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Zoning and Platting Commission recommends scrapping CodeNEXT entirely

Monday, May 14, 2018 by Jack Craver

One of the city’s two citizen land use commissions has decided that CodeNEXT, the overhaul of the city’s Land Development Code that has been in the works for five years and has cost the city $8.5 million, is a lost cause.

On Wednesday, the Zoning and Platting Commission voted 7-4 in favor of a recommendation calling on City Council to abandon CodeNEXT and instead focus on smaller changes to the current code.

The recommendation alleged a litany of problems with the proposed code, including that it would be “more complex, more costly, and less predictable” than the current code. It also alleged that there is “widespread public concern that instead of helping, CodeNEXT will only exacerbate Austin’s gentrification, affordability, and economic segregation problems.”

The recommendation threw into sharp relief the division over CodeNEXT between those who are reluctant to embrace more multifamily developments in neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes and those who view increased density in the urban core as necessary to provide greater affordability and reduce urban sprawl.

Commissioner Jim Duncan acknowledged that he has a “reputation of being a pro-neighborhood type,” but in a lengthy presentation argued that the proposed code overhaul was a mess regardless of one’s beliefs about what type of housing should go where.

Among other problems, said Duncan, the most recent draft of CodeNEXT totals 1,388 pages. And that was before city staff and consultants from Opticos Design Inc., the firm hired to draft the code, added another 250-page addendum. That’s much longer than Chicago’s 339-page code, but not much longer than Denver’s 1,200-page code, which Peter Park, one of the CodeNEXT consultants, helped craft when he led that city’s planning department.

“The only beneficiaries of this code are going to be the cottage industry of entitlement attorneys who interpret it for the citizens and the developers of this community because it’s a total mess,” said Duncan. “I know that our staff and our consultants could have done better. I don’t know why it didn’t turn out well.”

The four members who voted against the recommendation described it as unproductive. For the Zoning and Platting Commission to give up on CodeNEXT will not stop CodeNEXT, they argued, but merely guarantee that the final product will not include the commission’s input.

In prepared remarks, Commissioner Bruce Evans described the resolution as consisting entirely of “opinion,” rather than facts. He then listed a number of facts that he said highlighted the need for a new code, including that more than half of Austin renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, that more than a quarter of Austinites have taken on another job to pay for housing and that the city of Austin is less dense than Houston, the poster child of urban sprawl.

Evans suggested that while the Planning Commission “has been working diligently” evaluating and recommending changes to the CodeNEXT drafts, the Zoning and Platting Commission had shirked its responsibility to do the same.

Chair Jolene Kiolbassa later defended the commission’s performance, saying that commissioners had “really dug into the code.”

Commissioner Yvette Flores said she was “flabbergasted,” saying that she had not expected to see a recommendation to give up on CodeNEXT.

A motion by Evans to evaluate the recommendations made the previous night by the Planning Commission was rejected.

Most of the debate did not focus on the underlying debate over how the city should grow, but rather on the complexity of the proposed code and the process surrounding its creation.

“In each draft there are substantial changes and I’m having a hard time keeping up with it,” said Commissioner Ana Aguirre, who also said that her motivation to get involved in the process was to see improvements to flood mitigation, which she said had yet to materialize in the drafts.

Commissioner Dustin Breithaupt also complained that the proposals were far too complicated and that the city was trying to solve too many problems with its land use code.

Commissioner David King said that the current code had been unfairly maligned as the source of many of the city’s issues, hinting in cryptic language that CodeNEXT was aimed at boosting profits for developers.

“People blame our current code for all these problems we have,” he said. “But it really isn’t our code. It’s just cover to get in there to … make changes that benefit them primarily and not middle- and low-income families, and communities of color.”

In contrast, Commissioner Sunil Lavani said the current code is in fact a big problem and that the three-decade “patchwork” of regulations that it is composed of have made it significantly harder to get things built now than even a few years ago. He said that continuing under the same rules puts Austin at risk of losing its “dynamic” culture.

The meeting also featured a tense exchange between Kiolbassa and John Miki, the lead consultant for CodeNEXT. Kiolbassa and others complained that comments the commission had made after the first and second drafts had not been incorporated into the most recent draft. Miki replied that the draft before the commission was a recommendation from city staff and that the consultants supported it. The commission, however, was free to make its own recommendation to Council, he said.

“I resent being told what we as a commission can do,” replied Kiolbassa.

After three hours of debate, the commission approved the resolution recommendation. Supporting it were Duncan, Kiolbassa, Breithaupt, Aguirre, King and commissioners Ann Denkler and Betsy Greenberg. Evans, Lavani, Flores and Commissioner Abigail Tatkow voted no.

This story has been corrected to clarify the connection that Opticos has to the Denver land development code. Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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