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Planning Commission considers working group to tackle ‘archaic’ land use code

Wednesday, July 6, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Austin’s Planning Commission is once more dipping its toes into turbulent waters, with plans to form a working group that would tackle small-scale reforms to the 38-year-old Land Development Code.

On Tuesday commissioners opted to postpone action for another two weeks to iron out differing opinions over approach. Commissioners aim to reconvene next Tuesday with a more concrete proposal outlining the working group’s direction.

“We had some great ideas come through with CodeNEXT, and when it didn’t get passed, a lot of them just fell away,” said Commissioner James Shieh, who led the charge advocating the group’s formation. “There are different knobs that we can turn in the existing code to get more housing and to make it more affordable to develop.”

The late-stage failure of CodeNEXT in 2018 threw a fatal wrench in the city’s code rewrite initiative, making prospects for the overdue change seem near impossible. But with a worsening housing and cost-of-living crisis, debate over the chokehold on development has resurfaced, with City Council considering major changes to parking, compatibility, and accessory dwelling unit requirements.

Commissioners Shieh and Greg Anderson believe that the Planning Commission could be an asset in this renewed interest, proposing that the new housing working group act as a think tank for smaller-scale code amendments to send up to Council. But others are concerned that too broad a focus will condemn it to the same fate as CodeNEXT.

“Either through legal means or a lack of political will, Council has not seen it fit to bring forward broad reforms,” Commissioner Robert Schneider said. “I just don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort on something that is broad or very controversial and then just collapsing again.”

Some also raised the issue of transparency, noting that working groups are not held to the same engagement standards as commission meetings, which allow testimony from the public. Others took issue with the underlying assumption that removing roadblocks for developers will yield relief to the renters and homebuyers being priced out of Austin.

“It does seem like there’s a foundational assumption that savings trickle down from the builder to the consumer, and that increasing supply is going to bring the price of housing down,” Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said. “I also don’t accept that it’s inherently difficult to build housing; the Austin Business Journal keeps saying that we’re building more per capita than anyone, and that development is happening at a record-breaking pace …. We’re building like crazy and prices still are not going down.”

In spite of their disagreements, commissioners unanimously voted to inch forward, with plans to spend the next two weeks in preliminary discussions over potential focuses. Next Tuesday, they will present their findings and work to determine feasible parameters for the task at hand.

“We have the ability, we’re the commission that can initiate a code amendment … if there’s a specific detail we can attack to make a difference, let’s do it.” Commission Chair Todd Shaw said. “We’re in an odd zone where we all want to do something, we just don’t know what. At this point, let’s start the conversation.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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