Environmental groups join battle over CodeNext

Oct 22, 2017

Two environmental groups are stepping into the growing political ruckus surrounding CodeNext to promote a code that would increase density along major road corridors and in the city center.

The recommendations come from the advocacy groups Environment Texas and Texas Public Interest Research Group, which will release a report Monday detailing environmental pitfalls of city sprawl and how CodeNext might help improve the environment by fitting more housing units into the core of the city.

“We can’t keep the status quo,” said Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas and one of the authors of the report. “The impacts on the environment are too great. We need to see this code rewrite as an opportunity to develop a new community that promotes walkable, bikable communities and avoids expansion out into the Hill Country and other areas around Austin.”

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CodeNext is the city’s attempt to rewrite the entire land-use code for the first time since the 1980s. Staffers and consultants hope to tackle many of Austin’s most vexing problems, including affordability, traffic and gentrification.

While neighborhood advocates, professional groups and urbanists have weighed in heavily on CodeNext, Monday’s report adds a new voice that had remained relatively quiet on the effort: environmentalists.

Environment Texas is a partner of the generally pro-CodeNext Austin coalition Evolve Austin, a common target of the anti-CodeNext group Community Not Commodity, which has ties to an ongoing effort to have CodeNext put on the ballot in March.

Creating denser residential development in the commercial centers of Austin has been a goal for CodeNext since the city completed the 2012 comprehensive Imagine Austin plan. Many in neighborhoods closer to downtown have since become opponents of CodeNext after draft zoning codes and maps have shown what they consider a broad upzoning for established neighborhoods in the city’s central core.

The report shows that units in denser developments such as duplexes and low-rise apartments use less energy than single-family homes and that those living in compact neighborhoods are less likely to drive, leading to reductions in air pollution.

This doesn’t mean all environmentalists are embracing CodeNext, however.

Bill Bunch, the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said Austin environmentalists are broadly in favor of denser development. He believes the tracts that best lend themselves to such development are undeveloped parcels on the outskirts of town. However, the market tends to encourage sprawling subdivisions of single-family homes in those areas, he said.

Bunch said encouraging density in established neighborhoods would force thousands out of their homes — an outcome he doesn’t want to see.

“The Evolve coalition, which includes Environment Texas, wants to scrape the central city neighborhoods and put density there while allowing sprawl to continue at the suburban fringe,” Bunch said. “In our view it is upside down.”