As finish line looms, CodeNext struggles down challenge-filled road


Highlights

Once-optimistic aura surrounding city’s comprehensive rewrite of land-use code has mostly evaporated.

Austin City Council has split into opposed voting blocs regarding CodeNext.

Lawsuit appears likely after council members rejected a petition to put a CodeNext ordinance on the ballot.

When Matt Lewis took charge of CodeNext in 2015, he saw a chance to indelibly shape Austin’s future by directing the massive rewrite of the city’s land-use code.

Flush with anticipation, Lewis ordered hats, shirts, stickers and bags, all marked with the green CodeNext logo.

“I was excited,” he said.

Nearly three years later, some staffers at the city’s Planning Department are hesitant to use those black tote bags trumpeting CodeNext. They say they don’t want to be stopped in the grocery store by Austinites determined to point out the flaws they perceive in the rezoning effort.

“It is unfortunate that something so grand could be so divisive in this community,” said Lewis, who now runs his own design firm in Austin after resigning as the CodeNext lead mere months into the role, beset by an investigation into staffers’ complaints of mistreatment. “It seems that if the city would have accomplished this process in a strategic and appropriate way in engaging the citizenry, we wouldn’t be in this place.”

READ: CodeNext foes are done with compromise. They’re going for the kill.

After spending five years and more than $8 million on the project, the Austin City Council this week finally will begin the unenviable task of trying to put CodeNext in place. It’s fair to say the once-in-a-generation rewrite of the city’s land-use development code could be the most influential local ordinance in decades.

In city government circles, the past year has offered a stark contrast to the optimism that surrounded the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, which passed unanimously to applause in June 2012 and gave birth to CodeNext. An upbeat vibe abounded, too, on March 21, 2013, when City Council members unanimously approved hiring a Berkeley, Calif., consulting firm — Opticos Design Inc. — that has helped shepherd CodeNext to its current state, one that’s far from blissful.

Five years ago, then-Council Member Laura Morrison — now engaged in a campaign to unseat Mayor Steve Adler and riding an anti-CodeNext message — smiled as she spoke of the vision that consultants had presented the council in regard to CodeNext. She did hint, though, that the match to a possibly unpredictable fire had been lit.

“The eventual acceptance and embrace of this code by our community is really going to rely on making sure all the issues have been vetted and it’s Austin’s code, not just the consultant’s code,” Morrison said.

Ask one person, and he will tell you CodeNext represents a chance for Austin to encourage affordable housing and create an idyllic community where everyone can walk from home to a boutique coffee shop. It envisions a city where Austin’s deep-rooted economic segregation has been eradicated while still preserving the rich character of predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Ask another person, and she will complain that CodeNext is nothing short of an all-out development blitz against Austin’s core neighborhoods, an ill-conceived plan that creates an existential threat to the quiet communities that residents hold near and dear. You’re looking at a massive handout to real estate developers and speculators, all thanks to a code rewrite that amounts to a metaphoric bulldozer aimed at Austin’s heart.

COMMENTARY: Poll shows how we’re split over CodeNext and what issue can bring us together

Yet there are two things everyone involved in this debate can agree on. One, the existing code is broken. Two, CodeNext is far from perfect.

“The current code is harming our city,” Lewis said. “It is expensive. It is fiscally irresponsible. I am hopeful that (city officials) can re-engage and re-emphasize the importance of what is going on here, but we are lost in the woods, man. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Opposite sides of the code

Shortly after its birth, CodeNext began to be touted as the tool to address many of Austin’s most vexing problems, including a lack of affordable housing, increasing gentrification and snarled traffic. All could be resolved, the thought became, with the right land-use code and corresponding zoning maps.

Now, with the stakes so high, the generally ideologically aligned elected officials at City Hall have become riven by the city’s most divisive political fight.

Case in point, the City Council’s meeting Thursday, when, with a 6-4 vote, the council decided against placing a petition ordinance on November’s ballot that would have asked Austin voters if they wanted to see CodeNext put to a public vote. The vote came about two months after community groups delivered a petition with more than 31,000 signatures in favor of such a referendum.

Those opposed to the referendum called the proposed ordinance illegal. On the other side of the issue, Council Member Leslie Pool said not holding an election was illegal, and Council Member Ora Houston, who has referred to CodeNext as a racist document, said the council’s action reminded her of disenfranchisement she had personally experienced as an African-American.

Like the many votes related to CodeNext that preceded it, the council broke into two blocs Thursday. Houston, Pool, Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo have become united in their opposition to CodeNext.

On the other side are Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, Delia Garza and Sabino “Pio” Renteria. For months, these four have been on the record in support of CodeNext, saying the revised zoning code encourages density as a tool to create more affordable housing.

Somewhere in the middle are Council Member Ann Kitchen and Mayor Steve Adler. The two have voted with the pro-CodeNext bloc but have not been as adamant in their support for the project. Council Member Ellen Troxclair is generally viewed as supportive of CodeNext, but the depth of her backing is hard to gauge as she has been absent on maternity leave during the slew of recent contested votes.

EDITORIAL: With no good options, City Council faces dilemma over CodeNext

So what created such a poisonous debate about CodeNext, which could be approved by as early as August?

Fred Lewis, the man behind one of the two political action committees that launched the recent petition drive, said he saw the fractures developing years ago. He observed a lack of community engagement and a refusal by city officials to deliver requested materials to neighborhood advocates.

“Every single suggestion that was made to have public input and input from the neighborhoods was ignored,” Lewis said. “We asked that they do derivation tables. It was ignored. We asked that it be considered in pieces. That was ignored. We asked to bring in a new planning head. That was ignored.”

Jim Duncan, a member of the city Zoning and Platting Commission, which this month recommended terminating CodeNext, said a dearth of leadership within the Planning and Zoning Department drove this train off the rails.

Duncan pointed to the 2015 Zucker Report, a scathing document that listed 464 specific recommendations for improving the city’s 324-person Planning and Development Review Department. In the wake of the report, Planning and Development Review was split into two departments, and Matt Lewis took the reins of CodeNext, but he resigned after about a year. CodeNext’s day-to-day manager, Jim Robertson, assumed leadership of the project, but it was only a matter of months before he left to head the planning department in Boulder, Colo.

Even though the Zucker Report had pilloried his department and led to roughly 70 percent of his employees being wrestled away from his purview, Planning Department Director Greg Guernsey took the lead on CodeNext upon Robertson’s departure in August 2016. Guernsey has since come to be viewed with distrust by various anti-CodeNext groups.

Matt Lewis said he remains confident that the city staffers working on CodeNext are doing a good job.

“They have amazing people still working on this project, and I am confident that they are working through these standards,” he said.

KEEPING UP WITH CODENEXT: At our CodeNext hub, you’ll find news, events, timelines and other resources to help you understand the complex but critical rewrite of the city’s land-use regulations.

But it was the publication of the first zoning maps associated with CodeNext that laid bare the fears of those who would prefer never to see their Central Austin neighborhoods change. The benign shades of peach and orange that marked dozens of neighborhoods as so-called transect zones signified a massive increase in density in those areas.

“I don’t know that it surprised me,” Guernsey told the American-Statesman, referring to the alarmed reactions of neighborhood groups. “It brought home what could be coming around the corner from your property.”

Anyone owning a lot measuring at least a third of an acre in near South Austin could raze his home and replace it with eight small houses, cottages or other housing units.

“That is really what galvanized our group,” said Gretchen Otto, former president of the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association. “We could see on the maps that Travis Heights was going to be pretty heavily impacted.”

The transect zones were eliminated in the second draft of the code, but by then the petition efforts of anti-CodeNext activists had begun.

Bastrop resident and regional activist Linda Curtis created a group called IndyAustin, partially funded by a billboard company, to promote the petition. Curtis said she became involved because CodeNext changes would exacerbate water-related issues in Bastrop.

Meanwhile, Fred Lewis formed a political action committee to promote the petition and started a legal fight over the makeup of the city’s influential Planning Commission, which finalized its recommendation on CodeNext last week after numerous marathon meetings that led to hundreds of recommended amendments to the code.

Eventually, the City Council voted to create a third draft of the code, which was released in February and included more concessions to neighborhood preservationists. However, CodeNext 3.0 also broadly changed commercial zoning along major roads to allow for additional mixed-use developments that include housing. And developers who included affordable housing in their projects could be eligible for building bonuses.

By then, though, it was too late to sway most anti-CodeNext activists. They had become resolved to pull the plug on CodeNext.

A public referendum might not be imminent, but a lawsuit against the city certainly is, Fred Lewis said last week.

“A majority of the council didn’t want their constituents to vote on CodeNext,” he said. “I don’t think it is because of the law. I think it is because it is unpopular.”

Adler said he voted down the CodeNext ballot measure because he wanted to allow time for a court to weigh in on the matter. Previous city councils have taken similar approaches, only to have a court order that items be placed on the ballot, including the legendary Save Our Springs Ordinance.

The legal fight has not yet begun, but the raging war over CodeNext continues. To Matt Lewis, the former head of the project, doing nothing to the city’s existing “Frankenstein code” is unacceptable.

“The format organized into one cohesive document is great,” he said of the latest CodeNext draft. “If the overall document is that much better and all we have to do is tweak standards, then I say, ‘Yes, celebrate the code.’ We can still change some numbers.”



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