Collapsing CodeNEXT: Austin leaders, experts and stakeholders react to Mayor Steve Adler’s proposal

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City leaders, experts and stakeholders said they remain shocked but hopeful following the largely unexpected suggestion from Austin Mayor Steve Adler on Wednesday to end CodeNEXT, the city’s five-year, $8.5 million effort to rewrite its land development code.

Voicing concern over a “poisoned” process he said was injected with hyperbole and misinformation, Adler proposed via a message board post to Austin City Council that they end the current process and task new City Manager Spencer Cronk with creating a new path forward.

The mayor and other city leaders pointed to a series of events that attributed to the process’s rocky journey. Among the changes Austin has dealt with since code rewrite discussion began in 2012, the city has switched to district representation for city council, has had three city managers, several changes in executive leadership, numerous CodeNEXT project managers and the recent death of John Fregonese, a consultant who was leading the data analysis.

Adler’s recommendation sent shock waves through a community that has become increasingly divided over the rewrite’s direction. On one side stand those who say adding housing density would ruin Austin’s existing neighborhood character. Standing opposite are those who say the city needs additional housing throughout its neighborhoods to responsibly manage its unprecedented population growth.

Here is what city leaders, experts and stakeholders are saying about the call to close CodeNEXT:

Council members Jimmy Flannigan (District 6), Greg Casar (District 4), Delia Garza (District 2) and Pio Renteria (District 3)

The four council members who have aligned as pro-housing density released a joint statement after Adler’s announcement:

“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,” they wrote. “We vow to continue working towards solutions worthy of our city’s values.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo; council members Ora Houston (District 1), Leslie Pool (District 7) and Alison Alter (District 10)

Tovo, Houston, Pool and Alter formed a preservation caucus to fight for Austin’s existing neighborhood character. They supported the petition from residents demanding voting rights over the rewrite’s final product.

Jeff Jack, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council

The Austin Neighborhoods Council has actively opposed CodeNEXT. When Jack was elected last year, he referred to CodeNEXT as a “battle” the neighborhoods council needed to win. He said Thursday the group is “cautiously optimistic.”

“Glad to see [Austin City Council] finally listening to the community about the deficiencies in [the CodeNEXT proposal]staff has produced, but I also am concerned that this might be just a renaming of the same old, same old,” Jack said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that the city manager will create a new process that is more responsive to community concerns and hopeful about the opportunity to engage in that process.”

James Shieh, chairman of Austin’s Planning Commission

Shieh helped lead the Planning Commission during several late-night meetings going page-by-page through the minutia of the code, which eventually offered hundreds of recommendations to City Council on how to improve the code prior to final adoption.

“[Ending CodeNEXT would be] an incredibly bold move by City Council,” Shieh said on Thursday. “I think this is a good move. Change is coming to Austin whether we like it or not. I hope the city manager can quickly come up with alternative measures. The longer we wait, the more trouble we get into.”

Jim Duncan, Zoning and Platting Commission, former city planner

Duncan has been one of CodeNEXT’s biggest critics, saying earlier this year the process needed to end.

“When I heard about it I felt shock, awe, relief and excitement; I immediately had two margaritas,” Duncan said. “I was very pleased that common sense prevailed over politics and whatever it is that got us to this place. The code can’t get too politicized, and council got their paws in it too early and too much. We need new leadership, new staff and new consultants and to commit to a balanced public engagement system that is meaningful.”

Scott Turner, infill developer and spokesperson for Evolve Austin

Evolve Austin has been vocal in its support for abundant housing and density throughout Austin. Turner said the cost is not the $8.5 million that Austin spent on consultants but rather the increasing housing prices and displacement of residents.

“We’re looking forward to working with the city manager and stressing the urgency of this to him,” Turner said. “All paths toward affordability go through the land development code. Our issues are not going away until we address the code.”

Dave Sullivan, former member of the CodeNEXT Citizen Advisory Group

Before any draft proposals were released, Sullivan and the advisory group spent years bridging the gap between citizens and city staff to determine the community’s priorities and overarching direction of CodeNEXT.

“I am surprised and disappointed, but I understand,” Sullivan said on Thursday. “So much work has gone into this and maybe wasted. I thought council could work out the issues and come to a compromise. On the other hand, it’s possible the city manager comes up with a different process and makes progress on a new land development code. It’s not the end of the world.”

Real Estate Council of Austin

RECA, an organization of commercial developers, has also been critical of the CodeNEXT process up to this point. It continued that criticism in a statement released Wednesday.

“Since the CodeNext process began years ago, RECA technical experts have volunteered thousands of hours of personal time to review the three drafts of the code, provide technical analysis and submit detailed revisions…to contribute positively to the process,” RECA stated. “A process in which most of that feedback was blatantly ignored. We will remain at the table to provide additional technical expertise to make sure the community gets this right for the future of our city.”

Austin Board of Realtors

ABoR, an organization of residential realtors, has been active supporting the need for a new land development code.

“We are still assessing the ramifications of the possible end to the CodeNEXT process,” ABoR said in a statement released Thursday. “We will wait and see what [the city manager]proposes as next steps.”

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COMMENT
  1. The whole issue driving the demise of Codenext is that the Mayor and his City Council allies like “sellout of his district” Jimmy Flanagan, et al, were unable to avoid a ballot referendum through the courts and knew their power grab would be badly defeated at the polls.

  2. Interesting that RECA felt their input was mostly ignored, so did the public, says the problem was in Staff project management and the consultants. Those people should not be put back in charge of it again. Frankly if he would come out of retirement, would trust Duncan to be the lead consultant on this.

  3. When bureaucrats believe that they know what’s best for everyone.

    Have activists taken over the city’s development bureaucracy, shutting out and ignoring the public?

Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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