Austin council members’ anxiety grows over CodeNext’s cost, timeline

A proposed $2.275 million spending increase for the leading CodeNext consultant has prompted some soul-searching among Austin City Council members as to whether the entire effort to revamp the city’s development rules has gone off the rails and might need a reset.

The proposal would be the fifth amendment to Opticos’ contract since the city hired the Berkeley, Calif., firm in 2013 for $2 million and would bring the contract’s total taxpayer cost to more than $8 million.

“How many more millions are we going to have to spend?” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said.

Council Member Leslie Pool used the contract amendment as a springboard to float the idea of delaying CodeNext’s scheduled approval in April to as far back as spring 2019. Pool questioned online and during a City Council work session Tuesday whether the deadline is “unrealistic” and “counterproductive.”

“At this point, I think the timeline is hurting us,” Pool said.

CodeNext is the city’s attempt to implement the recommendations of the 2012 Imagine Austin comprehensive plan by revising what type of development can go where. The effort aims to address many of Austin’s most vexing problems, including a lack of low-income housing, gentrification and traffic congestion, by rewriting the entire land use code and zoning map.

The city staff released the second draft of the code and maps in September, and consultants and city staffers will begin creating a third draft next month.

“It seems like we are marching on to another draft when we don’t have a corrected second draft,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said.

The innate complexity of the draft code, which has 1,300-plus pages, has created a growing chorus calling for CodeNext to be delayed or possibly derailed altogether. Those voices include a Bastrop woman who is spearheading a petition effort to have CodeNext placed on the March ballot so Austin voters can decide its fate.

Pool, Tovo and Council Member Alison Alter indicated Tuesday that they were unsure whether they would vote for increasing the consultants’ contract Thursday.

A previous City Council hired Opticos in 2013 over a Colorado-based firm that scored slightly higher in the bidding process because the city staff preferred Opticos and then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell believed Opticos would bring more simplicity to the code.

Since then, the council has increased the contract’s cost to more than $6 million, with the most recent addition of $1,627,200 authorized in March.

A large majority of the $2,275,000 requested this week would come from the Planning and Zoning Department. That money was allocated when the City Council approved the budget in September, according to CodeNext spokeswoman Alina Carnahan. A smaller portion — $150,000 — would come from the city’s Transportation Department to continue work on CodeNext’s transportation plans.

City staffers said the money would get CodeNext to the finish line by paying consultants to write the third draft and the final phase of its creation, as well as pay for consultants’ travel to Austin, an expense that drew the most debate Tuesday from council members who have in the past asked for the consultants to be in town for meetings but now wonder if better options might exist.

Flannigan, who represents a Northwest Austin district that has seen far fewer proposed changes under CodeNext than districts in and around downtown, said he was skeptical of the cost but wanted to press forward.

“I think we can get this done, y’all,” Flannigan said. “April is not tomorrow. It is many months from now.”

The proposed increase also led some council members to question why Opticos has failed to meet goals set in the original agreement to subcontract some of the work to businesses owned by minorities and women. Documents show that Opticos agreed to have about 32 percent of the work sent to minority- and women-owned businesses, with specific percentages set for each demographic. So far, only about 10 percent of the contract has gone to those businesses, according to Veronica Briseño, director of the city’s Small and Minority Business Resources Department.

Paul Saldaña, a former member of the Austin school board, shined a spotlight on the issue Monday in a Facebook post critical of the contract amendment.

Briseño told the council Tuesday that Opticos fell short because various amounts allocated to qualifying businesses dropped as the scope of the work changed. Also, two companies owned by women and Hispanics dropped out of the contract, she said.

Saldaña, the co-founder of Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, called that explanation “hogwash.”

“The city of Austin has been a passive participant in discrimination in the way they award contracts,” Saldaña said. “This ain’t the first time and certainly won’t be the last.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the location of CodeNext consultant Opticos’ headquarters.

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