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Despite criticism, Planning Commission reviews CodeNEXT rewrite

Thursday, June 5, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though the process continues to draw criticism, the CodeNEXT code rewrite moves forward, and the Planning Commission looked at its latest benchmark last week.


Planning and Development ReviewUrban Planner George Zapalac  presented the Planning Commission with a draft of CodeNEXT’s Code Diagnosis Report. The final report, which will also detail major issues found in the city’s Land Development Code is expected to be completed in July.


Zaplac’s presentation focused on the report’s “top 10 issues for consideration.” It was, essentially, a greatest hits version of what is most troubling in the Land Development Code.


Zapalac said that the primary issue was ineffective base zoning districts, which apply development regulations uniformly to places with different needs. These blanket regulations have additional regulations in order to make them fit the different needs of different areas. That is the second problem, according to Opticos, whose report notes that 30 years of adding regulations has made the Land Development Code “so convoluted that it is virtually unusable.”


Consultants also fingered a “complicated opt-in, opt-out” system as one of the barriers toward predictable development. Though designed to let neighborhoods customize their development preferences, Opticos concluded it was largely overcomplicating an already complicated system.


Then, there is what many thought would be what Opticos would be primarily addressing, which is the lack of usability and clarity in the code itself. The code is difficult to use, with information hard to locate, a bad layout and inconsistent and conflicting information.


That is the easy-to-navigate thick binder version of the code. Opticos found that the digital code was “outdated and unrefined, and actually makes the LDC harder to understand and use.”


In their evaluation, the group also looked at the Planning and Development Review Department, and found that changes to the code have adversely affected organization within the department, and for those trying to navigate development in the city.


According to the report, Austin also suffers from a lack of household affordability and choice, and labors under an auto-centric code with high parking requirements that does not achieve the goals of Imagine Austin.


Neighborhood groups have singled out those two details, and they argue that the code rewrite is already imposing social values on the city – namely the criticism of auto-centric code and the push for more affordability. They also question the assertion that density will lead to more affordable homes.


They also caught the attention of Commissioner Danette Chimenti.


“I think we are talking about making less parking requirements. Or that seems to be what the push is,” said Chimenti. “But if we eliminate parking requirements to encourage the multi-modal (transportation) and encourage less car-centrism, and yet people don’t get out of their cars, and yet we don’t have the public transportation, is the plan to just use our neighborhoods as parking lots?”


“Because I can tell you in South Congress, it doesn’t make for a very nice neighborhood when the neighborhood gets used as a parking lot,” said Chimenti.


Zaplac said that it was all about context and careful planning, but noted that the city could end up with the “worst possible situation of high density that is only served by automobiles.”


Finally, the report zeroed in on the fact that the current code was not always in line with Imagine Austin. Given that the code rewrite process comes directly from the passage of that comprehensive plan, this observation has ruffled a few feathers.


Austinites continue to work on their own list of what they find wrong with the process. Last month, members of the Austin Neighborhoods Council took to City Council’s citizen communication to protest what they see as a flawed system, and express an ongoing concern that the rewrite will overturn or undermine established neighborhood plans and visions.


In May, Austin resident Dex Ott released a 12-page memo detailing concerns about the code revision process. Ott expressed concerns about both flaws in the data collection and the validation of that data. Specifically, Ott took issue with the inability for citizens to validate and “sign off” on how their public input was interpreted by the consultants. That iterative process has repeatedly been called for by critics of the CodeNEXT process.


The process, writes Ott, is a story of “entrenched and pervasive disregard for true decisive citizen participation exhibited as business-as-usual by City Management, City Mayors and City Councils – even when the project will affect the lives of all Austin citizens.”


The city will be hosting a series of Code Talks, to discuss some of these “hot button” issues and gather more public input. The first meetings will center on the topic of compatibility and will take place June 12 and June 15.

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