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More questions than answers for Council on CodeNEXT

Thursday, June 1, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council members are still having a hard time understanding exactly what CodeNEXT, the proposed overhaul of the city’s land development code, will mean for the city. That was made clear at a public hearing Wednesday, during which a number of Council members expressed confusion or frustration over the information they have been provided by the consultants responsible for the draft code.

For starters, a number of Council members were alarmed by an analysis of the proposed code that was recently made public and that appeared to suggest that over 140,000 people would be displaced by development over the next decade if the new code is put in place.

Alex Joyce, a CodeNEXT consultant from Fregonese Associates, made it clear that was not the case, and said that some of the headers on the original spreadsheet had been inaccurate. An updated version of the spreadsheet projects that there will be 22,394 housing units (which house 42,869 individuals) that will be redeveloped in the next decade. It also projects that the city will add roughly 162,000 housing units.

The analysis is the product of a planning tool, Envision Tomorrow, which takes into a number of factors guiding growth, such as property value and zoning entitlements, to project how the city will change in the coming years.

Some parts of the city, due largely to their location and value, are far more likely to be redeveloped or developed, although “all zones are anticipated to generate new construction,” noted Joyce. However, only some of that activity will be a product of changes to the zoning, rather than broader economic and demographic trends.

A number of Council members emphasized that they wanted to see where the anticipated redevelopment would be taking place and who in the city would be most impacted.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo recalled that Council had approved a resolution in December asking staff to prepare an analysis of the effect that demolitions will have on the city’s existing supply of low-cost housing, much of which is being replaced by higher-end developments that the former occupants can’t afford.

Council Member Ora Houston, whose east side district has been transformed in recent years due to gentrification, said she wanted to see a district-by-district breakdown of the anticipated redevelopments.

Similarly, Council Member Alison Alter said that her West Austin constituents are most concerned about “how much more density will occur in their neighborhood if they switch zoning.”

“Those are questions that we’re getting over and over again,” she said.

Joyce replied that it was impossible to know how much density would be added to a given neighborhood, but that residents would be best served by looking at the changes in entitlements or building standards that the proposed code authorizes.

Council Member Greg Casar argued that whatever the implications are of the proposed code, it will be hard to determine whether it is an improvement if Council can’t compare it to a similar analysis of what will happen if the current code is kept in place. He asked for the consultants to prepare that analysis, “So we can understand how our vote on CodeNEXT changes things.”

Houston also pleaded with the CodeNEXT team to communicate in a way that is accessible to the general public.

For instance, she said: “When we talk about ‘alternative equivalent compliance,’ I have no idea what that means.”

Council Member Leslie Pool asked that all future projections prominently display a critical word: “estimate.”

“It looks like (the analysis) is reality when in fact these are assumptions,” she said. “It may not actually reflect what’s going on in Austin.”

Diagram courtesy of the city of Austin, via a May 23 memo.

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