With so much missing from the CodeNEXT proposal to overhaul and streamline Austin’s zoning and land-use regulations, there is no way to reasonably assess the proposal or whether it fulfills its promise to marry the city’s zoning code with its lofty Imagine Austin plan.
That kind of analysis will have to come later, when the city releases more details and zoning maps that specify what can be built and where. In the meantime, we are urging the Austin public to continue its vigilance but also be patient as the city rolls out its overhaul of the code in stages, which in our view, makes good sense.
There simply is too much to absorb — much less understand — in one bite among the 1,100-plus page document. And that doesn’t include things yet to be released, such as the all-important zoning maps, affordable housing incentives and traffic-management provisions.
That aside, there are some reasons to applaud the $4 million overhaul: It dramatically simplifies zoning and land-use regulations and organizes them in a format easier for the public to use, be that homeowners or developers. If that is all it did, that would be better than what we have now: a code so complicated and outmoded that it’s been amended 800 times. Yes, more than the Texas Constitution, which has had nearly 500 amendments over its 141-year history.
To that point, an Austin homeowner wanting to build an addition to a home would find all the information regarding regulations and required permits to do that in one place, we’re told by city officials who briefed us on CodeNEXT last week. That compares with the current system in which a homeowner must search several sections and various amendments to get all of the information to build an addition.
Similarly, CodeNEXT would streamline regulations for developers, who have long complained about the bureaucracy and lengthy time it takes to research regulations and obtain building permits. Doing business that way, they say, makes construction more expensive and passes those costs onto homeowners and renters.
For their part, Mayor Steve Adler, the council and other city officials must ensure Austin residents that they will have ample time to provide input and even make revisions in the months or so after zoning maps and other provisions are released. Without such assurances, the city will lose public confidence — and that would be tragic, since few disagree that the current land-use code is broken.
In fixing the system, CodeNEXT takes a bifurcated approach, essentially dividing the city into two zoning areas called transect and nontransect zones.
Nontransect zones are not expected to be controversial, given that they would determine zoning mostly in suburban areas and closely resemble current zoning.
It’s the transect zones that already are being criticized for opening central Austin neighborhoods to density in the way of apartments, duplexes or other such housing. Those zones, incorporating goals of Imagine Austin, would determine land-use and zoning mostly in central and urban areas of the city.
However, without zoning maps it’s impossible to know how central Austin and other urban neighborhoods will be affected. For example, some of those neighborhoods will get zoning that allows only buildings up to two stories, while other areas, such as downtown, will get zoning that permits high-rise buildings with zoning allowing an unlimited number of stories.
We realize that zoning and land-use policies are fraught with conflict. Residents want to know if their neighborhoods will be radically changed to accommodate the density needed to address housing shortages. Adler says the rewrite is a key component in accommodating construction of the 135,000 apartments and homes Austin will need over the next decade to meet population growth.
Homeowners in particular aren’t thrilled at the possibility of a high-rise being built next door to their one- or two-story house. And the public wants to know where commercial venues or light industry will be placed — and how new zoning affects parking and traffic flow. All are legitimate concerns.
We also have serious concerns that some city officials are overselling CodeNEXT as a way to solve Austin’s affordable housing crisis through such things like density bonus programs, which permit developers to build more in exchange for community benefits, such as affordable housing.
What we know so far regarding current density bonus programs offered by the city is disappointing, as they have failed to live up to their hype in generating substantial affordable housing across the city. Also, the idea that simply increasing the supply of housing will by itself cause housing prices or rents to fall ignores market realities. Developers respond to the market. If the market demands high-end condos or homes for tech workers or efficiencies for millennials who want to live near their jobs or in the urban core, then that is what will be built.
On that issue in particular, there needs to be clarity and truth.
To be successful, CodeNEXT will have to balance Austin’s fierce desire to protect the integrity of its neighborhoods against city aspirations to make Austin more affordable, walkable, bike-friendly and reliant on public transit.
Such concerns understandably have driven a desire to skip ahead in the CodeNEXT process so as to understand what new zoning means to individual neighborhoods, transit corridors and other areas of the city.
After three years in the making, there should be no rush by the city to shortchange public outreach and input needed to complete the project and ensure residents are satisfied they are getting something better than what they have now.