Austin’s $2 million code rewrite now costs $4.6 million. Here’s why.



Austin added more money and a new phase to its rewrite of city code Thursday, bringing a project started in 2013 and first planned to be $2 million up to $4.6 million.

The City Council’s move will carry CodeNEXT through the next four months, when a first draft is expected to be released sometime in January. There will then be a fourth phase — its cost unknown — for a four- to six-month process of mapping the city and rewriting that draft, said Jorge Rousselin, CodeNEXT project manager.

The overall project aims to simplify Austin’s land use rules and shift requirements to allow more housing and development along major corridors in the city’s core.

Between now and January, the code work will incorporate a framework for how to gauge affordability, a study of traffic and advice on the mapping stage, which will involve redrawing the lines of land-use zones.

The city originally expected the project would cost $2 million. But in the past couple of years, the contract with consultant Opticos Design Inc. grew to $2.6 million, then to $3.3 million. The $1.3 million addition approved Thursday brings the running tab to $4.6 million.

The allocation approved Thursday pulls pots of money from various other city projects, including salary savings in the Planning and Zoning Department, unused money from other funds and money designated to study density issues, which will now be rolled into CodeNEXT, Rousselin said.

Council Member Don Zimmerman, who cast the only vote Thursday against adding the $1.3 million to the contract, said he sympathized with the massive amount of work that was underway on a project with “off the charts” complexity, but he thought it had become too much.

“It’s almost too complicated to understand what you’re doing and make everyone happy,” he said.

CodeNEXT has expanded since its inception from a general rewrite of land development code to align with the 2012 Imagine Austin plan. It grew to include various policy studies, analysis of existing neighborhoods, analysis of existing conditions and code, public engagement and traffic plans.

This week, CodeNEXT continued to draw concerns about its process. David King, a Zilker neighborhood resident who is involved in the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said residents had been unable to get any details about the additional work. Several members of the advisory group overseeing the code rewrite said staffers had been unwilling to share the terms of the contract until it was executed.

Dave Sullivan, vice chairman of the committee, said the group hadn’t gotten a briefing on the new funding, in particular, but he generally defended the rising cost.

“What I tell people is: What do you expect when we have a total change in city government?” he said, adding that the previous council had upped the complexity of the project and left the door open for future changes.

“I object to people calling it scope creep. It’s more like scope change,” Sullivan said. “It’s not like we set out to spend $2 million to get Product X and now we’re spending $4 million to get Product X. We’re getting Product XYZ.”

Melissa Neslund, a former committee member, said she was frustrated by the various things being added into the project and that was largely why she left the committee after three years.

“It seems like every time I turn around they’re considering extra money for CodeNEXT,” she said. “It’s very piecemeal. … It begs the question of staff, frankly, and even more so of council: What is CodeNEXT now?”



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