Viewpoints: Push pause button on CodeNext until concerns are addressed

With their recent actions to spend millions of dollars above the project’s original cost and plow on with a third draft of CodeNext in the face of mounting public skepticism, Austin City Council members are signaling that it’s more important to meet a self-imposed deadline than do due diligence and build public confidence.

However well-intentioned, that is no way to tackle or complete the massive task of overhauling the city’s convoluted zoning and land-use regulations that stipulate what type of development can go where.

It’s time to press the pause button and address concerns over CodeNext. Forging ahead as public trust is collapsing only will widen an information gap that already threatens to engulf the process. Consider the two ballot initiatives under way to remove the decision over CodeNext from the council’s hands.

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Austin attorney Fred Lewis, who heads the group Community Not Commodity, is spearheading a political action committee seeking to put CodeNext on the 2018 ballot. A separate political action committee headed by activist Linda Curtis also is gathering signatures to put CodeNext on next year’s ballot.

The decision over CodeNext should be made by Austin’s 10-1 council, elected from districts to represent neighborhoods and their interests. But if the council continues to display a tin ear, no one can blame Austin residents for opting for a referendum on CodeNext.

The public has not had a reasonable opportunity to comprehend new details in CodeNext’s second draft introduced last month, much less understand how they impact neighborhoods. Still, the council plans a third draft starting next month to meet an April deadline for adoption.

“I don’t understand the absolute determination to go ahead and pass it,” said Jane Rivera with Austin Raza Roundtable, which addresses issues facing the city’s Latino community. “My biggest concern is the fact that they are trying to use the land-use code to fortify and certify the density bonus program, which is not providing affordable housing to everyone in Austin, but to young single professionals.”

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Density bonus programs permit developers to build larger housing projects than existing zoning allows — if about 5 to 10 percent of the housing units they create are affordable to people earning less than Austin’s median income.

In pressing ahead against such headwinds, the City Council is stoking concerns regarding the impact of CodeNext on Austin’s central and east neighborhoods — and the lack of overall engagement with low-income and non-English-speaking communities. Perhaps more important, the council’s recent actions gloss over a key question central to the proposed zoning overhaul: Will CodeNext help or hurt Austin’s affordability crisis?

Such concerns should be addressed before proceeding. In our view, that means benching the paid consultants from out of town and establishing community engagement sessions that feature city experts who can address concerns and provide meaningful instruction about CodeNext.

Along with questions about whether density bonuses should be overhauled, there are other concerns:

• How and if CodeNext will generate an estimated 65,000 affordable housing units of a total of 135,000 Austin is likely to need over the next decade to meet demand and keep the city from becoming more economically segregated than it is now. The city has pointed to density as the answer, but density by itself does not equal affordability.

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There are examples in fast-growth cities across the nation in which density aided by gentrification diminished the stock of affordable housing and spurred increases in property taxes, rents and home prices. The council need look no farther than East Austin to understand such dynamics.

Even a simple question like what constitutes “affordable housing” in CodeNext lingo is a mystery. Does affordable housing mean apartments or homes for families whose income totals 80 percent of Austin’s median, which is $65,100 for a family of four? Or does it mean “missing middle” homes, such as duplexes, fourplexes, garage apartments, or micro housing units, which aim to serve people who earn more than the city’s median income, but too little to afford market-rate homes?

• How will CodeNext impact Austin neighborhoods across the city? For instance, the direct or indirect effect of zoning changes on traffic patterns, congestion, home businesses and new development.

• Whether the council will continue its spending on drafts that require translations for their complexity, as well as for language for people who aren’t fluent in English. Earlier this month, the council approved $2.27 million for the lead consultant, California-based Opticos, bringing the total so far to about $8 million — four times its original price tag. The document has grown to 1,388 pages.

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• Whether Imagine Austin, the city’s plan on which CodeNext is based, still is relevant. The framework for the way the city grows was adopted in 2012 — but was put together in the years before. Much has changed since then — and the plan did not gain traction in or much input from Austin’s black and Latino communities.

There’s good reason to overhaul the current zoning code, which has been amended hundreds of times, illustrating its inefficiency for a city that has grown to nearly 1 million people.

But city land-use rules largely are the result of pitched battles between developers, environmentalists, neighborhood organizations, nonprofits and other interest groups. Rewriting them against that backdrop requires more patience, public trust and time.

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