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Commission casts aside CodeNEXT timeline

Thursday, October 12, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

A code rewrite is by nature a precarious undertaking, where even an informal conversation can trigger a tectonic shift in the entire process. At its Oct. 10 meeting, the Planning Commission played around with the idea of shifting gears to a different timeline for CodeNEXT.

“I don’t think this commission should be worried at all about Oct. 31 deadlines,” said Chair Stephen Oliver. “When we get done with it, we will be done with it, but we are not going to take our foot off the gas, and we are not going to press on the gas so hard that we can’t see straight. We have got to figure this out.”

One could imagine the needle jumping on a CodeNEXT seismograph as Commissioner James Shieh read from a letter he had drafted expressing his own personal opinion about the dangers awaiting the city if it stayed on its current course of finalizing CodeNEXT. “Implementing new zoning without planning is reckless and will create undue consequences,” he read aloud at the meeting. “This is what we see in our current process.”

The first draft of CodeNEXT arrived in January, and the corresponding zoning map a few months later, and since then commissioners have been put in the position of wrestling with both titanic documents at the same time as consultants and staff continue to make changes.

As an alternative, Shieh suggested that the review of the two aspects of CodeNEXT, the text and the map, be detached from one another, where the text would be finished first along the existing timeline, with the map to follow later.

In the meantime, explained Oliver, commissioners will work to review the current draft, breaking into six small non-quorum meetings with the public on Oct. 26.

The plan is to divide the existing draft into groups to determine what portions of the rewrite – not including zoning – are fine and what areas are close to having consensus, leaving room to discuss the areas of the code that are most contentious or incomplete.

For Commissioner Greg Anderson, this idea sounded like another delay in an undertaking that has already spanned a few years. “I can’t help but wonder if this is just us punting it down the road again,” he said.

On the other hand, most cities that have attempted similar code rewrites have allowed time for more direct planning to happen in between drafting the code and rezoning the landscape, said Commissioner Trinity White. Commissioner James Schissler fired back, reiterating that the market ultimately drives development. “People want to live in certain places, people want to go to certain schools,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any level of incentivizing (that) can change that.”

Responding to Anderson’s earlier comment, Oliver said that he saw the alternative process as proceeding in the correct order, not a delay. Commissioner Tom Nuckols agreed. “We don’t want to punt, but we don’t want to throw a Hail Mary pass either,” he said.

Commissioner Chito Vela also shared a working resolution for consideration. Returning to a concept he had posited before, Vela said that staff and consultants should supply the commission with “sample zoning districts” that could be applied to different areas, with the main goal of maximizing affordable housing and minimizing vehicle trips. “The zoning example that comes to mind (is) the University Neighborhood Overlay,” he said.

The West Campus rezone of neighborhoods has often been touted as a great example of city planning, where the increase in density in the area adjacent to the University of Texas at Austin prevented the sprawl of student housing from overflowing into the older single-family districts. However, Commissioner Karen McGraw, who was a part of UNO’s drafting, clarified that it was not a top-down mandate from the city as much as it was a grassroots effort by the community.

“I would like to see the (CodeNEXT mapping) process involve a lot more people than just the 13 of us beating our heads on the wall,” McGraw said.

Commissioner Fayez Kazi said that Shieh’s and Vela’s ideas did not seem mutually exclusive to him. Furthermore, he thought that the city would have time to work more on the maps after the scheduled April CodeNEXT adoption, because criteria manuals would still have to be written before the new zoning officially rolled out. Shieh cautioned that even so, if the city had already promised entitlements citywide with a CodeNEXT map sans direct planning, it would put the city at risk if it wanted to take some of those entitlements back after further analysis.

Despite some disagreements, the commission seemed to be leaning toward at least exploring what the alternative timeline would look like more concretely.

Oliver said that he anticipates people outside the commission will misinterpret this idea as a delay tactic, but in doing so they would be missing the bigger picture.

“We can’t give Council a crappy product,” he said.

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

Photo by Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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