Austin will revive its attempt to rewrite its land-use rules March 26 in a move long deemed necessary as a means to manage the city’s continued population growth and widening housing affordability crisis.
The rules around what can be built in the city and where have not been comprehensively revised since 1984. Austin’s most recent attempt to this—a five-year, $8.5 million effort known as CodeNEXT—failed as it came down the homestretch last year. City Council voted to pull the plug on the effort after the rhetoric surrounding some of the more polarizing land use issues became “poisoned” and filled with hyperbole, as described by Mayor Steve Adler.
Those divisive topics—rewrite scope; housing types and capacity; parking; and compatibility—are where City Council will begin its resuscitation of the code rewrite process, according to a March 15 memo from city manager Spencer Cronk. Last summer, City Council tasked Cronk to pick up the pieces left behind by CodeNEXT and create a new path forward. The cancellation of CodeNEXT left foggy council’s majority position on these issues. Cronk said he could not move forward without clear guidance on these crucial policies.
Cronk emphasized what he referred to as “guiding principles” to abide by throughout the new process. He asked City Council and staff to use simple language and to not shy away from tough topics; to learn from the past and acknowledge that, historically, Austin’s land-use policies have not helped all communities; and to focus on building a “versatile toolbox,” understanding that the land use code alone will not solve issues such as gentrification, equity and affordability.
Picking up the pieces
The prior CodeNEXT process resulted in three successive drafts of a rewritten land development code and zoning maps. In Cronk’s plan, City Council members will begin by choosing one of three options for each of the five policy questions—do they wish to maintain the status quo, provide levels consistent with draft three of CodeNEXT, or go further than what draft three provided?
An example would be the question regarding housing capacity. The question asks:
“To what extent should the land development code provide for additional housing capacity in order to achieve the 135,000 additional housing units recommended by the Strategic Housing Blueprint? Option A: Maintain the level of housing capacity provided by [the]current code [approximately 145,000 new units]; Option B: Provide a level of housing capacity comparable to draft 3 of CodeNEXT [approximately 287,000 new units]; or Option C: Provide greater housing than draft 3, through enhanced measures to allow construction of additional residential units.”
Each policy question provided in the survey comes paired with backup documents, research and data laying out the issue and its nuances in greater detail. For instance, the housing capacity question comes with information on how a capacity of 287,000 new units would likely result in the actual construction of only roughly 132,000 units—close to the blueprint’s goal— just as a capacity of 145,000 units would only provide roughly 71,000 new units—well short of the blueprint’s goal.
Cronk plans to only lay out the format and policy questions on March 26, but City Council will have a standing item on future agendas to work out the issues and move closer to finishing the land code rewrite process that began six years ago.