“Our current land development code is accelerating gentrification and segregation. Our current land development code is choking our ability to have a successful public transit system. Our current code is unacceptable…”
These were the words of Austin City Council Member (District 4) Greg Casar at a press conference on CodeNEXT last week. Casar joined together with Council members Delia Garza, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, and Jimmy Flannigan to express their frustrations with our current land development code and with the initial efforts to replace it (aka – the first draft of CodeNEXT).
What the heck is CodeNEXT? Why does this matter?
CodeNEXT is the city’s effort to rewrite its land development code, which is basically a rule book for the city, explaining what can be built where. CodeNEXT will determine how Austin looks 10, 15, and even 50 years from now. And it will affect everything from affordability, to transportation, to the environment. In other words, it’s a really big deal.
A first draft of the land development code rewrite was released earlier this year. At that time, the public had an opportunity to give feedback and recommend changes… and the public had a lot to say. Many raised concerns that CodeNEXT had not gone far enoughin simplifying the code and allowing for more types of housing (like duplexes and small apartment complexes) in more parts of the city. Others expressed fears that CodeNEXT was making too many dramatic changes to the character of existing neighborhoods. CodeNEXT staffers are now looking at those recommendations and putting together a second draft, which will be released on September 15th.
While it isn’t yet known exactly what changes will be in the new draft, the CodeNEXT team did publish a blog earlier this month saying that they’re trying to make the second draft easier to understand.
At the press conference earlier this week, Council Member Delia Garza said that she wanted to send a message to CodeNEXT staff and the community that she would not accept a second draft that doesn’t address problems like gentrification and displacement. “We didn’t see a significant enough change in this first draft,” Garza said. “In fact, it kind of set up a system where there was still two Austins.”
The press conference itself was held at Blazier Elementary, a school in southeast Austin that is experiencing extreme overcrowding, at the same time that many schools in the central part of the city are under-enrolled. This, said Council Member Flannigan, is because of sprawl, as the central part of the city has become too expensive for many families to live in. He said that our current code incentivizes sprawl and noted that, “sprawl is not just an environmental disaster, but it exacerbates the problems of our fiscal situation. When we sprawl… we force our communities to build new infrastructure at the expense of the parks and pools and roads of our inner city neighborhoods.”
So what do we do about it? How do we fix these problems?
There have been many suggestions about ways to fix our land development code. At the press conference, Council Member Renteria talked a lot about his goal of keeping working families in Austin (and bringing back the ones who have left). He continued on to say that, “…we know that the only way that we’re going to accomplish that is through density.” The idea here is that more density (and associated affordable housing policies) will allow the city to accommodate our growing population in centrally-located communities that are walkable and have access to good public transportation.
Others (including the new CodeNEXT-focused organization Community Not Commodity) are not so sure that increased density can really accomplish this and are calling on the city to come up with (and approve) more concrete anti-displacement solutions before CodeNEXT is passed. In order to dive a little deeper into these issues, Community Not Commodity is hosting a panel discussion on gentrification, displacement, and CodeNEXT on Saturday, September 9th from 1:30pm to 3:30pm at the IBEW Local 520.
This is a debate that will surely continue once the second draft is released in September. You can join in on the conversation by attending upcoming meetings of the city’s Planning Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission (two citizen-led advisory groups that are working on CodeNEXT) and giving your feedback. For background information on CodeNEXT (and the debates circulating around it) you can listen to this podcast recorded by our radio partner, Shades of Green. And as always, stay tuned into the Austin EcoNetwork as we continue to share with you the latest information about this important city policy.