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Delays, added cost, angst hang over rewrite of Austin development code

The best-laid plans called for the Austin City Council right now to be on the verge of adopting a simplified land development code that would encourage more housing and development in the city’s core, particularly along major corridors and by transit stops.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans.

The city has pushed back the schedule for the initiative, called CodeNext, by almost a year and a half, with a January 2017 release date for a draft of the code instead of the original September 2015. Council adoption, which was supposed to take place sometime between last October and next month, won’t happen until late 2017 at the earliest.

“I feel like it is off the rails and frankly not going all that well,” said Melissa Neslund, a Real Estate Council of Austin board member who sits on the Code Advisory Group, a council-appointed body advising on the rewrite. “We are certainly behind schedule, and in many cases, I don’t feel like staff is getting the support they need from the (group) and the community to be progressive and aggressive in getting this code rewrite finalized.”

And what might be the most contentious part of CodeNext — mapping the new code on the whole city — lies even further in the future, after the City Council adopts the new code.

“Once we get to, ‘We want to put option A on this parcel, at the corner of Third and Main,’ then I think people will suddenly realize, ‘Oh, the code does matter. That’s next to me, where I walk, where I take the bus,” said Mandy De Mayo, the executive director of the nonprofit HousingWorks Austin and a member of the Code Advisory Group.

The code rewrite, which was triggered by the 2012 Imagine Austin plan laying out a big-picture vision for the city, will shape what the city looks like — from dictating building heights to the location of duplexes and small apartments to when trees need to be preserved — and by extension, the experience of living in Austin. The city last overhauled its code in 1984, though it has made many piecemeal changes since then.

As the timeline and scope have grown, so has the cost. The original budget for the entire project was $2 million. The city has upped that figure to $2.6 million, and it could soon grow to $3.2 million for the added cost of mobility planning.

And the contract runs only through the release of the draft code, so if the city wants Berkeley, Calif.-based consultant Opticos Design to stick around to explain the draft code to the public and revise it based on feedback, there would be extra cost, said Jim Robertson, the city’s project manager for CodeNext.

Too many expectations?

Some tangible factors have delayed CodeNext, such as city officials’ decision to produce a series of policy papers previewing concepts that will be in the draft code, as well as the new council’s decision to expand the citizens’ group advising on the code rewrite. Robertson said some of the benefits of the “slower pace” were being able to carefully study problems in the current code and listen to public feedback.

Less tangible, though still palpable, is the angst hanging over the rewrite. It’s coming from several places.

“I think a lot of people are loading up CodeNext with all kinds of expectations, that it will be able to solve all kinds of problems — problems of affordability, problems of transportation, problems of sustainability and ecological protection and things like that,” said Rich Heyman, a University of Texas professor who sits on the Code Advisory Group. “And there are certain small things the code can do to maybe move those issues forward. But I think most of what people hope to see in those areas requires work outside of the code itself.”

Some say the absence of any draft code with specifics is creating a lot of anxiety and suspicion about what is in the development rules that city staffers and outside consultants are writing behind closed doors — and whether all the public input about the code is actually getting considered.

“There is a high frustration level of the black hole effect, beating my head against a brick wall and I don’t know if anybody is listening,” said Jim Duncan, a former planning director for the city who co-chairs the Code Advisory Group.

Others say distrust in the staff from some members of the public, especially after the blistering Zucker Report that criticized the city’s former Planning and Development Review Department, is sucking a lot of air out of the room.

“The constant distrust of staff is cancerous and harming the community support for CodeNEXT,” Matt Lewis, an assistant director in the Planning and Zoning Department, wrote in a March 23 email to several Code Advisory Group members. “My team and I are administering a fair and inclusive process. There is not a staff agenda.”

Old guard vs. new development

Some say the animosity between the city’s old-guard neighborhood groups and those more open to new development is creating a tense environment that perhaps removes incentives for staffers to release specific information.

Elizabeth Mueller, a UT professor on the Code Advisory Group, said the two sides are “not really listening to each other.”

“I feel like the old-guard neighborhoods are often being caricatured as being racist or opposed to any change, and there’s no understanding of the history of those areas,” Mueller said. “They’re afraid of being pushed out, of not being able to afford to live there. … Then on the other side, I think they’re maybe not understanding how a lot of younger people are feeling frustrated, that they don’t have choices for housing, such as places where they don’t need a car, where they can easily access the things that matter to them.”

Tommy Ates, a board member of the development-friendly group AURA, said he’s concerned that CodeNext is in some ways skewed in favor of neighborhood associations that don’t want to apply “form-based” code citywide, which he said would make it easier to build “missing middle” housing, such as townhomes and fourplexes.

Without such housing mixed into neighborhoods, Ates said, “you have less diverse communities, and that is going to change not only the culture of the city, but it’s going to make it much more harder for anyone who does not have their income or look like them to stay.”

Robertson said the city would probably first work on mapping the new form-based code, which focuses on regulating the physical look of buildings rather than separating buildings by what they’re used for, on clusters of development centered on transit stops as well as corridors. About 80 percent of the city will continue to have use-based zoning, such as “SF-3” (a form of single family zoning), Robertson said.

“Call me a blind or foolish optimist, but we may as a city get into this and discover that the new approach to zoning, form-based zoning, actually works great,” Robertson said. “It may be that we as a community decide we should apply it more broadly.”

Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said she is concerned about what CodeNext means for single-family neighborhoods in the urban core and that she’s gotten “slippery answers” when asking questions about what will happen to the plans neighborhoods have written to protect themselves from unwanted development.

“Some people in the real estate industry just think this is their opportunity for anything goes,” Ingle said.

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