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Council pushes ahead with CodeNEXT contract

Friday, October 13, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council has voted to authorize spending what is supposed to be the final chunk of money allocated for the consultants hired to craft CodeNEXT, the rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code.

The $2.27 million will go to Opticos Design Inc., the California-based consulting firm in charge of the rewrite, as well as a number of subcontractors, bringing the total taxpayer bill to $8.5 million over the past four years.

Facing opposition from most of her colleagues, who voiced concerns about making changes to the contract that might make the process longer or more expensive, Council Member Leslie Pool backed off an effort to add amendments to the contract that would require the consultants to “complete all missing or incomplete components” of the current draft before getting started on the third and final draft. Among other things, Pool wanted answers on how the current draft would affect flooding, signage regulations and site plan requirements for “missing middle” housing.

Instead, Pool offered the same language as “guidance” for city staff as it collaborates with Opticos on crafting the final draft of the new code, which Council is still tentatively scheduled to vote on in April. That language was added to the final contract, which passed 8-3, with Pool and Council members Ora Houston and Alison Alter voting against.

Pool once again called on Council to hold the consultants accountable for what she described as incomplete work on the second draft of the proposed code.

“It’s important that we have a clear understanding of what we have in front of us,” she said.

A handful of neighborhood activists echoed her concerns, urging Council to slow down the CodeNEXT process.

“There should be a revolt from the public about how our tax dollars are being spent,” said Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. “This is nonsense. We don’t trust the people involved. We don’t trust the process and we certainly don’t trust the product.”

Council Member Delia Garza pushed back in response to the criticism of the consultants, saying that the draft they produced was the result of the conflicting directions they had received from Council.

Garza, who in August joined Council members Pio Renteria, Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan in demanding a code that will allow much more housing in the urban core, said that Council members were preventing CodeNEXT from fulfilling the city’s housing need by insisting that neighborhood plans and other neighborhood-specific development restrictions stay in place.

In response to a previous football analogy employed by a CodeNEXT opponent, Garza likened Council’s directions to the consultants to telling a coach to win a game “but you can’t score any touchdowns and you can’t put up a defense.”

Casar echoed Garza’s comments, suggesting that the cost of crafting CodeNEXT and whatever flaws it may include paled in comparison to maintaining the status quo. The cost of doing nothing, he said, would amount to billions of dollars to build roads and deliver services to the outer edges of the city where low-income people are increasingly being forced to move due to rising housing costs in the urban core.

Renteria relayed his own experience with the home he purchased 38 years ago for $28,000. Only five years ago he was rebuffing offers to purchase his lot for between $100,000 and $200,000, he said, telling people he wouldn’t sell for less than $1 million. Now, he explained, the prospect of selling his property for that much is no longer outlandish.

Unless the city allows more housing to be built, said Renteria, many longtime residents will be forced by rising property values to sell their homes and move to lower-cost communities, such as Elgin, Bastrop or Manor. As far as he was concerned, the entire city should be zoned to allow two units on each lot, he said.

Renteria ridiculed the notion that the city needed more time, noting that the process began five years ago.

“God, give me a break,” he said.

Council Member Ora Houston pushed back against her fellow east siders, saying that she didn’t believe that adding more housing supply would lead to lower prices. Her feelings were echoed by Council Member Alison Alter, who said she didn’t “subscribe to this trickle-down supply theory.”

Continuing a conversation that took place at a work session earlier this week, Council Member Ann Kitchen highlighted the fact that very few of Opticos’ subcontracts have gone to women- or minority-owned businesses.

While some Council members suggested that that was Opticos’ failure to live up to goals it had set when submitting its bid for the overall contract, city staff has said that the shortcoming was more the result of changes to the scope of work demanded by the city that Opticos likely did not anticipate when it submitted its goals.

Kitchen similarly emphasized the city’s responsibility in doing more outreach to minority communities when soliciting contracts, saying that she planned to bring forward a resolution directing the city manager to make more aggressive efforts on that front.

Speaking to reporters after the vote, Pool said that she had “read the dais” and decided not to push for changing the CodeNEXT deadline. She is nevertheless skeptical that Council will get the work done in the next six months.

In the short-term, however, Council also agreed to language proposed by Kitchen directing the city manager to quickly come back to Council with ideas for how the CodeNEXT contract scope of work could be changed to include more “outreach and engagement” in minority communities.

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

Photo by John Flynn.

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