City Hall girds for fight as it rolls out land code overhaul

3:37 p.m Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 Politics
Zach Ryall
In this view toward the southeast from just west of the Capitol, Interstate 35 can be seen running left to right in the background. Part of downtown is at right. A draft of CodeNext, which aims to overhaul the city’s land use rules, was released Monday.

Mayor Steve Adler rolled out the first draft of a sure-to-be-controversial overhaul of the city’s land use rules Monday morning, signaling the start of a yearlong process that will navigate the deep divisions that course through Austin’s politics of development, density and gentrification.

City officials aim to use the 1,100-plus-page draft to replace the city’s current zoning regulations, which date back to 1984 and have been amended more than 800 times over the intervening years.

“We want to grow in a way where we’re managing the growth, rather than having the growth manage us,” Adler said at the Monday rollout at City Hall. Adler was joined by interim City Manager Elaine Hart and several members of the City Council. “There will be voices, probably beginning today, that will talk about all the challenges and none of the rewards.”

He added, “It wouldn’t surprise me if we had people at the end of today criticizing this draft for the color of the cover and the number of pages, but we have to stay focused as a larger community.”

Business groups, developers and neighborhood activists spent the day Monday working their way through the mammoth document, which had been closely held by city planners and consultants until its release.

The draft’s release concludes a three-year, controversy-riven rewrite that is more than a year late and at least $2 million over its original budget, which officials have pinned to the project’s growing scope. It promises to touch nearly all aspects of the city’s growth and development, from building types to transportation requirements.

The current code has few fans, even among usual combatants. Developers have claimed its complexity serves as a massive brake on building badly needed housing across the city; neighborhood groups complain it’s so full of holes that it allows developers to build projects they argue shouldn’t be allowed.

Its replacement, dubbed CodeNext, is a key component of Adler’s strategy to boost the city’s housing supply as Austin battles the wave of gentrification sweeping across its working class neighborhoods, particularly on the east side.

At his State of the City speech Saturday, Adler said the rewrite is a key component of speeding the city’s development process, so it can build the 135,000 apartments and homes it will need over the next decade to house Austin’s booming population.

Both Adler and Hart emphasized that the document released Monday is simply a first draft that will continue to be shaped by public feedback. The public rollout will take place Wednesday at the Palmer Events Center. The first votes, Adler said, are expected to happen by December, with the goal of adopting a rewritten code by early next year.

However, the start of the debate over the code will lack key context until April, when the city is expected to provide maps that will show how the new regulations will affect neighborhoods.

Adler tried to allay concerns about this on Monday, saying that the maps will show the new code will leave much of the city alone.

“In vast parts of this city, nothing will change,” he said. “But in some parts of the city, we really have an opportunity to protect our neighborhoods and the quality of life we have in this city and, at the same time, to be able to ensure we have the housing supply in this city so that housing prices aren’t continually going through the roof.”

Activists with the politically powerful Austin Neighborhoods Council were working their way through the code Monday afternoon but said the lack of maps made it hard to determine the actual effects of the changes.

“Until you see the maps and how it’s applied, how do you know?” asked Mary Ingle, the Neighborhoods Council’s past president.

Ingle also criticized the public draft for lacking any table or other documentation that would easily allow people to see how policies and other requirements changed from the old code to this CodeNext draft.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “It’s not rocket science.”

The Austin Chamber of Commerce said Monday afternoon that it was still reading through the code as well, looking for clues about how it might speed the city’s development process.

The mapping process is key for the chamber, too.

“The devil’s in the details; the mapping process is really going to be where the rubber meets the road,” said Andy Cantú, a planning expert with the group .

Some affordable housing advocates were disappointed with the rewrite on first glance, though they were still working through it as well.

“It looks like there’s a lot of carry-over from the current code,” said Greg Anderson, the director of operations for Austin Habitat for Humanity, who once served as a top aide to former Council Member Sheryl Cole.

“It’s a start; I’m still optimistic,” he added. “What we have right now is so terrible, it doesn’t seem possible to end up with something worse.”

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