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CodeNEXT means angst for some

Wednesday, May 4, 2016 by Jo Clifton

On Tuesday, City Council heard a briefing on the progress of CodeNEXT, the costly and time-consuming rewrite of the city’s land development code, and in the process started down the path to some of the hardest questions the city faces in deciding the rules for development.

Those include: What does affordability mean and how can the city provide it? What choices does the city make when there seems to be a conflict between values such as more affordable housing and providing green space?

As Jim Robertson, the project manager for CodeNEXT, explained, staff will be making recommendations to Council, which in bureaucratic jargon are called code prescriptions.

Tuesday’s prescription, the natural and built environment, includes recommendations to “ensure that the land development code creates an environment that is reflective of Austin’s character and Imagine Austin’s vision and goals.” At their next briefing, currently scheduled for June 21, staff will be discussing the affordability prescription.

Council Member Ora Houston thanked Robertson for his work but told him she thought CodeNEXT was a nightmare, just like Imagine Austin had been. There is the development community and the new urbanist community, she said, and then there are the people who live here, “who see that their culture, their quality of life is being designed by people who don’t live here, who will not live here, and who will go back to someplace else — so it’s really disheartening to have to go through this again, so thank you for being patient with us.”

In Tuesday’s presentation, staff chose a current prescription to explain that there would be trade-offs. But the prescription Robertson outlined immediately sparked controversy: It compared a residential development with two parking spaces per unit that a person earning a minimum annual income of $51,000 could afford to a unit with .5 parking spaces that a person with a minimum income of $39,000 could afford.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said, “If we are making trade-offs to reduce parking with the expectation that that’s going to lower housing costs, then I expect when we are evaluating the code that there’s going to be a provision saying if you’re renting the unit without a parking space, then your rent will be lower than the other units by some substantial amount.

“We often have considerations in front of us with arguments like that — if we require no parking at the residential building that is going in downtown, then that will be cheaper for those who are renting or purchasing those units, and individuals will find other ways to get around.” But that is not necessarily the case, Tovo said, and the situation could potentially burden other downtown parking.

Robertson responded that parking is an entitlement and could be addressed in the code. “If we allow the development to provide less parking and that development is going to place a greater burden on parking resources elsewhere, then that’s a perfect situation where there’s a quid pro quo.”

Council had many other questions, not the least of which was an echo of what members of the Code Advisory Group and city commissions have been asking: Why can’t they see the parts of the code that have already been written? But Robertson insisted that presenting the entire code to the whole city in January 2017 would be better than doling it out a piece at a time before other pieces are completed.

Council Member Don Zimmerman declared the task of rewriting the code and satisfying people with disparate goals and ideas impossible. “We’re going to waste millions of dollars and when we get done in January, we’re going to be right back where we started — a lot of anger and unhappiness,” he said.

And the crux of the problem, Zimmerman continued, is that “we have mutually exclusive choices.” One example of that, he said, is the desire for affordability and the desire for more green space.

Robertson said that Council has authorized spending about $2.6 million on consultants, and staff will be back for more money within the next couple of months to finish the process. In addition, he said, the Transportation Department is anticipating requesting another $500,000 so the consultants can help create a strategic mobility plan for the city at the same time they are doing the code rewrite.

Photo by FgrammenOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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