Austin City Council increases CodeNext contract $2.27 million

Oct 12, 2017
Ralph Barrera
The Austin City Council held an open house for CodeNext 2.0, the city’s draft land development code, in the lobby of City Hall last month.. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Austin City Council on Thursday approved an increase to the contract for CodeNext’s lead consultant, pushing the total cost for the land use code rewrite to about $8.5 million, more than quadruple its original price tag.

The council discussed the contract amendment, the fifth approved since the city first hired California-based consultant Opticos in 2013, at great length before voting 8-3 on what city staffers say will bring CodeNext to the finish line. Council Members Alison Alter, Ora Houston and Leslie Pool voted against the amendment.

“Under any scenario, this is something that has to happen,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “The community has invested a lot of time and money in this process, and the stakes are high.”

READ: Council members’ anxiety grows over CodeNext costs, timeline

CodeNext is the city’s attempt to implement recommendations made in the 2012 comprehensive plan Imagine Austin. It includes a rewrite to the city’s entire land use code, the first dramatic change to the code since the 1980s.

CodeNext also aims to address many of Austin’s most vexing problems, including a lack of affordable housing, traffic congestion and gentrification.

Earlier this week, Pool floated the idea of delaying CodeNext’s scheduled approval from April to as far back as spring 2019.

“I’m too old for that kind of starry-eyed optimism,” Pool said of CodeNext’s timeline for approval after the vote. “I’d rather do it right than do it fast.”

Pool did not offer that proposal Thursday, but did have an amendment to the contract that essentially directed the city’s staff to provide more information on various incomplete components of CodeNext before the third draft of the code is released Nov. 28. Her amendment included sign regulations, environmental requirements and creating a document that identifies changes between the existing land use code and what has been proposed in CodeNext.

Houston voted against the contract amendment because of Opticos’ failure to meet goals in subcontracting to minority- and women-owned businesses. The firm agreed to use about 32 percent of the contract on those businesses, but instead ended up spending about 10 percent on minority- and women-owned businesses. Only about 5 percent of the $2.275 million approved Thursday will go to those businesses.

“At some point you have to say, ‘No,’” Houston said. “They are not even trying, it seems.”

The large majority of members of the public who spoke about the contract amendment Thursday were against it. They included Fred Lewis, an Austin attorney who created the Let Us Vote Austin political action committee that is circulating petitions that would put CodeNext on the ballot in March, and Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

READ: How a petition drive aims to put CodeNext’s fate in voters’ hands

Bobby Levinsky with the group Community Not Commodity, which has been highly critical of CodeNext, compared the contract increase to extending the contract of a college football coach who once won a championship, but for years has had a losing record, an analogy that for some reason resonated with many of the council members.

“Sometimes you need to change the game plan, you need to change the coach,” Levinsky said. “This is the equivalent of losing to Kansas.”