Austin’s ambitious land development code rewrite seems headed for the trash can

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Austin City Hall

After six years of delays and $8.2 million spent mostly on cost overruns, elected officials are prepared to scrap Austin’s first new land development code in 35 years.

CodeNext, as the city calls it, has been one of the most divisive issues in recent Austin history. It has pitted a politically confounding tangle of interests against one another at the same time it has befuddled the general public about its purpose and aspirations.

Mayor Steve Adler has asked the city council on Thursday to consider a resolution calling for work to begin from scratch on a new development code. He has also asked that recently hired City Manager Spencer Cronk replace Greg Guernsey, director of planning and zoning, as head of the new effort.

Two days after Adler blindsided those inside and outside of City Hall with a lengthy explanation on the council’s message board for why CodeNext was beyond repair, those most involved in the process were still parsing his words, angry, confused and exhausted.

“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. We should consider the option: cease the CodeNext process and ask the city manager to create a new process that will help us move forward together.”

Over the next seven hours, all the council members except Ellen Troxclair posted messages in general agreement with the mayor that, as member Ann Kitchen wrote, CodeNext suffered from a “lack of clear communication which has led to a decline of trust, understanding, and constructive problem solving.”

Adler called CodeNext “complicated, technical and … largely misunderstood.” He suggested a new approach “that encourages openness, discussion, and finding the truth, rather than the misinformation, hyperbole, fearmongering, and divisive rhetoric.”

Mary Ingle, former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said Friday she believed the mayor’s comments about misinformation and poisoning were directed at groups and individuals like her who have been critical of the way the city directed work on CodeNext.

For Ingle, who had been deeply involved in neighborhood planning issues for at least 15 years, CodeNext failed because “the city has done a cram job and citizens didn’t like it.”

“I don’t know where we go,” Ingle said. “Basically, I don’t trust anything anymore. I can’t tell you how much time out of my life I’ve wasted and how resentful I am. It’s a mess, a frickin’ quagmire.”

Fred Lewis led Community Not Commodity, which spearheaded a petition drive to demand that citizens be allowed to vote on the CodeNext final product. He said Friday he is still not at all sure Adler and the rest of the elected city leadership understand how unpopular CodeNext is.

“In the end, the community was saying the direction the city was going in wasn’t the right one,” Lewis said. “The 31,000 people who signed the petition were saying the city wasn’t listening to them. The council had many opportunities to put CodeNext on the proper path and they didn’t do it.”

If there was any broad agreement among those interviewed by The Texas Monitor for this story, it was that little effort was made to correct problems that were apparent in the process from the start.

CodeNext was a key part of carrying out an ambitious city master plan adopted in June 2012. Imagine Austin is a detailed blueprint for a future where “Austin is a beacon of sustainability, social equity, and economic opportunity; where diversity and creativity are celebrated; where community needs and values are recognized; where leadership comes from its citizens, and where the necessities of life are affordable and accessible to all.”

The dozens of citizens and city staff who contributed to Imagine Austin thought big, but failed to reconcile the land use pressures the plan created, said Richard Heyman, a member of the Land Development Code Advisory Group.

“Imagine Austin is a contradiction,” Heyman, who teaches urban studies at the University of Texas, said. “There are big statements about connections and things like density corridors, and at the same time respecting the neighborhoods.”

It wasn’t until October 2014 that the council set the original boundaries for the rewrite and named it CodeNext. The city hired Opticos Design Inc. for $2 million to lead the process and asked that the company complete its work in 18 months.

To date, Opticos has spent $7.3 million of the $8.2 million the city has given the company, according to CodeNext spokeswoman Alina Carnahan. The contract has been changed five times to accommodate delays and cost overruns. The third draft of the rewrite clocked in at 1,574 pages, 200 pages longer than the current code.

By comparison, Miami 21, that city’s land development code overhaul, was completed on schedule in the early 2010s for $3.5 million and won a planning excellence award from the American Planning Association.

Sprawling Los Angeles, which has been working with a land development code from 1946, is expected to complete its revision, re:code LA, on time in 2019 at a cost of $5 million.

Besides the questions about Opticos’ work, the city planning staff had neither the necessary oversight nor the skill to translate what was being done for elected officials and the public, Jim Duncan said.

Duncan was the city’s land development services director who oversaw the creation of the current development code in the mid-1980s. In more than 30 years, Duncan Associates has undertaken hundreds of planning projects nationally.

“This thing was destined to failure from the beginning,” Duncan said. “It had a ridiculous scope. It should have been broken up into modules. City departments are siloed. And you didn’t have anyone at the steering wheel to bring the thing into line when it got off track.”

In the end, however, those interviewed for this story believe it was the simultaneous public hostility and indifference that forced Adler to call off CodeNext. Neither the city council members, only one of whom was in office when CodeNext was launched, nor city planning staff took a leadership role in promoting the value of reimagining land development in the city, several said.

The city waited a year to create the Land Development Code Advisory Group in late 2015. Group members say their interaction with the city planners and consultants doing the work was limited.

“I didn’t feel like we could ever agree on what we were supposed to be doing,” said group member Elizabeth Mueller, director for community and regional planning in UT’s School of Architecture. “There were lots of different, competing goals.”

By June, debate had devolved into factionalism, conspiracy mongering and name-calling. Lewis, representing CodeNext opponents, filed a lawsuit to override a city council vote aimed at keeping the new code from going to a citywide ballot.

Outside of the CodeNext bubble, average citizens found it nearly impossible to determine just exactly what everyone was fighting about.

Everyone interviewed agreed the need for a new development code is as great as it has ever been. Adler wants the work to begin anew. “We have been made aware of a potential proposal to develop a new process for an Austin land development code rewrite,” Carnahan said. “Staff is prepared to follow any council direction.”

Duncan, however, echoed the others in saying the wreckage is so complete and the bitterness so palpable that the city council should put the effort on pause.

Lewis said he thinks the issue is so toxic that the council will wait until after the November elections to do anything.

“We need to have a breather,” Duncan said. “We’ve got to start fresh. First thing we need to do is put that word, CodeNext, in the trash can.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

1 COMMENT

  1. “[Adler] suggested a new approach ‘that encourages openness, discussion, and finding the truth, rather than the misinformation, hyperbole, fearmongering, and divisive rhetoric.’ Mary Ingle, former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said Friday she believed the mayor’s comments about misinformation and poisoning were directed at groups and individuals like her who have been critical of the way the city directed work on CodeNext.”

    Yep. This KUT article helps clarify why:

    http://www.kut.org/post/beyond-buzzwords-coded-language-obscures-real-issues-codenext-fight

    In arguing against CodeNEXT before the city council last fall, Ingle cited one project in particular that she believed was too dense. Her argument against it included the statement that “[Austin] is not Calcutta.” As KUT’s reporter — who happens to be of South Asian descent — pointed out, “Calcutta” was the British colonial name for the city of Kolkata, which was renamed in 2001. Today it’s viewed as a slur with racial overtones.

    Even after being given the opportunity to clarify her remarks, Ingle instead double-downed on them: “I’ve been to Calcutta. I know what it looks like there. I know how much pollution they have to deal with. I know how packed in and overpopulated it is and how much poverty there is.” To state the obvious, comparing Austin to “Calcutta” in any context is extreme hyperbole, even if considered aside from Ingle’s brazen ignorance of a city she’s supposedly visited.

    To be fair, Ingle’s comment wasn’t as hyperbolic as one made the month before by Robin Rather, who called CodeNEXT “the worst thing that’s ever happened to Austin, by far”:

    https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2017-11-17/point-austin-what-to-do-about-codenext/

    As the Chronicle’s Michael King wryly noted in response, “Rather said she arrived here in 1996 (those Edenic days ‘when Austin was about people and not just an ATM cash machine”‘, so she might have missed, oh, any number of devastating floods, the long droughts, the UT Tower massacre, the 1928 Master Plan, Jim Crow, that little dustup from 1861-1865 …”

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