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For some Austin residents, CodeNEXT spurs fears of gentrification

Friday, July 7, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

When we talk about gentrification in Austin, the conversation tends to center around rapid redevelopment on the city’s east side. But residents of other neighborhoods near the city center have their eyes on the changes that Austin’s new land development code, known as CodeNEXT, could bring.

Martha Cotera is a community organizer and translator who has worked with residents of Rundberg, a diverse group of neighborhoods in North Austin. Cotera said some residents she has spoken to are skeptical about CodeNEXT. They worry that the new zoning tools could accelerate the pace of gentrification, and they question whether their input will make a difference in policy.

“Bureaucrats are kind of, like, already set on what they’re going to do, and then they come out and do the outreach to the community, and that’s where the community is hesitant to buy in,” Cotera said.

At the heart of these fears are concerns about increased entitlements. If the new code allows for more units in these areas, some fear it could accelerate the demolition of older properties. That’s because as the land becomes more valuable, builders could be incentivized to build larger, more expensive high rises.

Others say the changes proposed in CodeNEXT don’t go far enough. Melinda Schiera with the North Austin Civic Association sees the code rewrite as a chance to promote affordable housing in new places. Schiera said the proposed zoning in CodeNEXT is not much of a departure from the association’s existing neighborhood plan.

“And so we actually want to see a little bit of change,” Schiera said. “We want to propose that some of the commercial property is actually zoned for multi-use along North Lamar and 183.”

Jorge Rousselin, a project manager on CodeNEXT, believes concerns about gentrification are valid. He said city staff has analyzed the existing character of Austin neighborhoods and how they’ve developed over the past several decades. The idea is to better understand the pace of change and avoid displacement. Rousselin said the city has done this by combing through neighborhood plans. That process offers residents a chance to set development priorities and shape the future of land use in their neighborhoods.

“So the intent is really to offer the community a pathway to implement those neighborhood plans,” Rousselin said.

But who exactly do those plans represent? A 2016 audit found that the process of writing neighborhood plans is largely inequitable. The residents most at risk of being displaced may be the least likely to weigh in.

“I think it is true that that community has not had the voice that they should, but I also know that it’s a steep hurdle to capture it,” said Planning Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza.

In April, Zaragoza called for the issue of gentrification to be included in more official planning documents. She said she has yet to see a clear strategy for addressing gentrification in CodeNEXT.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Manuel Garza made available through a Creative Commons license.

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