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$2.8M earmarked for land use rewrite

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code is expected to account for approximately $2.8 million in the next budget, all of it coming from funds put on hold when City Council canceled the process known as CodeNEXT last year.

Consultants connected to the Opticos firm that led the canceled effort – specifically Peter J. Park City Planning and Design Consulting, ECONorthwest and Cascadia Partners LLC – are under contract to help complete the new code that is expected to be adopted early next year.

A budget question from Council Member Kathie Tovo and the response from staff show the clerk’s office was expected to spend $120,000 to update and rewrite criteria manuals, though that figure is expected to be lower since staff members told the Austin Monitor that budgeted copyediting work will be completed internally rather than with outside contractors.

The Development Services Department accounts for the largest projected expenditure of $1.35 million for staffing, consulting and community engagement, using money collected in the current budget year but not spent because of CodeNEXT’s cancellation.

Communications and Technology Management is planning to spend $912,000 on staffing, contractors and hardware to update the city’s Geographic Information System and the online planning and permit review system. The Planning and Zoning Department is projected to spend $469,000 for contractors and consultants related to the rewrite.

Tovo said she had received several questions from constituents about the ongoing cost of the relaunched rewrite process, which Council provided overall direction for in a spring vote. She said the continued involvement of the Opticos teams was “an interesting piece of information” and that she and other Council members will take a close look at the direction of the document when its text and maps are published in October.

Council voted to end the six-year, $8.5 million CodeNEXT project last August amid increasing dissatisfaction from the community and among Council members over the plan’s contents and overall vision for managing growth.

“I’m going to reserve judgment until I see the direction of the draft,” she said. “There were some choices made last time with CodeNEXT that I questioned and I don’t know if some of the same choices will be made with this team given the continuity. Peter Park has a great reputation, as does ECONorthwest and it’s hard to know with a team the size of Opticos, who was making some of those decisions. It remains to be seen if some of those choices will remain.”

Tovo said the expenditures proposed for next year’s budget related to the rewrite seem to make sense, but she questioned the push to approve the new code early next year. She said rushing the process could lead to more frustration if residents don’t get adequate time to review and offer input.

“I thought last time we had a very aggressive schedule and that it was going to be a challenge to meet it and do it well, and it proved impossible to keep to that schedule,” she said. “In my mind, it’s more important that it’s done well and provides opportunity for public feedback and review. It will depend entirely on what the draft looks like.”

In an emailed response, a city spokesperson said Park was hired as a consultant because of his familiarity with the project and experience working with other cities on land use plans. The spokesperson said ECONorthwest and Cascadia have similar familiarity with the Austin code and will be able to produce the economic modeling and reporting needed to determine whether the finished document meets Council’s goals.

Council Member Leslie Pool said she has concerns over the timeline set for passage since the city will have to spend much of 2020 training staff and making preparations for the code’s enforcement.

“What’s bothered me about the rewrite from the beginning has been the arbitrary deadlines and focus on doing it fast,” she said. “I’m a let’s-do-it-right-not-fast person, so we do due diligence to look at things and figure out impacts on the ground. There will be significant period of time for codification and training, so the code won’t be active for a year, give or take.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said the city needs to spend the necessary dollars to complete the rewrite and make it possible for builders to add housing while the city addresses transportation and other growth issues.

“It costs money to do a very difficult project,” he said. “A lot of the work that was done is still valid and the perspective is the same. People are concerned about affordability, the impact of growth, infrastructure and traffic, and all of those concerns are still the same. It will cost money to do it, but every day we don’t do it we’re missing opportunities to build affordable housing where you currently only have commercial, make communities more walkable and build more affordable housing outside the urban core.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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