If there is any consensus among Austin residents on the latest version of CodeNext, the massive overhaul of the city’s land-use rules, it is that after five years of planning the document still needs more work.
More than 200 people on Saturday morning turned out for a public hearing at City Hall on CodeNext, which could increase density in Austin’s urban corridors. Many planned to stay through the evening to comment on the plan the City Council will soon consider.
The comprehensive and controversial rewrite — the first of its kind in 34 years — will dictate what kind of development in the city goes where. It aims to increase low-income housing and address gentrification and traffic congestion, but the $8 million project has garnered its share of opposition.
Saturday’s sometimes contentious public hearing drew CodeNext’s frequent combatants: urbanists who support a more walkable city with high-density development, and preservationists who want to keep Austin’s neighborhoods intact.
Susana Almanza, who directs the nonprofit social justice group PODER, raised concerns about maps showing high-density development slated for the Rosewood, Montopolis and Holly neighborhoods in East Austin. The development would do nothing to ensure low-income or affordable housing and would place the area’s most vulnerable populations at risk, she said.
“With development that occurs in our neighborhood, it means the land prices will go up, the rents will go up, the property taxes will go up, and those that are not affluent will be forced to move out,” Almanza said. “We are going to see parked cars inundating our streets, bigger buildings that are displacing yards and trees, neighborhood characters are going to change, and the current owners and renters are going to be forced out.”
It was a complaint echoed by many, who agreed that they could no longer afford to live in the city.
“I grew up in Far West with a single mom who found a duplex she could afford at the time so I could go to some of the best schools,” longtime resident Julia Montgomery said. “I don’t think I would be able to do the same for my kids today. We need all kinds of homes in all parts of town for all kinds of people.”
A third draft of CodeNext that was released in February made several concessions to neighborhood groups who feared high-density development. It preserved current zoning in such areas as Travis Heights, Bouldin, Allandale, Brentwood and Crestview, but it promised additional housing units — as many as 288,000 — along the city’s transit corridors that are now slated for business development.
Many on Saturday said the increased density would boost walkability and cut down on traffic congestion, which is in line with the goals in the city’s Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.
Still, others said the process as a whole lacked transparency and pushed for the council to take more time to create a cleaner, more streamlined document.
Saturday’s hearing was the second this week and came a day after CodeNext opponents sued the city of Austin requesting a chance for the public to decide whether it should get to vote on the rewrite. A petition that garnered 31,000 signatures and was turned into the city secretary in April asked for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot seeking a public vote. But the City Council, fearing it was illegal under state law to hold elections on zoning, said it would let the court determine how to proceed.
Several groups filed the lawsuit Friday.
The council chambers erupted into loud applause Saturday as many requested a chance to vote on CodeNext.
“Put CodeNext on the ballot; let’s respect the democratic process,” Almanza said.
The City Council heard public comments for several hours and had been expected to lay out a timeline after the hearing on how it planned to tackle CodeNext, now that it is in its hands.
Two city commissions that had been grappling with CodeNext for years have issued their final recommendations: the Zoning and Platting Commission voted “no” on the effort, and the Planning Commission signaled “yes,” before tacking on 117 amendments. It is not clear how the City Council will handle the recommendations.
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