Point Austin: What to Do About CodeNEXT
Opponents offering plenty of fear but precious few solutions
The anti-CodeNEXT circus made a whistle-stop in my Windsor Park neighborhood over the weekend, in a Sunday afternoon "forum" titled "Decoding CodeNEXT." It was clear from the one-sided list of speakers on the hyperbolic mailer – bristling with fear-mongering phrases like "It was a Wonderful Life" and "bastardized new urbanism" – that the event would not try to provide a balanced or objective view of the city's land use code revision in progress. Nevertheless, I attended, in the hopes that I and my neighbors might at least learn something new about the specific arguments of CodeNEXT opponents, to answer the mailer's headline question: "How will CodeNEXT impact your neighborhood?"
There was indeed a little of that, from one of the seven speakers (abetted by moderator Alberta Phillips of the Statesman), but mostly we heard a series of high-volume, low-information truisms about rapid urban growth: local housing prices are spiking; developers seek the highest available profits; overbuilding accelerates flooding; unregulated development undermines economic and racial equity; the city plans too much/too little; too-fast growth promotes gentrification and residential displacement; Austinites are polarized over the right response.
All of this is undeniable, although the litany was delivered with a credulous outrage that condescended to its audience and, most importantly, avoided the obvious corollary: that every single one of these problems is a problem now, when (I guess it needs to be said) CodeNEXT does not exist. Implicit in all this foreboding is that CodeNEXT will likely make these problems worse – though that is not inevitable, especially since the city is still revising the series of CodeNEXT drafts, and public engagement has already improved the ongoing revisions.
Is the land use code perfectible, and will CodeNEXT make it better for the whole city? That's all very much to be seen – although the often explicit thrust of this event was: Let's just do nothing, and hope things get better on their own.
The Morrison Arguments
The single exception to that panel-wide fatalism was former City Council Member Laura Morrison, who did provide a list of specific criticisms of the draft code that could encourage additional revisions. In brief, she argued that city staff has too much unsupervised sway over the changes; that the draft grants too many entitlements to potential developers without sufficient community benefits, resulting in even higher property values and "demolition pressure"; that currently restricted uses like "bars," "personal services," and "drive-throughs" (each often the subject of endless zoning fights) would be too readily allowed; and overall that the draft code would serve newcomers to Austin at the expense of existing residents (the last charge shrewdly aimed at an audience of mostly older homeowners).
In short, said Morrison of the drafting process, "We have a long way to go and we are not on the right path now."
All of Morrison's claims are certainly arguable (although how or why to stop staff from performing their assigned tasks was never clear), and in keeping with her erstwhile dais refrain, "Everything in the [current] code is there for a reason." Nevertheless, she was coy about her own 2012 Council's role in adopting Imagine Austin, the comprehensive plan that's meant to underlie CodeNEXT, except to cite "page 207" as gospel, specifically that the code should encourage "the ability of existing families to continue to reside in their homes." (I didn't hear anything in the panel's recital of outrages that would force me to sell my Windsor Park home at an inflated price to some unscrupulous developer and move to Pflugerville, but maybe I dozed off.)
The Work Goes On
Overall, neither I nor my neighbors were well served by the forum sponsors, Community Not Commodity, et al. (The Austin Neighborhoods Council executive committee was also much in evidence, and the speakers persisted in the shell game of using "neighborhood" as a synonym for "single-family home ownership.")
The silliest presentation belonged to Robin Rather (billed as a "sustainability strategist"), who asked us to pray for displaced residents and declared, "CodeNEXT is the worst thing that's ever happened to Austin, by far." Rather said she arrived here in 1996 (those Edenic days "when Austin was about people and not just an ATM cash machine"), so she might have missed, oh, any number of devastating floods, the long droughts, the UT Tower massacre, the 1928 Master Plan, Jim Crow, that little dustup from 1861-1865 …
Rather insisted the only solution to the problems with CodeNEXT is to "kill it" altogether, declare a development moratorium over gentrified neighborhoods (which would of course spike those prices even higher), and to elect a new City Council over those 10-1 members "who have drunk the Kool-Aid." (She looked toward Morrison, who was noncommittal.)
While we continue to work on our land use regulations, we should indeed acknowledge that none of us have "the solution" to problems related to rapid population growth – or its often troublesome corollary, economic prosperity. Alas, I didn't hear any new answers on Sunday afternoon.