Central Austin dominates CodeNext discussion as second draft looms

3:36 p.m Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 Local
A crowded room of Austin residents listen in May to a presentation on CodeNext. So far, much of the public feedback has come from the city’s central core. Tamir Kalifa / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The city plans on Friday to release the second iteration of CodeNext, the rewrite of Austin’s entire land use and zoning code, and so far the conversation has largely revolved around the city’s core.

In recent months, city staffers have waded through a tidal wave of input on CodeNext from numerous neighborhood associations, professional groups and individuals. But an analysis of the 2,529 geographically coded comments submitted on a draft of CodeNext’s zoning map showed residents in the central city have participated in larger numbers, while residents farther from downtown commented far less on the CodeNext draft map website.

The center of Austin saw far more land proposed as “transect zones,” zoning classifications that city staff say will allow for more housing to be built along certain corridors. Many critics of CodeNext view transects as blanket “upzoning” that will threaten the fabric of their neighborhoods, prompting them to push for changes as CodeNext heads toward City Council approval in April.

Nowhere did more participants chime in than in Council Member Kathie Tovo’s Central and South Austin District 9, where commenters made up 40.4 percent of all those posted on the city’s website.

On the opposite end, Council Member Delia Garza’s sprawling Southeast Austin District 2 contributed just 33 comments compared with District 9’s 1,023 comments, according to an analysis the city provided to the American-Statesman.

However, Garza’s district did not contain the controversial transect zones. Participation was similarly low in Districts 6 and 8, in Northwest and Southwest Austin, respectively, which also have no areas placed in a transect, according to the analysis.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that while his district saw few proposed changes in CodeNext, he worried that with the development code overhaul and other issues, those with the most resources would drown out others.

“There’s a substantive difference in the resources and experience available to suburban and outer ring neighborhoods that is different from Central Austin neighborhoods,” Flannigan said. “In a lot of ways, we end up hearing advocacy from professional folks with the time, money, resources and lobbyists to do it, and that is rarely the folks in my part of town.”

Tovo’s district, on the other hand, has numerous single-family home neighborhoods placed in transect zones. Transect zones have been blanketed over neighborhoods such as Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek.

Tovo said she has seen people who have never been involved in city-related issues begin getting involved because of fears their street might be upzoned from a single-family neighborhood to lots that allow up to eight units.

“In District 9, there were huge divergences” between what’s currently allowed and what CodeNext would bring, Tovo told the Statesman.

The next highest participation came from North Austin’s District 7 (14 percent), where a transect zone includes Allandale; and West Austin’s District 10 (12 percent).

In addition to receiving the map comments, Planning and Zoning staff on the fifth floor of One Texas Center just south of downtown have waded through more than 4,000 comments on the draft code, numerous emails, scores of in-person visits and 60 position papers from organizations and businesses.

CodeNext attempts to address many of Austin’s most vexing problems, such as traffic, affordability, connectivity and density, by revising the rules about what kind of development can go where.

Among the map comments, the Statesman’s State Editor Bob Gee was the top contributor, submitting 108 comments indicating his opinion that properties in the Greater South River City combined neighborhoods, located in South Austin, should not be placed in a transect zone.

Gretchen Otto, president of South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association, said the association reviewed every single parcel of land in the neighborhood. If they saw an issue, volunteers marked it with a comment.

“As a neighborhood association, we have a duty to check everything in our area ourselves because there were so many people that wouldn’t have time to do it or wouldn’t know what they were looking at,” Otto said. “We felt like it fell under our purview of checking our quality of life.”

Repeated comments will not be given any more weight than an individual comment, said principal planner Jenn Todd.

Given the ability to comment anonymously, some of the map feedback was far more vitriolic than what the staff received on the draft code. One called the planning staff “(expletive) geniuses” before proposing they build a bar next to Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey’s house.

“We looked at every single one,” Todd said.

Comments were sorted based on content. Those that appeared related to one department would be sent there to formulate possible resolutions. Others would involve teams from multiple departments and CodeNext consultants. Ultimately, the final say-so went to Guernsey if there was a conflict, Todd said.

Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman
Clifton Bailey holds a small sign at an event Thursday hosted by IndyAustin, a new political action committee that is organizing a petition drive to hold a voter referendum on CodeNext. Ralph Barrera / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The fruit of their efforts will be revealed on Friday.

However, at a City Council work session meeting last week, the public was allowed to peek at some of the details.

Consultant John Fregonese told the council that the new draft will have a greater potential for more housing units over the next 10 years and that it promotes a greater proportion of those units to be “affordable.” The city’s strategic housing plan set a goal in April of building 135,000 housing units by 2025, with about 60,000 dedicated to families making 80 percent or less of the median family income.

Previously, city staff announced that the transect zone label would be removed in the second draft to address complaints about confusing zone types.

American-Statesman Staff
CodeNext comments by district.

The spirit of transect zones will still exist, staff have said, but they will be rolled into a more unified scheme CodeNext staff hope will be simpler. Gone are names like “Transect 3,” which will largely be replaced with “Residential 3,” according to consultant John Miki.

Recently, IndyAustin, a political action committee, began a petition effort to take CodeNext’s approval out of the hands of the City Council and instead have it put to voters. The group broadly wants the process slowed down, and is hoping for a November election, but would try to get 20,000 signatures by Jan. 15 for a May 5 election if the CodeNext timeline does not decelerate.

Scott Turner, a homebuilder who volunteers with Evolve Austin and who is against the petition effort, said it is not about improving CodeNext, but instead an attempt to delay and derail it.

But regardless of CodeNext 2.0’s contents, staffers are already prepared for backlash.

“Some people will not like the changes. Some people will think we went too far one way or the other,” Jerry Rusthoven, assistant director of Planning and Zoning, said at the meeting. “I’m not anticipating that everyone will be happy, but we are trying.”

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