Mayor Steve Adler passed out “Team Austin” hard hats and reflective vests Tuesday to kick off the City Council’s first CodeNext discussion, making a symbolic plea for unity as the council takes up the city’s most divisive issue.
Then the council spent the morning talking about how to talk about the first comprehensive redo of city zoning and building rules in more than three decades. Members urged each other to use polite body language as they parsed a list of overall objectives, leading Council Member Delia Garza to leave the dais in frustration and not return after an executive session over lunch.
“I’m having a really hard time being patient about this process,” Garza said after two hours of wordsmithing a series of high-level goals. “When are we going to start digging into the weeds?”
Now five years and $8 million in the making, CodeNext will define what the city looks like for generations into the future. It aims to increase density along major city corridors and fix a patchwork of development ordinances widely considered to be broken. At this point, the project has starkly split neighborhood preservationists from urbanists urging for a more compact city.
Adler made it clear Tuesday his goal will be pushing past the heated rhetoric CodeNext has so far fueled.
“I think we can all agree that while this is a really wicked problem, it is not about wicked people,” the mayor said. “This is not about racist NIMBYs versus greedy developers.”
Council members did agree on a few broad concepts, in straw-poll votes where they used a number of fingers to denote their enthusiasm. The city will focus new, denser, mixed-use development on major transportation corridors, rather than in the core of existing single-family neighborhoods. The council also wants to allow accessory dwelling units — granny flats and garage apartments — in more areas, but not if deed restrictions disallow them.
“That’s a potentially organic way to increase the density in our neighborhoods,” said Leslie Pool, one of the council’s more wary members in regard to CodeNext and its potential impact on neighborhoods.
But Pool also warned that encouraging the construction of such units could affect neighborhoods if the dwellings become short-term rentals that the city cannot regulate. The Legislature last session weighed overturning Austin’s strict restriction on such rentals, often advertised on Airbnb or HomeAway.
Tuesday’s moves represented the expected first steps by a council with a reputation for tiptoeing around controversy in favor of displays of consensus. In the past, members have been more comfortable talking about process than disagreeing about substance.
Garza said in a statement issued Tuesday evening that she had to prepare for an out-of-town trip on city business, but that she is looking forward to being fully engaged in future CodeNext conversations. Some council members echoed the annoyance voiced by Garza about not getting further into the meat of the issues Tuesday.
“With all due respect, at some point we have to get into the nitty-gritty of stuff and work out what we’re talking about,” Council Member Alison Alter said. “The disagreement is over the details.”
Council Members Ann Kitchen and Jimmy Flannigan defended the hashing out of language about what they and their peers hope to achieve with CodeNext. Council members disagreed whether they want the new code to encourage development that would tax city resources less, by stressing less sprawl and more density, and whether the council should assume that former Austinites moving into neighboring suburbs is out of financial necessity or choice.
Flannigan said the morning’s broad-based discussions helped him gain some insight into how his colleagues would be looking at CodeNext.
“I’m finding this more valuable than I expected,” he said.