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Consultants dodge questions on ideology behind CodeNEXT

Monday, June 12, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Making a rare appearance, an elephant was spotted waltzing through the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall during the May 30 land use joint commission meeting. Supposedly, the large creature has always been in the room during CodeNEXT work sessions, but nobody wants to acknowledge it – profit. Everyone knows developers make a killing in Austin now and they will continue to do so after CodeNEXT is adopted, but to what extent the profit incentive has guided the drafting of the new land use code, it’s harder to say.

The magical event happened soon after consultant Alex Joyce with Fregonese Associates began to explain the reasoning behind the draft version of the new land use code map. The map allocates new, form-based transect zoning mostly in the urban core of the city.

“In Austin, not every place is created equal in terms of its desirability,” he said at the meeting. “(The urban core) has seen a market uptick in desirability. Even under the current code, you’re seeing hundreds of demolitions. If that’s a reality, the question is what are you getting?”

Joyce explained that under the current code, when a property in these desirable areas is redeveloped, the number of housing units on site tends to remain the same. “And those units are selling for $750,000.”

Alternatively, the form-based zones would give developers more flexibility in diversifying the housing available, Joyce said, theoretically boosting the number of units citywide.

Board of Adjustment Chair William Burkhardt pushed back against Joyce’s logic, specifically in reference to the T3 and T4 “missing” middle residential categories. “I just don’t think the way the transect zone numbers work right now is an appropriate argument for (applying them to a single-family) neighborhood,” Burkhardt said.

“I think there may be a fundamental disagreement about what the intent is,” Joyce responded. “Is there an intent to expand housing options in parts of Austin?”

“It just doesn’t look like we are going to be getting that many more people in these locations given the economic drive to do what is the most profitable solution,” Burkhardt said.

Following up on her colleague’s point, Planning Commissioner Patricia Seeger asked the question more directly. “The implication is that we are zoning based on the profitability of development. Is that correct?”

After a pause, Opticos Design Inc. consultant John Miki asked for Seeger to clarify which neighborhood she was talking about.

At that point, Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver interrupted. “Would you guys ever respond to the question of (did you zone) a neighborhood this way because of market-driven forces?”

Miki promised to expand on that point later on during the meeting, but the consultants never did provide a direct response.

That did not stop Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Jim Duncan from returning to the subject, however. Pointing to a Powerpoint slide he had prepared, Duncan went over the guiding principles of the city of Portland’s residential infill project, namely affordability and compatibility. “Nowhere on that list (do you see) profitability or market-driven,” he said.

Still, Zoning and Platting Commissioner Bruce Evans reminded everyone that at the end of the day there was no way to get around market forces. “No matter what we try to do,” he said, “it’s a natural happening.”

The deadline for feedback on the first draft of the CodeNEXT text was June 7. The deadline for map feedback is July 7, although both land use commissions have acknowledged that they need more time, and it is unclear when they will submit their official recommendations. Whether or not the elephant will be sighted again is also uncertain.

This story has been corrected. The deadline for feedback on the draft maps is July 7 (not June 7 as originally reported.)

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