When it comes to shaping Austin’s breakneck growth, the city’s development code determines basically everything: What fits where, how tall a building can be, how many apartments will fit, the number of parking spaces a restaurant will need.
And virtually everyone agrees it’s rife with problems.
Neighborhood activists complain that the 3-decade-old, 1,300-page code — amended more than 800 times — is full of loopholes developers use to build projects that shouldn’t be allowed. Builders complain that it’s so convoluted and full of contradictions, neighborhood activists can tie up projects for years, exacerbating Austin’s housing crunch.
Come January, city officials will take the first steps toward replacing it — rolling out the first draft of their top-to-bottom rewrite, known as CodeNext — according to a schedule set by the City Council last month. A yearlong process of hearings, forums, rewriting and tweaking will follow, with the goal of voting on the new code by April or May 2018.
“We have (zoning) districts that don’t work,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “We have layers of regulation that nobody can seem to understand. We have opt-in and opt-out systems that aren’t predictive and are inconsistent. We have affordability issues in this city, and the code is stopping us.”
Replacing it, though, promises to be one of the biggest political fights in recent history. The new code, all agree, will literally shape the city’s future. The question is what the vision is.
“We have a common vision, I think, of where the city needs to go to, in big measure,” Adler said, pointing to the city’s 2012 planning manifesto, known as Imagine Austin, which sketches a vision of a denser but still neighborhood-centric city.
However, CodeNext has the potential to roll every development controversy in recent years — over density, sprawl and traffic — into one major battle.
The scope of the project, Adler argues, will help it avoid that fate.
“We’re spending way too much time as a council and as a community arguing about what goes at the southwest corner of two streets,” he said. “But I don’t think the code rewrite process is going to be a thousand of those debates. Those debates become harder when they’re considered as just one-off decisions.”
The effects of this massive rewrite on individual neighborhoods won’t become clear until April 2017, when the city is expected to release new zoning maps that show how the changes will filter down.
“Most people are fearful, and they have good reason to be,” said Mary Ingle, the former president of the politically powerful Austin Neighborhoods Council.
Her concerns about the coming changes run the gamut from flood prevention to preserving the character of existing Central Austin neighborhoods, many of which sit near major transportation corridors where city officials have long sought to promote denser housing and commercial development. Central Austin neighborhood activists worry about how CodeNext would fit these projects into their existing neighborhoods.
“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” Ingle said. “If (city officials) want to have increased density, fine. But they need to keep it in scale and things that are compatible with the adjacent neighborhoods.” She warned that if those standards are relaxed, dense developments could “wipe out us.”
In an attempt to allay those concerns, Adler sent a letter to the Neighborhoods Council in October, promising that neighborhoods would have a significant say in nearby developments that would bring denser housing and commercial development.
City officials will have to overcome not just skepticism from the Central Austin neighborhoods about CodeNext, but months of turmoil and secrecy-fueled suspicion about the rewrite.
The project is more than a year late and is expected to cost more than double its original budget. The price tag is now estimated at $4.6 million, up from $2 million, which officials attributed to the growing scope of the project.
The top planner in charge of CodeNext, Matt Lewis, resigned in June after a city investigation found that he mistreated his staff. His top lieutenant left shortly thereafter to take a job in Colorado. The project is now being led by the planning department head, Greg Guernsey, who was Lewis’ boss.
Meanwhile, members of the citizen advisory group — including committee head Jim Duncan, who once ran the city’s planning department — complained that city officials shrouded the rewrite in secrecy by refusing to allow them to review portions of the proposed code before its release.
City officials defended the move by the CodeNext management team as necessary “to ensure that the public had the proper context for the new code,” city spokeswoman Alina Carnahan said in a statement.
That decision left neighborhood activists and developer allies, who are usually at odds, united in frustration.
“I really didn’t feel like it was productive, and I didn’t really feel like we were able to insert ourselves in a way that would be helpful to the process,” said Melissa Neslund, who chairs the Real Estate Council of Austin’s working group on CodeNext. She resigned from the city’s CodeNext advisory panel in May.
“It ended up being a lot of folks who wanted to make their points and in a lot of cases were politically driven. And frankly, we didn’t have a code to review,” she said.
Neslund, like many others, expects the upcoming fight to be long and difficult.
“These are hard conversations; these are years-long battles,” she said. “These are really ingrained types of discussions.”
This story was updated to correct the name of Melissa Neslund’s group, the Real Estate Council of Austin.