Austin Presses Pause on Zoning Update, Citing Divisive and Poisoned Process

Austin, Texas (Photo by Stuart Seeger) 

California and Texas may not have a lot in common culturally or ideologically, but they do have at least one striking similarity where city planning is concerned: Nothing flares tempers like the word “density.”

Now, following the death of SB 827 in California, the land-use lightning rod has claimed another victim: Austin’s CodeNext, which is now, as the Austin American-Statesman so eloquently puts it, Code Nixed.

CodeNext, as Next City covered last year, was an ambitious zoning overhaul that managed to make just about everyone mad.

“Neighborhood preservationists, like the Austin Neighborhoods Council, worry the new code will dramatically increase density in residential neighborhoods,” Jen Kinney wrote for Next City last June. “Urbanist groups like AURA think the plan doesn’t go far enough in addressing the city’s affordability crisis.”

And things apparently haven’t improved since then. Although he originally called on all parties concerned to “chill out,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler on Wednesday took to the City Council’s online message board to compose a 1,500-word post on why the zoning rewrite should be halted.

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

The city has spent around $8 million paying a consultant and subcontractors to develop three drafts of rules and zoning maps, the Austin American-Statesman reports. The mayor is now calling for City Manager Spencer Cronk to lead the next round of rezoning efforts, but according to the paper, it’s unclear what form those might take.

“We need to assess where we are and task City Manager Cronk with evaluating all the good we have gotten from all the work done thus far, and then recommending a new process that builds on the lessons learned from what we’ve done, both good and bad,” Adler wrote.

As Kinney covered last year, Austin’s current code is complex and difficult to navigate, even for something as small as adding a porch on a single-family home. With an affordability crisis in the works and no strong public transportation backbone, the city is trying to move toward smart growth and multimodal transit. But urbanist groups worried that the plan miscategorized some areas, meaning they wouldn’t get the denser housing they needed.

For now, efforts will continue, however fruitlessly. A city spokeswoman told the Austin American-Statesman Wednesday that the city will continue work on CodeNext until ordered to stop.

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