As explained in the printed information and at the public meeting that I attended on May 22, the city of Austin is set to switch from a use-based to a form-based municipal building code.
The most troubling feature is that the city planning is ideology-driven. The stated goal in the city’s literature is not actually the form of buildings and streets; it is to achieve “open-mindedness … [a city] a little grungy, a little hippie, and a little country, all rolled into one.”
I presume the other slogan seen posted in town — “Keep Austin Weird” — was left out by oversight.
It looks like the city government expects to regulate the mood of its residents. Fittingly, the consultant retained for the project is from San Francisco — a city run for so long by ideology that now it is inhabited only by multimillionaires and derelicts. The norms for administration of a city must be precise and prosaic. A city ordinance is not appropriately written in hexameters.
Having “imagined” how the residents should feel, the urban luminaries then decide which of the residents’ habits do not conform with this image and must be changed by fiat. In our case, it is ruled that reliance on cars must be reduced; the new code would drastically cut parking availability within the city. It is assumed that the clearly deficient public transportation can be magically transformed after residents are thrown into the coded mess.
This fanciful idea might reflect the input from folks who walk or bike from their residence and don’t have precise hours — because the students can wait — or from others like them. Little heed is paid to those who are less affluent and must work hard for their living: plumbers, handymen, electricians. They all need to drive to work.
The volume of the new document is also disconcerting. We were shown an 8-inch-thick binder and told it represents only a part of the project. Moreover, those in charge of explaining it to us gleefully admitted when I asked them that they don’t know all that’s in it — and that, in fact, there is no one that does. This approach is inadmissible.
A legislative document of such structure often can contain elements that are destructive or ruinous. The setup is ideal for special interest groups, who usually find valuable prizes hidden inside. At the same time, specific advantages can be shown to various groups of voters to buy their support for the whole package. There are many other provisions deleterious to them; so overall, they lose more than they gain. The complex and opaque nature of the document prevents them from realizing this fact. The approach reminds one of the story with a group of blind men who were allowed each to touch a different part of an elephant and asked to describe what the beast is like.
An example of the omnibus approach was provided by the recent referendum on roads and transportation. In a preparatory meeting, the man “selling” the project explained that an unrelated provision was thrown in to get the votes of a specific constituency. Legislators at all levels should be asked before elections to pledge never to consider an omnibus bill or ordinance — and to never vote for one they did not read and understand. As a principle, any resident with a standard education should be able to read and understand all the laws and ordinances without having to make a career out of it.
Since maps presented to the public show that many neighborhoods are not touched at this moment, there is the danger that most people will just let this pass. We should remember that we are at the first step. A measure with flaws of principle will in the end harm us all.
I propose that the revised code presently under consideration be thrown out and a better process be used to obtain an appropriate replacement.
Farcasiu is a chemical engineer in Austin with a specialty in industrial and academic research.