Austin mayor suggests scrapping CodeNEXT after years of work

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Council Members to ask city manager for new way to overhaul code

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After more than five years of work to create CodeNEXT to update Austin’s land development code, Mayor Steve Adler suggested Thursday that the city stop the process and try something new.

CodeNEXT is currently undergoing testing to see how it would impact developers and architects. The plan was to use that testing to make amendments to it. 

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the CodeNEXT process, so divisive and poisoned, will not get us to a better place,” Adler wrote in a city memo.

Adler suggests the city council cease the CodeNEXT process entirely, and ask City Manager Spencer Cronk to create a new process. “I’m not sure it is within our power and ability to right the current process,” he added.

Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar, Delia Garza, and Pio Renteria are submitting a resolution at next week’s council meeting to do just that: ask the city manager to direct them toward a new way to overhaul the code. 

A statement from the four council members called out what they saw as disinformation campaigns and confusion during the CodeNEXT process: “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.”

It appears that including these council members, the mayor, and Council Members Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter, there will be enough support to get a majority on this resolution to put the land use code in Cronk’s hands. 

Kitchen suggested she agrees with the mayor and also wants to entrust the process to the city manager.

She said in a statement, “The process has allowed anxiety and fear to grow by letting misunderstandings and mischaracterizations go unaddressed.”

Council Member Alter said she welcomes this support for ending the CodeNEXT process and said she’s willing to work with the city manager on a new way forward. 

“The current process has disheartened residents citywide, alienated many individuals, and undermined both civic discourse and faith in city government,” she notes

In a joint statement, Council Members Alter,  Leslie Pool, Ora Houston and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo say they appreciate that their fellow council members recognize “that CodeNEXT is flawed.”

They also said they want to find a community-driven path forward and want to see a public vote on any land development code revision.

Their statement has no mention of what role the city manager would play in this process but said, “regardless of where the City Council lands on this rewrite effort, the public will have their voices heard at City Hall.”

Flannigan explained that while he had been a supporter of CodeNEXT, he spent the last two months reading the entire draft and felt it was too unwieldy to actually produce the policy the city was hoping for.

“We spent four weeks in June spinning our wheels as a council, not finding an ability to move policies forward, it just became very clear that after a long process that included a complete change in our form of government, three different city managers, different staff leads on the project, the lead analytical data guy died halfway through it, it just felt like this is not something I can see a clear finish line on,” Flannigan said. “So we need to take a step back and think about how we’re actually gonna solve these problems, with good, future forward-thinking policy.”  

He noted that Austin’s land use code hasn’t been changed in 30 years, and he believes that lack of willingness to change has hurt the growing city. 

“What’s been really frustrating in this process is I don’t feel like everyone’s been on the same page about a willingness to solve these problems,” he said. 

Flannigan thinks that the work and research done for  CodeNEXT will likely be used to inform what the city does in the future. 

“I don’t imagine it should take another year,” Flannigan said. He said this re-booting of the code revision will allow the city to factor in updated data and flooding maps to better suit Austin. 

The city of Austin released a statement saying, “Staff is prepared to follow any Council direction.”

The previous at-large city council selected the CodeNEXT consultant in 2013, and the new city council decided to continue with the process the following year.

Adler said now the city needs to consider if it’s made a “wrong turn” in how it’s tried to go about changing the land development code, which has the potential to impact everything from traffic to how someone builds onto their house.

“The current process of rewriting our land development code is big, complicated, technical, and it’s largely misunderstood. The six-year process that got us to this point has had to deal with changes in city staff and leadership, the political landscape, our economy, technology, and our municipal governing systems and philosophy. Maybe we pushed too hard and too fast? Maybe we took too long? Regardless, our challenges remain and they are getting worse every day,” Adler wrote.

Most recently, CodeNEXT was the target of a lawsuit to try to get it on the ballot and let citizens decide whether or not Austinites should have a say in how the city approves future land development codes. A judge recently ruled in favor of that initiative requiring the city to place the ordinance on the ballot. 

Flannigan explained that this change will mean the initiative will still be on the ballot, but voters will not be voting on CodeNEXT, but rather whether a public vote would be required for future changes to the city’s land use code. 

City spokespeople have previously said to KXAN that they respect the judge’s decision on this vote but, “it leaves unresolved questions about whether zoning is an appropriate subject for election.”

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