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Land-use commissions unimpressed with CodeNEXT mapping

Monday, April 24, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Ending a bit rougher than it began, the CodeNEXT map’s first day in the sun experienced some cloudiness in the evening when, during a joint work session, some of the land-use commissioners made cutting observations about the effort’s potential impact on neighborhood character, the city’s housing stock and economic segregation.

On Tuesday, April 18, CodeNEXT consultants and city staff presented a preliminary sketch of what the city will look like under the new land-use code, albeit with less off-putting language than what had offended some in the first draft text released in January. Rather than using the divisive transect and nontransect zoning categories, Opticos Design consultant John Miki described CodeNEXT in phrases like “similar intensity, better standards,” and “growing compactly, growing connected.”

The map reveals, as some predicted, that the transect zones gravitate toward the city’s core, although the allocation appears to be skewed slightly to the northern part of the city. To the dismay of some developers, the high-density T6 category is nowhere to be found in the current map.

As smoothly as the consultants had tried to paint the transition, Zoning and Platting Commissioner Betsy Greenberg expressed her alarm at how many current SF-3 (Family Residential) zones had been upzoned while others had been downzoned in the new map. She said that she found the imposition of T4 – one of the more controversial categories that critics have alleged neglects the “missing middle” – in some neighborhoods to be particularly disturbing.

“That’s not maintaining community character. That’s setting up these areas for redevelopment,” Greenberg said. “How do you choose which neighborhoods to send the bulldozers to?”

“There’s some places where we had to make a decision,” Miki responded. “This is the beginning of the discussion, though.”

Another point of contention was the map’s bold promise not only to meet the Strategic Housing Blueprint’s ambitious goal of building 135,000 housing units in the next 10 years, but to exceed it, claiming that the new zoning will encourage approximately 144,000 new units in that time. Planning Commissioner James Schissler questioned how zoning categories of any kind could guarantee those projections when market forces are driving up the cost of land so dramatically. Zoning and Platting Commissioner Sunil Lavani echoed the concern.

“We’re spending a lot of time and energy when it comes to CodeNEXT and figuring out how we can create more affordable housing,” Lavani said, “but I don’t know how much additional housing is actually created from this new code versus the existing code we have in place, with all of its (conditional overlays) and things in hand, we may not be seeing much.”

Planning Commissioner Patricia Seeger also reiterated the concern that areas without neighborhood plans were getting overlooked by the CodeNEXT process. “We need to make sure that we don’t replicate the problems that we created in parts of the core areas of Austin,” she said. “We need to keep the outlying areas in mind.”

“We’ve taken this as far as we can with existing policy,” Miki said. “While we have not mapped (transect zones) outside of the central core, there are opportunities if it is a property owner-driven request to do so.”

The land-use commissions’ review of the CodeNEXT draft and mapping continues for a couple more months, with an official feedback deadline on the draft map scheduled for July 7 and official second draft release date expected sometime in August.

Visit the Monitor‘s handy CodeNEXT Timeline here.

This story has been updated to reflect the deadline for the draft map feedback, which is July 7, and to clarify the CodeNEXT team hasn’t yet mapped transect zones outside of the central core.

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