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As Austin rolls out code draft, questions and concerns emerge


City Council members and activists raise questions as they dive into new code program.

New city regulations would effectively create a bifurcated code system, unclear which areas would affected.

Among the sea of poster boards and City Hall regulars in their coats and collars, guitar repairman Sam Gerhard stood out in his T-shirt.

The eight-year Austin resident, who lives near Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley Road, had come to the Palmer Event Center on Wednesday to learn how city officials plan to overhaul the Austin’s development rules, potentially shaping the city’s future for years to come.

“Regular, old curiosity” and a beautiful day for a bike ride had brought him, said the 30-year-old, who has only been to one City Council meeting. “Really, I’m just trying to observe.”

For many residents, Wednesday’s CodeNext open house was their first chance to look over the 1,100-plus-page draft rewrite of the city’s development regulations, which experts, City Hall staffers, developers and activists have been poring over since its release Monday.

The draft — three years and $4 million in the making — is supposed to unite the city’s zoning rules with its long-term growth plan, called Imagine Austin, and to simplify and reorganize the rule book, making it easier to navigate.

The twin missions led to the proposed creation of two separate zoning schemes, which might seem more complicated but should dramatically reduce the number of possible zoning layers, which now exceeds 400.

One system would be largely identical to city’s current system and would likely be heavily used in the city’s more suburban areas; while the second would be more prescriptive and aimed at promoting density along major transit corridors and the urban core, an Imagine Austin goal.

However, it is impossible to know how the new rules and regulations will affect individual blocks and neighborhoods until the city rolls out new zoning maps in April.

Additionally, city officials took pains in a meeting with the American-Statesman’s editorial board to point out that more than half of the proposed new “transect” zone types were designed with neighborhoods in mind.

Mayor Steve Adler has said he hopes the City Council will cast its first votes on CodeNext by December, with the goal of finally approving the rewritten code by early next year.

At their first post-rollout briefing Tuesday, council members brought tempered praise and questions, many of which centered around these new prescriptive “transect” zones.

In particular, Council Members Ora Houston, who represents parts of East and Northeast Austin, and Leslie Pool, who represents part of North Austin, focused on how they would affect nearby neighborhoods.

“We would like to make sure we are an ‘Austin for all Ages,’ and that when we’re densifying along the corridors and in the centers, we are doing so with an eye towards making room for families,” Pool said in a statement.

Other council members, including Greg Casar, who represents poorer Central and North Austin neighborhoods, said he will watch to make sure the new zones create enough affordable housing.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it was still digesting the large draft, but it pointed to some of the questions it hopes the new code will answer: “Does this CodeNEXT draft create more predictable outcomes that precludes every development approval from becoming a time-consuming negotiation?” the statement asked. “Does this CodeNEXT draft allow for the creation of the 15,000 new residential units per year necessary to keep up with the demand for housing and stem the out of control rise in housing costs?”

Noted urbanist and affordable housing advocate Greg Anderson, and longtime neighborhoods booster and former city planning director Jim Duncan, both agree the draft is too long.

Anderson said he thinks city planners and consultants included too much of the current code in CodeNext and more should have been done to promote additional density.

Duncan declined to comment on its substance, as he was still reading through it. However, he said he thought it was much better organized than the city’s current three-decade old rule book, which has been amended some 800 times.

Another longtime neighborhoods activist, Mary Ingle, zeroed in on what she described as a lack of an exact equivalent for common single-family neighborhood zonings in the new “transect” system.

That, she argues, shows CodeNext is a stealth attempt by city planners to bring apartments, row houses and commercial development into Central Austin neighborhoods.

“This is upzoning,” Ingle said. “They want our land, and they want it cheap.”

But the situation might not be that clear cut, said Chris Bradford, an attorney and blogger who focuses on development issues and supports additional density.

Take the six, densely packed, row houses recently built on South Fifth Street, north of Oltorf Street. That development was OK’d under the city’s existing rules, but it would be nixed under the sort of zoning he believes would be applied under CodeNext — a change that he says would be a mistake.

“Everybody’s got an opinion, and I suspect it’s going to be a contentious few months,” he added.

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