council pushback to Pool's proposal, beginning with the fairly obvious objection that April 2018 is "not tomorrow," as Jimmy Flannigan put it. Indeed, today remains mid-October 2017, and by my finger-count April remains six-and-a-half months away. Nor will anything stop Council from stretching the work (as they habitually do) closer to the deadline. Flannigan noted that delay-in-advance would only make certain more delay, and Mayor Steve Adler noted that the schedule and contract extension has occurred over time because the city has repeatedly changed the scope of the work (e.g., adding commissions for additional review), and so on.
Maybe they won't get it done by spring, but surrendering in advance seems by definition self-defeating. As I've written before, I don't understand the extremely polarized views (at least among advocates) about CodeNEXT. It is neither a master plan for bulldozing single-family neighborhoods nor a magic wand to produce citywide economic equity and housing affordability. Considering what's proposed in the current draft for my own near-Northeast neighborhood, the revisions would appear to allow more density, and more housing types, to infill our single-family areas over the coming years. Both of those appear to be quite reasonable proposals.
I don't find in them cause either to panic, or to celebrate the coming of a housing-price plateau. With Austin's general prosperity continuing to drive population growth, at best we can expect, with more and various units, some moderating downward pressure on prices, and somewhat more equitable geographic dispersion of market-rate affordable housing. Why the predictions of apocalypse?
Committee of the Whole
I'm frankly more concerned about yet another renewed cycle of demand for government by petition, in which small groups of activists are using the CodeNEXT controversy to push for a Charter revision that would subject virtually every new ordinance to a longer "waiting period" in order to allow and generate more petition-driven repeal efforts. It's as though none of them recall that just last year, corporate carpetbaggers Uber and Lyft spent a large fortune trying to overturn a duly enacted, public safety-based Council ordinance. Now they want to invite anyone with deep pockets to buy petition signatures to repeal any law that they couldn't successfully lobby to stop at the dais.
The same folks complaining that the CodeNEXT draft is "too complicated" suggest we should abandon Austin's representative government (and its myriad commission reviews) and submit a voluminous land use code to a public vote – in order to return our land use standards to a code that we decided to revise because absolutely everyone agreed it's too complicated. I don't know if Council will vote today to give us all more time to stew in our juices over CodeNEXT. But I'm damn certain that delaying the process another year (or more) will not produce a better outcome.