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Friday, November 7, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Divided Council debates approach to CodeNEXT

Those who enjoy debate about how the city will approach the rewrite of the its Land Development Code are in luck: City Council will consider its approach to CodeNEXT for a third time later this month.

Council held the first part of the hearing at its last meeting. Thursday night, members took more public testimony and debated the different approaches among themselves.

In the end, Council members were evenly split and decided to wait until all seven members were present in order to decide on an approach. They will reconsider and vote on the options at their Nov. 20 meeting.

As the first major benchmark of the code rewrite process, Council is poised to decide how intense the rewrite will be. City staff and a good number of commissions have supported the middle ground — Approach 2 — which has been categorized as a “deep clean and reset.” However, on Thursday, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Member Chris Riley seemed to favor a more intense approach — Approach 3 — which would be a “complete makeover.”

Riley moved for the most intense approach, saying there was “a fairly widespread recognition that the current land-development code fell far short of what we expect in Austin” and that a “piecemeal, half-hearted approach is not going to get us where we need to be.”

“This is a very rare opportunity to make a very significant change in the landscape of Austin, and one that is desperately needed with affordability problems pressing, with people being forced out of Austin, with the widespread dissatisfaction with the built environment that we see in Austin and what we see being produced in our current code,” said Riley. “This juncture is a rare opportunity to set out on a more positive course.”

Planning and Development Review Assistant Director George Adams supported the middle approach, pointing out that it could still bring a lot of changes to the code. Adams also warned that the LDC wasn’t the “silver bullet” for affordability, just one tool.

Leffingwell said that, in his opinion, there was little that the government could do to increase affordability in the city, and that was largely a job for the private sector.

“Basically it’s us getting out of the way to let this supply/demand equation work,” said Leffingwell.

Martinez said that if there was little they could do, they should do that little they could.

Austinite Mary RistejovskyPustejovsky advocated for the strongest approach, pointing out that Austin’s current code prevented the construction of “missing middle” housing that is more affordable, and the result was driving families out of the central city.

“I really believe that an aggressive approach is the way to go,” said RistejovskyPustejovsky. “Our housing affordability crisis is now. It’s happening right now, and many families are having to move to the suburbs because they can’t afford to live here.”

Austin Neighborhoods Council President Mary Ingle said the ANC executive committee could not support any of the three code approaches because of a lack of substantial information. She said, “The document contains jargon and ambiguities that lack the specificities for anyone to make a well-advised and well-educated decision about how the City Council should proceed.”

Ingle said that, personally, she would feel most comfortable with the middle approach, but was concerned about a push by developers for the most-intensive approach. She pointed out that approach was the most costly option, as well as the most radical one.

Zilker resident David King urged Council members to wait for the new Council to take charge. That said, he advocated the middle approach, saying it was a choice between “too wild, too mild, and just right.”

Real Estate Council of Austin president Ward Tisdale spoke in favor of the most intense approach and urged the city to “be bold and think big.”

“The current code is big trouble … It needs more than updating, it needs a complete makeover,” said Tisdale.

There was also the question of what a more intense rewrite would mean, practically.

Morrison pointed out that a complete makeover approach would mean the code rewrite would not be done until 2019. “That’s five years of not being able to be strong on affordability,” said Morrison, who said the suggestion that interim fixes could be made while the code was being rewritten would not be a good idea.

“With all due respect, I think that would be a nightmare,” said Morrison.

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

Real Estate Council of Austin: 501(c)6 for "more than 1,700 commercial real estate professionals representing the top leaders in the Central Texas business community." RECA is a donor to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent of the Austin Monitor.

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