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


Mayor says city’s land code called critical to combating Austin’s housing shortage

First votes aimed for December, hopes for final passage of code redo by early next year

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 year-long 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 page draft to replace the city’s current zoning rules, which stretch for some 1,300 pages, 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 morning rollout at City Hall. Adler was joined by interim City Manager Elaine Hart and several members of the City Council for Monday’s rollout at City Hall. “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.”

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 attributed in the past 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 its 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 it battles the wave of gentrification sweeping across its working class neighborhoods, particularly on Austin’s east side. At his state of the city speech Saturday, Adler warned that Austin risks becoming the next San Francisco — a tech-wealthy city that most struggle to afford — unless it builds, laying down an ambitious marker of adding at least 135,000 new homes and apartments to Austin over the next decade.

Both Adler and Hart emphasized that Monday’s document was simply a first draft that would continue to be shaped by public feedback. The first public hearing will take place Wednesday at the Palmer Event Center, 900 Barton Springs Road. The first votes, Adler said, are expected to take place 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 roll out maps that will show how the new regulations will affect neighborhoods around the city. Adler attempted to allay concerns about this Monday, saying that the maps will show the new code will leave vast swaths of the city alone.

“In vast parts of this city, nothing will change,” Adler 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.”

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