Commentary: What 1984 could teach us about CodeNext

It has been 34 years since Austin last adopted a new zoning code. That was the year the Apple Macintosh was introduced; yearly incomes averaged $20,000;, home prices averaged $100,000; the Dow Jones hit 1,200; and the cost of gas was a buck a gallon.

The 1984 code had been drafted over a four-year period by a California consultant. It started with a diagnosis report that recommended abandoning the city’s antiquated two-code format and introducing new use districts, non-cumulative uses, site development regulations and compatibility standards.

In addition, several other new regulations, including those focusing on Capitol views, Hill Country roadways, watersheds and parkland dedications, were adopted separately and incorporated into the new code.

RELATED: CodeNext opponents sue to get land-use ordinance on November ballot.

The 1984 code was adopted unanimously by the City Council with little public fanfare. The noncontroversial nature of its adoption was reflected in the council minutes of Dec. 20: “Mayor Mullen opened the public hearing set for 3:15 pm on amendments to Chapter 13-2A (New Zoning Ordinance). No one appeared to be heard. Motion: The Council, on Councilmember (Jim) Duncan’s motion, Mayor Mullen’s second, closed the public hearing and approved amendments to Chapter 13-2A.”

The American-Statesman included a brief blurb the next day that the council had approved a new zoning ordinance. The alternative press, including the Austin Chronicle, Third Coast and Daryl Herald, did not consider it newsworthy. In contrast, CodeNext has become the nation’s most expensive, most time-consuming, most problematic, most politicized, most polarized, most publicized zoning code update ever.

ALBERTA PHILLIPS: City skips every chance to end Planning Commission conflicts.

So, why did code adoption go so smoothly in 1984 and so badly in 2018? The answer is found by acknowledging several facts and flaws with the CodeNext process and product. As for process, CodeNext was:

• Managed by five different staff planners, none of whom had ever drafted a citywide code.

• Drafted in secret behind closed doors without meaningful public review and comment.

• Structured in a confusing, unorganized manner requiring extensive “page-flipping.”

• Dumped on the community in one obese, overly-complex, difficult-to-digest document.

As for product, CodeNext:

• Destabilizes established residential neighborhoods with incompatible blanket upzonings.

• Accelerates gentrification and resident and business displacement in the central city.

• Creates serious land use conflicts by abolishing residential compatibility protections.

• Reduces “affordable housing” opportunities by giving away excessive base entitlements.

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CodeNext has unfortunately become nothing more than an unabashed “gift to the growth cartel.” Rather than faithfully implementing Imagine Austin, staff has acceded to developer demands to enhance zoning entitlements, remove numerous requirements and diminish the role of the citizenry.

Duncan was Austin planning director when the 1984 code was adopted. He is currently vice-chair of the Austin zoning and platting commission.

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