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Divisions over city’s future on display at CodeNEXT forum

Thursday, May 3, 2018 by Jack Craver

After a similarly lengthy forum on Saturday, members of the city’s two land use commissions – the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission – endured four hours of public testimony Tuesday night over CodeNEXT, the proposed overhaul of the city’s land development rules.

The 80 members of the community who spoke at the hearing represented a fairly equal mix of neighbors on both sides of the perennial debate over development in Austin. One group worried that new development would threaten the character of Austin’s single-family neighborhoods and lead to further displacement and gentrification, while another group generally encouraged the city to embrace greater density as a way to facilitate more affordable housing and transit-oriented growth.

Nearly every speaker, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the latest draft of CodeNEXT, whether because they believe it will change too much or because they believe it will change too little.

“Neighborhoods have worked very, very hard on their plans,” said Ranleigh Hirsh, a member of the Allandale Neighborhood Association. “CodeNEXT dumps that.”

Laura Lee, echoing a theme that mayoral candidate Laura Morrison has made central to her campaign, urged the commissioners to develop a code that would help allow Austinites to remain in place, “rather than to make room for the new.” Similarly, Mike Hebert, an activist with anti-CodeNEXT group Community Not Commodity, said the new code would only produce housing for “upper-income newcomers.”

Those in the other camp described the current draft as a surrender to politics of exclusion.

“Those that think this code allows for additional housing coming from the market unfortunately have not read this code,” said Ricardo De Camps, a professional engineer with Big Red Dog engineering.

Kaz Wojtewicz, an activist with pro-density group AURA, described himself as a fifth-generation Austinite and said that attempts to prevent others from moving to his hometown was “un-Texan and un-Austin.”

“While Austin does have growing pains, we also have the tools to deal with them, and that does not mean pulling the ladder up on new people,” said Wojtewicz.

The commissioners also heard from one out-of-towner: Jennifer Drew, the founder of Tiny Heights, a community of tiny homes in Houston. Drew said that Austin’s minimum lot sizes would not allow her to build a similar development here and urged the city to “lower the barrier to entry to housing.”

Both sides presented competing narratives about the reduction in required off-street parking included in the current CodeNEXT draft. The proposal would reduce the minimum off-street parking spots per housing unit from two to one; staff has said that builders will likely continue to create more parking spaces than the required minimum because that’s what most buyers in this car-addicted city demand.

A number of disability rights activists said the prospect of fewer parking spaces would make parts of the city less accessible to the disabled. Others raised concerns about more cars being parked in the street and argued that, for better or worse, Austin is a city built on driving and less parking will not change that, but only make the experience less pleasant.

Other speakers said that requiring builders to provide parking simply drives up the cost of housing and further entrenches an auto-dependent transportation system.

“Driving and parking is not an inevitability,” said developer John David Carson. “Subsidizing parking and driving is a policy decision.”

Anti-CodeNEXT speakers also repeatedly referenced the more than 30,000 signatures that were submitted last month to the Austin City Clerk to prompt a referendum on CodeNEXT or any other “comprehensive revision” of the land development code. Legal experts the city has consulted have said that state law does not allow for zoning changes to be put to a public vote, but supporters of the petition argue that it is valid, and at the very least that it is strong evidence of the population’s discontent.

After hearing all of the comments, each commissioner got three minutes to voice their thoughts on what they’d heard. Their comments largely mirrored the divisions reflected in the public comments.

Planning Commissioner Karen McGraw said she wanted a code that would offer the city more tools to preserve existing neighborhoods, rather than “undermine them with smaller lots and less parking.”

McGraw also suggested that those demanding more housing were not acknowledging the ways that doing so might reshape neighborhoods.

“I think there’s a little delusion (that) we can rebuild the whole city without demolishing anything,” she said.

Commissioners also expressed appreciation for the input from the public and encouraged people to stay engaged in the process.

“The goal seems to be the same for the vast majority – I think we can make this work,” said Planning Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson.

Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny, however, urged his colleagues to consider the needs of those who did not show up to speak that night, noting that the overwhelmingly white crowd, most of whom identified as homeowners, were not an accurate representation of a city where, according to the last census, the population is less than 50 percent Anglo and the majority of residents rent.

“I want us to be mindful of the people who are not in this room, who if patterns are (holding) are overwhelmingly young, people of color, low income,” he said. “We need to be equally concerned about renters and aspiring homeowners as (current) homeowners.”

Zoning and Platting Commissioner Jim Duncan described the current draft as a complicated mess.

“The situation is getting worse, and we all know that,” he said. “Not one person is ready to endorse what we’re doing.”

This story has been corrected to clarify that Ricardo De Camps is a professional engineer, not a developer. Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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