Editorial: CodeNext’s suspension is a chance to rebuild public trust

Updated Aug 07, 2018
  • By Editorial Board

For some time, much of the public has been aware of CodeNext’s faults. But, like doting parents who make excuses for their children’s misbehavior, most of the Austin City Council brushed aside its flaws, as well as the jumbled way the zoning rewrite was rolled out and sold to residents.

It was Mayor Steve Adler, a supporter of CodeNext, who removed the council majority’s rose-colored glasses.

“The need to revise this land development code is greater than ever before,” Adler said last week in his lengthy post to the City Council’s online message board. “Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the CodeNext process, so divisive and poisoned, will not get us to a better place.”

On Thursday, the council is expected to make it official, suspending CodeNext. It’s the right move — and one we called for in April, as public trust in the council’s management of CodeNext collapsed.

“It’s worth considering taking a break – shelving CodeNext until next year,” we wrote then.

EDITORIAL: With no good options, City Council faces dilemma over CodeNext

We advised: “More time – without unrealistic deadlines – would offer a chance to address the issues that have created a great divide over CodeNext, including density bonuses and other entitlements for developers; a lack of affordable and low-income housing and parking; and gentrification that continues to displace longtime residents. Time offers new City Manager Spencer Cronk an opportunity to put ideas on the table.”

The resolution before the council this week directs Cronk to take the lead in developing a new process that ultimately yields a land-development code. Adler emphasized the importance of rewriting Austin’s zoning code to meet the city’s housing, mobility and infrastructure needs over the next decade and beyond. We agree.

With hundreds of amendments, the current land-use code is unwieldy and unfriendly to developers wanting to build apartments or condos, as well as to homeowners desiring to add rooms or sheds to their properties.

As part of the city strategic housing plan, the city has called for 135,000 housing units be built by 2025, with 65,000 of those for families making less than the median family income.

RELATED: As CodeNext withers, Planning Commission weighs fruits of its labors

While some have questioned those figures, few doubt Austin’s need to increase its housing supply. Given that and the more than $8 million investment in CodeNext, the city should not give up on overhauling its zoning code. There are things, however, it should do first.

At the top of that list: Take responsibility for the failure of CodeNext. Stop blaming critics or a so-called misinformation campaign that intentionally or otherwise presented CodeNext in false terms with the public.

The city is at fault for dropping a 1,300-plus page document on the public that initially lacked a zoning map that showed its impact on individual neighborhoods. By its third draft, the proposal had grown to more than 1,500 pages, larger than the current code. That was too much, too fast. It’s no wonder people filled in the blanks when the city failed to do so.

Such missteps began an erosion of public trust that was compounded by the city’s oversell of CodeNext as a key solution to Austin’s most vexing challenges, such as its affordable-housing crisis, displacement of low-income residents from central neighborhoods and traffic gridlock.

When the zoning plan fell short, so did public confidence. Divisions ensued between those who believed CodeNext would generate more housing across all income levels and those who didn’t buy the city’s hype.

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Those rifts aligned developers and urbanists on one side for more housing in walkable communities against neighborhood preservationists and civil rights groups that supported freezing demolitions and displacement. At the center of that controversy was the question of whether density was a solution or obstruction.

The city also must establish priorities on the front end.

Austin would be further along in overhauling its zoning and land-use code if the council had first set policies to address the lack of affordable housing and rapid gentrification, which are driving longtime residents from their communities, and then pursued the zoning changes.

Let’s confront the fact that a zoning code, no matter how well-intended, is not able to force developers to build low-income housing. For the most part, the market drives housing decisions and construction. If the city wants affordable housing, then that is best achieved through policy, public investments and solid incentives for the private sector.

The council also should set realistic expectations. It should consider the political wisdom of overhauling an entire land-use code at once, as CodeNext attempted. Future efforts might be more successful if done in phases.

Another key step is rebuilding public trust, which sank so low that community activists had little trouble collecting more than 31,000 signatures to put zoning matters on the November ballot, in a move that could undermine the council’s authority over zoning.

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For his part, Cronk brings a fresh face to the controversy as Austin’s newly installed city manager. Without the political baggage of former city staffers in charge of CodeNext, he is the right person for a job that will test his consensus-building skills.

He must tread carefully to balance the legitimate concerns of CodeNext supporters and critics and craft a more efficient land-use code that accommodates Austin’s growth. But it must be a zoning code that is fair to longtime residents who helped make Austin the desirable city it is today.