The End of CodeNEXT?

CodeNEXT Maps
CodeNEXT Maps

By now you’ve heard the news. CodeNEXT is dead. Or is it? Wait, what’s going on?

Like everything with CodeNEXT, there has been some confusion around Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s comments on Wednesday about the controversial rewrite of our land development code (aka CodeNEXT). So today, we thought we’d take a moment to lay it all out for you.

(As a reminder… 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.)

1. On Wednesday, the mayor suggested that Austin “cease the CodeNEXT process and ask the City Manager to create a new process that will help us move forward together.”

However, this does mean that he is scrapping the idea of updating our land development code altogether. It also doesn’t mean that he is getting rid of all of the work that has been done/ideas that have been proposed during the CodeNEXT process.

In a post on the City Council message board, he pointed to some of Austin’s biggest problems (affordability, gentrification, traffic, flooding) and said that he still believes a land development code can be “an important tool” to help deal with these challenges. He said that our current code is not “serving us well” in this department. (It’s over 30 years old and was created for an Austin that was much, much smaller than today’s city.)

“The need to revise this land development code is greater than ever before,” Adler wrote. “Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the CodeNEXT process, so divisive and poisoned, will not get us to a better place.”

Adler kept coming back to this point throughout the statement he posted on the City Council message board.

“I’m not sure it is within our power and ability to right the current process,” Adler wrote. “We must do a better job of calling out those that seek advantage and power at the expense of the well-being of our city. They are hurting our city, not helping, and re-living the battles of the past isn’t saving homes from being demolished or keeping people from being displaced – it’s exacerbating and prolonging such tragedies. Oversight, engagement, and transparency are core values of our city, but when people stop being honest to achieve a political end, it hurts our city and our democracy. We need dialogue that is more like Austin, Texas, and less like what we are seeing in Washington D.C.”

2. City Council seems to agree with Mayor Adler that a new process needs to be developed.

Despite the fact that City Council has been pretty divided on CodeNEXT, after Adler’s announcement, they mostly seemed to be in agreement that something has to change.

Council members Casar, Garza, Renteria, Flannigan

Council members Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, and Jimmy Flannigan have generally been supportive of CodeNEXT and the idea of bringing more housing and denser development into the city. Casar, Garza, and Renteria all represent heavily Latinx districts located primarily in east Austin. Flannigan represents District 6 in far northwest Austin.

City Council District Map
This is the map of all 10 City Council districts in Austin. District 10 is located in the northwest part of the city.

In a statement posted on the Council message board in response to Adler’s post, they wrote that they once saw CodeNEXT “as a powerful opportunity” to address Austin’s “three-pronged crisis of housing, transportation, and affordability.”

“One primary goal in rewriting Austin’s broken land-use code must be to dismantle the systemic economic segregation that afflicts our City and stagnates opportunity for all Austinites,” they wrote.

However, the Council members continued on to write that they believe the CodeNEXT process ran into too many disruptions to continue to be viable, including intentional ones.

“Intentional disinformation campaigns added confusion and stoked distrust..,” they wrote. “We are disheartened that in a time of national crisis that calls for unity, factions from Austin’s wealthy and privileged sectors funded campaigns of fear focused on maintaining the status quo – the status of unfair and unequal treatment concentrated in the remaining low-income and working class neighborhoods in our City. We vow to continue working towards solutions worthy of our City’s values. ”

Council members Pool, Alter, Houston, Tovo

On the other side of the coin, Council members Leslie Pool (District 7), Alison Alter (District 10), Ora Houston (District 1), and Kathie Tovo (District 9) have generally been more weary of CodeNEXT, pointing to fears that Austin could be irreparably changed without a robust public input process and that CodeNEXT was not doing enough to address the displacement of Austin families and longtime residents.

Houston represents the historically African American and rapidly gentrifying District 1 in central east Austin. Tovo’s district includes most of downtown Austin. Pool’s district takes up much of central Austin, including some of the city’s more historic neighborhoods (like Rosedale). Alter’s district borders Pool’s and takes up much of west Austin.

“For more than a year we have joined the community in sounding the alarm that CodeNEXT was broken,” they wrote in their joint statement in support of ending the CodeNEXT process.

They continued on to write about a perceived lack of trust from the community about the way CodeNEXT was developed. “We look forward to the opportunity to adopt a new community-driven path,” they wrote.

3. A City Council vote on ending the CodeNEXT could be coming soon.

Although it’s not yet clear exactly when this issue will come up for vote, at least one resolution has already been posted on the City Council message board. Council returns from its summer recess on August 9th, so it could come up as early as then.

As the mayor has said, a resolution will likely the ask the City Manager to evaluate what has been done so far and then to come up with “a new process that builds on the lessons learned from what we’ve done, both good and bad.”

Rebuilding trust in the community has been a theme that’s come up over and over in the past few days. The current CodeNEXT draft is over 1,000 pages long, very confusing, and very technical (especially for a member of the general public who isn’t an expert in land development codes). Ever since the first CodeNEXT draft was released over a year ago, members of the public have complained that it’s too difficult to understand CodeNEXT and to keep up with the rapid rate of changes between each draft.

“Change happens at the speed of trust,” Adler wrote on the Council message board. “As a Council, city staff and community, we must restore trust in a process to revise our land development code, and that means we need a new and different, clear and concise path that can move us forward.”

 

 

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