Mayor, Council appear destined to quash land use rewrite
Mayor Steve Adler dropped an $8 million bombshell on CodeNEXT Wednesday afternoon when he suggested on City Council's online message board that he and his colleagues scrap the land use rewrite and start over. Adler called the ongoing process "so divisive and poisoned," and suggested directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to help create a new process that "will help us move forward together."
The "us," of course, represents the entire city of Austin, which has grown increasingly polarized over the zoning rewrite, with one camp calling for better preservation of neighborhoods and the other calling for greater densification to supply more housing. Both sides believe their approach will help put an end to displacement, demolitions, and gentrification, and the discourse is growing ever more unproductive.
Adler has long acknowledged the conversational divide that exists around CodeNEXT – who can forget the "Team Austin" uniforms he distributed to colleagues when Council first took up the rewrite – and on Wednesday attempted to re-form some consensus. "It's time to evaluate where we are," he wrote. "Is the current process so poisoned that we need a new and different approach that encourages openness, discussion, and finding the truth, rather than the misinformation, hyperbole, fearmongering, and divisive rhetoric we have seen?" No doubt, that has been the case for quite some time.
Still, the announcement comes as somewhat of a shock, although one that may have been presaged by a memo sent last week by interim Assistant City Manager Joe Pantalion informing Council that CodeNEXT testing was not going to meet the Aug. 31 deadline (see "Naked City,") and of possible changes to floodplain regulations due to new data from the National Weather Service's Atlas 14 study. Council ordered that testing in hopes of better understanding possible effects of the proposed rewrite, and the delay has added more stress. Adler wrote that the floodplain changes "alone might justify recalculating and considering new changes to our land development code in order to achieve the goals we seek."
It didn't take two hours for Adler's colleagues to align in agreement with the mayor's proposal. Ann Kitchen wrote, "It's time to stop, think, and reboot this process, working with our new City Manager," and Jimmy Flannigan followed by citing the "significant disruptions" that have hampered the long-running process. He submitted a resolution with Delia Garza, Greg Casar, and Pio Renteria that calls on Cronk to "develop and propose a new process leading to a Land Development Code that achieves the stated goals of the City as outlined in the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the Strategic Housing Blueprint, and the Austin Strategic Direction 2023 Plan." That quite likely will get brought up and voted on at Council's next regular meeting, Aug. 9. With those four on the record, joining Adler, Kitchen, and the corner of council members who've long advocated for shivving the rewrite, CodeNEXT's fate is all but sealed.
But it's worth wondering whether following the aforementioned goals will be enough for Cronk to move forward. As the short run of Council work sessions concerning CodeNEXT showed in June, the dais at present is unable to provide a consensus set of ideals for city staff to take into the process, and members can't even agree on uniform interpretations of those three strategic plans. Adler sought to draw attention to the rewrite's troubled origins, calling out the "previous at-large council" that "selected our CodeNEXT consultant, Opticos," and oversaw the first two years of progress (or its ineffective equivalent) before the 10-1 body took over. Maybe so, but the 10-1 still had plenty of time to let their priorities be known, whether consensus or otherwise. Yet by the time the final draft arrived on the dais, members were still sorting out macrolevel disagreements about what zoning should look like in Austin while simultaneously attempting to amend small passages.
So Council will soon vote to kill CodeNEXT, but in doing so must avoid again punting the dirty work to staff and the land use commissions. It's their job to provide direction; that's something they oughta do.