The Austin Chronicle

Austin at Large: City Hall’s Game of Threes

Spencer Cronk quizzes the Council to win a new land use code!

By Mike Clark-Madison, March 22, 2019, News

When I was away from my desk here at the Chronicle (for about 12 years), I learned that smart negotiators bracket their offer as one of (at least) three options. Unless they're status-seeking, buyers don't want the most expensive choice; unless they're miserly or broke, they don't want the cheapest. The sweet spot is often somewhere above the middle but not at the top of the range. I also learned, doing market research, that people love to pick "four" on a five-point scale; what you're often measuring is how many or few people, on the margins, are made extra-happy or extra-cranky by what you're telling them.

Does Spencer Cronk know these truisms of the consulting world? If so, it's right to examine how the city manager has arranged the various decision points – his sets of three options – in his response to Council's directive back in August 2018 to bring forth a new process to succeed the euthanized CodeNEXT. In a memo that dropped last Friday, right before spring break, Cronk pitches back to his bosses five multiple-choice "policy questions" for which he needs answers before he can begin the groundwork to produce a "Land Development Code that achieves the stated goals of the City," as reads the Council resolution that gave him this assignment.

Note that the resolution, as quoted by Cronk, does not affix the word "new" to "Land Development Code." That's Question One, whose three answer choices are: A-i) new code and zoning map; A-ii) new code only, map to come later; or B) "a limited set of amendments to the existing [code], targeting improvements in one or more policy areas." Why not just A, B, and C? Perhaps Cronk has structured this question to reflect his preference, stated elsewhere, that "staff does not recommend adopting a new Land Development Code that would take effect without concurrently adopting a new Zoning Map."

It's Déjà Vu All Over Again!

If this three-choice scenario sounds vaguely familiar, it's because more than four years ago, right after the November 2014 elections that would replace six of the then-seven members, the outgoing at-large Council was given three options for determining the scope of the then-nascent CodeNEXT project, presented in reverse order from Cronk's: a "brisk sweep" cleanup, a "deep clean" revision, or a "complete makeover." That Council, following the lead of the folks in my focus groups, came up with option 2.5, to "deep clean and reset," a mark apparently missed by the three failed drafts that spawned maximum ruckus before CodeNEXT got mercifully dragged behind the barn.

Is it fair of Cronk to ask Council, and by extension Austin, to make that same choice again, knowing what we know now? Conversely, would it be fair of Council to tell Cronk that his Question One was answered for good and all four years before he got here – again, with all that we've learned about each other since? I'd say "yes" and "no," respectively, since while the current 10-1 Council is probably balanced similarly to the final at-large dais (2014's 5-2 votes are today's 8-3 votes), the path from Then to Now has been anything but a straight line.

A Voyage of Discovery!

As such, if I were Spencer Cronk coming in at the sputtering tail end of the CodeNEXT adventure, I'd want Council to openly articulate to me what it had discovered along the way before I took the next step. We should do the same ourselves in the community. Instead of narrating CodeNEXT as a debacle or a pitched battle between Austin's rival kingdoms, what if we recounted it as a voyage of discovery? What did we learn?

Usually, lessons-learned, after-action report endeavors focus a lot on process and tactics, and so it has been here. A consensus is emerging that we may not really have such big disagreements on matters of policy, and if we did we wouldn't know, because the CodeNEXT process was such a dumpster fire. Cronk wants to test that notion; his other four "policy questions" get to key matters of substance that really will shape tomorrow's Austin – how much housing we need and want, what it looks like, how it relates to existing housing, and how we manage cars in our living, working, and third places. Those are big deals! And we fleshed out a lot about Austin's attitudes about these subjects during the protracted CodeNEXT conflict.

Again, some would probably say we'd already had those conversations even before CodeNEXT, during the development of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, in which we united behind a vision of a "compact and connected" community and laid the predicate for a new code. But the words "united" and "laid" are doing a lot of work in that sentence – work whose fruits are not now evident on the ground, at least not in Cronk's field of view. "In my estimation, Imagine Austin lacked firm direction on these important issues," he writes in his memo, "and leaned too heavily on the code development process to determine policy." He's right; but we may have given ourselves that direction, if not very firmly, during the CodeNEXT debate. Perhaps Council will remember those answers when it takes Cronk's test.

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