As CodeNext withers, Planning Commission weighs fruits of its labors


After spending countless hours revising land-use rules, members hope some of their work will be salvaged.

Some say Austin’s comprehensive code rewrite sought to do too much at once.

Despite CodeNext’s demise being all but guaranteed, many members of the volunteer commission that spent hundreds of hours agonizing over the all-inclusive zoning project remain hopeful that their work can be salvaged.

“I see it as a new beginning,” James Shieh, the new chair of the Austin Planning Commission, said Thursday. “It is a really bold move by the council, one that is appreciated by a lot of people. I see it as blowing CodeNext apart, but all the pieces are still salvageable.”

The Planning Commission, the city’s 13-member land-use board, met for about 80 hours in May alone to consider CodeNext, the first comprehensive reworking of Austin’s land-use rules in 34 years. To track the hundreds of amendments made to CodeNext, then-Chair Stephen Oliver created a more than 60-page spreadsheet that many commission members printed out on 11-by-17-inch paper to track their changes, which arose out of marathon meetings that often stretched late into the night.

The work was highly technical, as the City Council-appointed commission members worked bit by bit to nail down hundreds of pieces of minutiae in the now-doomed land use rewrite, with hopes of delivering a workable recommendation to the council. On May 25, the third and final draft of CodeNext — 1,574 pages long — was sent to the City Council.

A little more than two months later, the Planning Commission’s work might have been rendered moot. On Wednesday, Mayor Steve Adler called for CodeNext to be placed on hold, writing that misinformation had poisoned the process to the point that moving ahead was untenable. By the end of Wednesday, all but one City Council member — District 8’s Ellen Troxclair — had voiced agreement with Adler’s 1,500-word online post.

Next week, the council will vote on a resolution to put an end to CodeNext and begin anew with City Manager Spencer Cronk as the project’s head instead of Greg Guernsey, the city’s planning and zoning director. Some Planning Commission members marveled Thursday that the vote on the resolution to nix CodeNext might result in the first unanimous vote on the project by the current council.

They agreed with Adler that misinformation had derailed CodeNext.

“The biggest piece of frustration for me was that while there was a group working their tails off to get better results for Austin … there was just such a vocal opposition that wasn’t working on the policy side,” said Greg Anderson, a Planning Commission member. “They were just working with scare tactics on the PR side.”

Pinpointing exactly what went wrong with CodeNext, which led to pro-density urbanists squaring off against neighborhood preservationists, remains a challenge. However, Jim Duncan, a member of the Zoning and Platting Commission, which recommended halting CodeNext in May, has been saying since at least 2017 that the comprehensive code rewrite sought to do too much at once.

“Dropping a 1,500-page document on a community is insane,” Duncan told the American-Statesman on Thursday. “I can’t identify a villain. This document is not a favorable document for even the building industry.”

Planning Commission member Conor Kenny recalled a late-night discussion with a city-hired consultant shaping CodeNext. The consultant, whom Kenny did not name, marveled that CodeNext sought to rewrite technical building codes, redo residential zoning codes and create a new zoning map all at once.

“He was saying it is crazy that we are doing all three at once,” Kenny told the Statesman. “It was too much.”

Shieh agreed.

“It would have been helpful if we were able to have broken apart the text from the mapping portion,” he said. “Doing it simultaneously made it harder for either of them to move forward together.”

Angela De Hoyos Hart estimated that she spent roughly 500 hours deliberating about CodeNext as a planning commissioner. She said she agreed with Adler’s contention that misinformation, both deliberate and accidental, led to the project’s demise.

“As a pragmatist, I hope we make the most of this opportunity,” she said of what Council Member Ann Kitchen called a “reboot” on Wednesday. “The land development code rewrite is being given a second chance, and I hope we take that chance. I don’t feel like I have wasted my time.”

Whatever CodeNext’s next incarnation might be, Shieh said that Cronk should take one thing to heart: don’t call it CodeNext.

“The name, it’s tainted,” Shieh said “There is so much history in this thing. If we are going to a new step, we should look at it in a new way.”

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