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Questions remain over future usefulness of form-based code project

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Two weeks ago, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to fund a study that will produce a new set of zoning rules along two-and-a-half miles of Airport Boulevard. Still, concerns linger about the cost of the project, called the Form Based Code Initiative, which will run the city $478,000.


Two Council members have told In Fact Daily that they will be watchful as the effort moves forward. For Council Member Sheryl Cole, that means taking a hard look at all of the various master plans currently under way citywide. For Council Member Laura Morrison, the purported transferability of the Airport Boulevard form-based code is still an open question


According to the Form-Based Codes Institute, form-based code is a means of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form. Considered an alternative to traditional zoning, form-based codes aim to produce more consistent and predictable patterns of development  than typically achieved through conventional means.


For both Cole and Morrison, the concerns associated with form-based code extend to include the city’s budget process.


Proponents of the project, however, are convinced that its effectiveness will justify the price tag. “The city will end up recouping all of (the study project’s) costs,” Council Member Chris Riley said.


During the hearing to vet potential contractors for the funded but not yet assigned Airport Boulevard form-based code project, Cole revealed her intention to have her Comprehensive Planning and Transportation subcommittee look at the entire list of city plans in order to get a better grasp on city priorities.


Cole elaborated on those concerns. “I support form-based code for Airport Boulevard,” she said. “I have supported many of the land use initiatives. I have, however, reached a point when I wonder when we are going to stop studying the study and planning the plan and actually consider the financial requirements to make those plans a reality.”


She added that she was hopeful that the process undertaken in the Airport project would be transferable to other sections of Austin. “That is one of the primary reasons that I am supporting it,” she added. “But at the same time, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the volume of plans we are taking on and the absence of the financial analysis to make them happen.”


Cole then extended her concerns to include the city’s budget process. “I think we’re putting an undue amount of burden on staff simply by our lack of ranking of priorities and by our lack of consideration of funding of priorities,” she said. “I think all of that should be a part of the budget process.


“We are a city with big ideas and big dreams that often does not want to face the ever-piercing question of how are we going to pay for it?”


Morrison’s solution to her worries about the process is a still-in-the-works resolution that she’s co-authoring with Council Member Bill Spelman. That legislation would start the Council concretely looking budget process in February or March. The effect here would get decision-makers more informed, earlier—and thus better equipped to delineate priorities.


As for form based code itself, Morrison was supportive of Cole’s suggestion. “If there are conflicts we want to make sure that we prioritize them,” she said.


She added that she felt that “certainly some of the concepts” that go with the Airport Boulevard form-based code design would be transferable if the city should decide to initiate like projects elsewhere. Still, she said, just how much of the project would be translatable “remains to be seen.”


Form-based code would promise to add to city coffers via tax dollars as property values in the area go up. This too is a concern for Morrison. “How do we make sure that when it becomes a much more desirable area, (it remains affordable)?” she asked.


For his part, Riley, who has been pushing for the use of form based code, is also on board for a prioritizing session at the subcommittee. 


The hearing two weeks ago featured presentations from the three firms vying to be the group that implements the project along Airport (see In Fact Daily, Sept. 27). The CEO of one of these firms, Scott Polikov told In Fact Daily that he’d participated in several like projects that had recovered respective municipal investments in short-order. These cities include Duncanville and Roanoke, Texas, and Owensboro, KY.


As for the transferability of a form-based code project, he noted that each effort is “context-sensitive” but that the skeleton of what’s produced on Airport could “apply to other corridors.”


Cole, Morrison, and Riley make up the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation subcommittee.

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