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Push on at Council to delay CodeNEXT vote

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 by Jack Craver

Council Member Leslie Pool is pushing to further delay a vote on CodeNEXT, the controversial rewrite of Austin’s Land Development Code that is already years behind schedule.

In a message to fellow City Council members Monday evening, Pool suggested rethinking the April deadline that Council had informally set for final adoption of the new code.

So far, said Pool, Council doesn’t have the information it needs to make an informed decision. City staff, along with the consultants hired to craft the proposal, has yet to answer a number of fundamental questions about what the proposed new rules will do, she said. Among other things, there are still no documents comparing the current draft of CodeNEXT with the original draft presented this summer. Nor does the current draft include language about site plan requirements or green infrastructure, she noted. Only half of the written questions that Council members have submitted in response to the draft have been answered.

The unanswered questions, said Pool, “have fostered a growing lack of trust in CodeNEXT that is undermining the entire process.”

“It seems to me that in our rush to keep this process moving, we may have lost sight of why we are doing this,” she added. “Our ultimate goal is not to meet a deadline; it is to improve our code and manage our growth.”

Pool reiterated those concerns at a Tuesday work session, suggesting she might vote against the $2.27 million that staff has requested adding to the current contract the city has with Opticos Design Inc., a California-based firm whose work on crafting CodeNEXT over the past four years has already cost the city more than $6 million.

The proposed amendment would bring the total spent to just under $8.5 million. It will cover additional architectural, urban design and planning services to complete the fifth and final phase of CodeNEXT as well as services related to the second phase of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, a comprehensive review of the city’s transportation system aimed at guiding the city’s transportation projects in the coming years, ideally in a way that fits with land use patterns that are the result of CodeNEXT.

Pool cast doubt on the value of spending additional money on the contract, suggesting that the consultants’ work could be more efficiently done without so much travel between San Francisco and Austin, including through teleconferences.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo voiced similar concerns about approving the additional funds for the contract and expressed frustration with unanswered questions about the current draft.

“It seems like we’re marching on for another draft when we don’t have a corrected second draft,” she said.

Council Member Alison Alter similarly signaled skepticism.

“My goal is to get it right, I don’t know what that means for the timetable,” she said, adding that she did not believe that CodeNEXT, as it currently stands, “advances the goals of Imagine Austin,” the comprehensive city plan that is intended to guide land use policy.

However, Pool’s suggested changes to the deadline and the contract also received significant pushback from other Council members.

“I think it’s real important to stick with the April deadline,” said Mayor Steve Adler.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan concurred, saying that there had already been about 20 meetings on CodeNEXT in his district. While it was Council’s job to engage the public on the matter, the consultants should be “locked” in a room with city staff to finish up the draft, he said.

“I think we need to get this done, y’all,” he said.

In August, Flannigan, along with Council members Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Pio Renteria, held a press conference to say they would oppose a new code that keeps in place what they viewed as the central flaws of existing code, which they blamed for preventing enough housing from being built in the urban core, thereby driving up housing costs and forcing poor and working-class residents to leave their longtime neighborhoods in search of cheaper housing outside of the city.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, while not commenting on the timeline, said it would be “totally inappropriate” to kill the proposed contract.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said that while she didn’t like to set “arbitrary deadlines,” it seemed “reasonable to expect that we’ll have a reasonable product by April.”

What concerned her more, she added, was her impression that CodeNEXT, rather than fundamentally reforming land development rules, is poised to largely be a “reformatting of our existing code.”

In crafting CodeNEXT, the consultants have faced the daunting challenge of trying to make sense of the conflicting messages they have received from Council members, some of whom have sharply different views on land use policy.

The first draft was panned by neighborhood preservationists as allowing too much development, while urbanists and some affordable housing advocates said it did not do nearly enough to remove barriers to building different types of housing.

Adler has tried to walk a fine line between the two sides, insisting that CodeNEXT will represent a delicate balance between providing much-needed housing in the urban core and maintaining the character of neighborhoods that have long been off-limits to dense development.

On Tuesday, he listed a litany of problems related to land use policy that he said Council could not afford to leave unaddressed, including unaffordable housing, flooding and racial segregation.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “The status quo is eating us up alive.”

In order to facilitate trust with the community, he urged staff to address questions about the code submitted by Council members, even if only to say they didn’t have an answer yet.

“I think the silence is deafening,” he said.

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

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