Austin’s controversial bid to completely rewrite its land-use code took a giant step forward Tuesday, as city officials rolled out draft maps that showed how the proposed rules would be implemented citywide.
But in a town where fights over individual projects can turn into years-long battles between developers and surrounding neighborhoods, initial reactions to the maps amounted to a shrug.
“I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of people running down to City Hall screaming tomorrow,” said Jim Duncan, the former head of Austin’s planning department and a longtime neighborhood activist who leads the citizen group overseeing CodeNext.
Instead, Duncan said, the new maps largely appear to codify development patterns already underway. However, Duncan and other experts interviewed by the American-Statesman said it would take days to fully assess the new draft maps.
“This thing is bewilderingly complex, so it will probably take some time to figure out what they’ve done,” said Chris Bradford, a land-use attorney and urban activist.
These new maps won’t send skyscrapers spilling out of downtown into the city’s neighborhoods, Duncan and Bradford agreed.
Instead, the changes will be more subtle: Duplexes may be allowed on smaller lots; homes may be built closer to the road; apartment complexes may be three stories instead of two, and might even have a small store or two on the first floor.
“I think we’re talking at the margins: Should it be a three-story building here, or a five-story mixed-use building,” Bradford said.
The maps, officially unveiled Tuesday morning, provided the first opportunity to see how the 1,100-plus page proposed rewrite of the city’s zoning regulations, known as CodeNext, would be applied block by block throughout the city.
The release marks a seminal moment in Austin’s three-year, $6.2 million rewrite sojourn and comes three months after officials released the text of the redone code in January.
“CodeNext is CodeNow,” Mayor Steve Adler said at the Tuesday morning news conference announcing the maps’ release. “The maps being issued today make this seem even more real.”
Tuesday’s rollout of the maps will be followed by an open house Wednesday evening at City Hall and meetings in every council district over the next two months, officials said.
In the run-up to their release, city officials attempted to downplay the importance of the maps.
“Though there are some folks with a lot of anxiety about the first CodeNext map, all we know for certain is that the first map won’t look like the last map,” Adler wrote in an op-ed published by the Statesman over the weekend.
Adler’s op-ed and comments appeared to be aimed at avoiding a repeat of January’s CodeNext text rollout, where the 1,100-page draft caught criticism from all sides — especially from politically powerful neighborhood activists.
“This is upzoning,” Mary Ingle, president of the powerful Austin Neighborhoods Council, said in February. “They want our land, and they want it cheap.”
Ingle didn’t immediately respond to a request Tuesday for comment on the maps.
City officials also were criticized for releasing the draft text without the maps, which critics said made it impossible to see how the proposed code would be implemented. City Hall defended the decision at the time, saying it would allow the public to become familiar with the concepts behind the massive overhaul.
Most controversially, CodeNext proposes dividing the city into two zoning systems: One would look a lot like the system the city currently uses — separating residential from commercial areas, for example — that would apply to the traditionally suburban-like parts of town; the second is a more prescriptive and designed to promote denser development in Austin’s core and along transportation corridors, a longtime goal of city planners.
Neighborhood preservation activists have attacked the second system — known as “transect” zones — as a backdoor attempt to allow developers into Central and West Austin neighborhoods that have long opposed densification efforts.
Urbanists, builders and affordable housing nonprofits argue that denser development is a key component of any city strategy to provide housing for Austin’s booming population and to limit sprawl.
The fight over CodeNext is just the latest episode in the development drama that has consumed City Hall in recent years, as officials confront Austin’s housing shortage, which has driven rents skyward.
Last week, the City Council approved a new “blueprint” that calls for the construction of 135,000 new housing units in the city by 2025, with nearly half targeted to serve lower-income families. City officials included adopting CodeNext as one of their 50-some recommendations to help speed construction of housing.
The new maps, consultants and city officials told council members Tuesday, could potentially provide 143,000 units be built over the next 10 years, roughly in line with the city’s goal.
Under questioning from District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, the city’s planners and consultants said that existing zoning could allow for a similar amount of housing to be built but over a much longer time span — potentially 100 or 200 years. These new maps, they added, better match proposed future housing supply to where people want to live — and developers want to build.
The current land-use code has few friends. It’s more than 1,300 pages long, three decades old and has been amended more than 800 times, making it difficult to navigate.
Developers say it’s filled with contradictions that make it nearly impossible to build efficiently in the city. Their frequent foe, neighborhood activists, say it is full of loopholes that allow developers to build projects far larger than what should be allowed.
“It’s no small task to tackle this kind of challenge,” interim City Manager Elaine Hart said Tuesday. “But I think everyone agrees it’s long overdue for Austin.”
Explore the maps online at www.codenext.engagingplans.org