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Tisdale: Time for city to move forward with CodeNEXT

When the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan was adopted unanimously by the Austin City Council in June 2012, the city quickly acknowledged the need to progress Priority No. 8, which requires the city to “revise Austin’s development regulations and processes to promote a compact and connected city.”

The project came to be known as CodeNEXT and is intended to address outdated, suburban development regulations, comprehensively evaluate the land development code and examine the associated development review process. The land development code governs nearly everything involving land use, from zoning to site plans to open space and drainage. It’s a common practice for codes to be amended to align with their city’s comprehensive plan.

It’s been four years since the roadmap for CodeNEXT was laid out in Imagine Austin, and we’re still without a draft of the code. Today, the project is two years behind schedule, hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and in jeopardy of collapsing under its own weight.

Since the process began, the city’s Code Advisory Group has swelled from 11 to 18 members and hosted dozens of public outreach meetings and provided feedback. A five-day Sound Check event last year brought code experts and residents together to share ideas. Working groups were formed to look at specific parts of the code. And now, a series of “Prescription Papers” are providing little detail and are duplicative of what has already been laid out in Imagine Austin.

The voices have been heard; the data has been collected; and the reports have been written. Now, it’s time to get to work and ensure a draft of the new code is released in January 2017, the latest date promised by the city.

That’s plenty of time to ensure the community receives a draft code that’s comprehensive, clear and coordinated among the city departments it will impact. As we’ve waited, commercial real estate professionals and the community have spent countless hours on issues such as accessory dwelling units and short-term rentals, which could have been much more efficiently addressed under a revised code.

To ensure it’s successful for the community, the revised code should include the following:

First, every change should be written directly into the code and not added as an addition to a technical manual or appendix. The patchwork of ordinances and regulations that have been layered in over the years have led to the confusing and often contradictory code we’re working under today.

Programs to incentivize the construction of below-market housing also need to be clear, effective, easily implemented and uniform throughout the city. Austin’s current density bonus programs, for example, are vague and hard to follow as their regulations vary widely throughout the city.

“Compatibility” refers to the interaction between commercial zoning and single-family residential zoning and the development standards that are triggered by uses adjacent to a site. For example, if a commercial site is built within a certain distance of a residential site, compatibility standards are triggered that impact height, setbacks and more. The code should update current compatibility standards to support denser options throughout the city.

Finally, the revised code should encourage ‘missing middle’ and other affordable housing options, with limited or no specific regulations as to quantity, density or lot and unit sizes. Affordability requires greater density, which creates a better quality of life as people can live near work, walk to restaurants and parks and get to know their neighbors.

Now is the time for the city staff and the hired consultants to put their heads down and get the work done to get a draft code released in January 2017. The Austin area is predicted to add 700,000 more people by 2030. We need a revised code to help house the population in an urbanized, dense way or else our sprawl and congestion will only worsen.

Tisdale is president of the Real Estate Council of Austin.

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