Double vision: Austin struggles to square CodeNEXT with older neighborhood plans

Sean Kelly sits outside Elizabeth Street Café in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, not far away from the single-family home he purchased for $150,000 in 1997.


He, like many of his neighbors, said he is  concerned that the zoning maps proposed by CodeNEXT—the rewrite of the city’s land development code—ignore the vision of Bouldin Creek the city adopted into policy in 2002 after the residents of the community just south of Lady Bird Lake spent many volunteer hours crafting their neighborhood plan.


Kelly, a member of the neighborhood’s contact team—the group in each neighborhood’s unique planning process that acts as a middleman between the city’s planning and zoning staff and neighborhood residents—said CodeNEXT’s disregard of the neighborhood plan will cause sweeping changes to Bouldin Creek.


“[CodeNEXT] arbitrarily and capriciously changes what was previously in statute without any real voting input by the neighborhoods it would affect,” Kelly said. “It changes significantly the land use that pre-existed and what everyone understood was what we were doing in the neighborhoods.”


Imagine Austin—the city’s 30-year comprehensive plan adopted in 2012—and CodeNEXT’s zoning proposals are too loyal to neighborhood plans, said Frank Harren, an urbanist and representative for the Tarrytown Neighborhood Association.


Citing an internal city audit released last year that asserted the plans were outdated and reference neither the city’s current nor former comprehensive master plans, Harren said there is an inherent conflict in respecting existing neighborhood plans in the CodeNEXT process.


“It’s more than complexity,” Harren said. “[Existing neighborhood plans and Imagine Austin] are in actual
contradiction.”


The outdated plans and their effort to lock in single-family zoning in the urban core where market pressure is most intense, Harren said, exacerbate Austin’s affordability crisis and are largely to blame for what he sees as the city’s inability to move forward.


Although Imagine Austin states that achieving its goals will “require a revision of the land development code,” any rewrite of the code must “recognize, respect and reflect” the vision of neighborhood plans.


However, city staff members have said that early mistakes, a lack of city resources and the city’s rapid growth have created deep-seated issues in the neighborhood planning process that city officials say are difficult, and too intensive, to immediately amend.



A balancing act


Jerry Rusthoven, the assistant director of planning and zoning who is among the city planners working to implement CodeNEXT, said these issues have not made the CodeNEXT process any easier.


“Some people feel I’m not following the neighborhood plans closely enough, and others think [the plans] should be tossed in the garbage and ignored,” Rusthoven said. “I have to live with both [kinds of] people and also follow the adopted policy of council.”


In the case of Bouldin Creek, the neighborhood plan’s future land-use map—which zones the neighborhood for future land use and is approved as guiding policy by City Council—planned the interior of the neighborhood with single-family unit lots, which means a maximum of two units per lot. CodeNEXT proposes T3 and T4 zones for the same area, which provide the opportunity to build three and four units per lot, respectively.


Kelly, who is retired and lives on a fixed income, said today the land underneath his home is worth $325,000, and his property taxes have quadrupled since his first bill as a homeowner.


“If [CodeNEXT’s proposed zoning] goes through, our land values are going to skyrocket, whether we have any interest in putting triplexes or quads on a standard lot or not,” Kelly said.


Andy Cantu, executive director of Evolve Austin, a group advocating for CodeNEXT to be more density-aggressive in its zoning, said the lack of “missing middle” housing—such as triplexes and quadriplexes—aggravates the city’s affordability crisis and homeowners’ struggle to pay increasing taxes.


Although single-family zoning may have worked in 2002, Cantu said Austin is now a different city, and the neighborhoods and their plans need to evolve with the city.


“[Neighborhood planning] is important and people who live in neighborhoods should have a say in the process, but the way Austin is managing that process is not ideal,” he said.



Lack of resources, early mistakes


Although plans require city staffers to review and update neighborhood plans every five years, Rusthoven said none of the 30 plans, which average more than 10 years in age, have been revisited for official updates. He also said the existing neighborhood plans do not really reference a greater comprehensive plan, even though Austin Tomorrow was the comprehensive plan before Imagine Austin.


David King is the vice chairman of the city’s Small Area Planning Joint Committee, which he said was formed to figure out why Austin was so “behind the curve” in neighborhood planning. King blamed a lack of resources at the planning and zoning department.


Part of the committee’s role is to research what other cities are doing in small-area planning. As an example of best practices, King points to Seattle, where the planning areas are divided by council district, within which are individual neighborhoods. Seattle also has a separate department of neighborhoods that works with the planning and zoning department and the neighborhoods to draft and update neighborhood plans.


King said the existing plans need to be reconciled with Imagine Austin, but those changes need to occur as part of an involved process with the neighborhoods—not through the sole discretion of CodeNEXT planners.


“The plans shouldn’t be locked in time, but the process of amending them needs to be by the neighborhood working with the city. I think we can do that,” King said.



Moving forward


Although Rusthoven agreed that existing plans need updates and reconciliation with Imagine Austin, he said the planning and zoning department’s plate is full, and the lack of resources in the planning and zoning department keeps that from being an immediate priority.


“Council said we’re supposed to go back and update the plans every five years; we haven’t done it for a single one of them yet,” Rusthoven said. “Right now we’re working on the CodeNEXT process, and when we’re done we’re going to be looking at the new areas to map. I can’t tell you updating plans is the first thing we’re going to do after CodeNEXT because I don’t think it is.”


However, he said the city is learning from past mistakes and adapting its process. Rusthoven said neighborhood planning after CodeNEXT will be more deliberate and based on specific criteria—such as expected growth and areas near upcoming mobility bond projects—as opposed to the free-for-all, next-in-line strategy from before that gave the city its existing landscape of neighborhood plans.




Double vision: How neighborhood plans compare to CodeNEXT Although some have said CodeNEXT’s proposed zoning maps drastically change some neighborhood plans, others have criticized the code rewrite for its lack of aggression in rezoning the urban core areas to be more dense. Below are overviews—along with residents’ thoughts—of four neighborhoods with plans that have seen changes through CodeNEXT.[/caption]
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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