How urbanists are making progress on CodeNEXT

Urbanists had a pretty good night at the Planning Commission on Monday. I chronicled some of the more important votes that took place throughout eight-hour meeting (I was there the whole damn time) for the Monitor. This one pretty much summed it up:

The division was most visible over a motion proposed by Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart to set aside all proposed amendments that would increase the minimum lot size, reduce the number of units allowed on a lot, decrease allowable height, increase parking requirements or otherwise run against a series of zoning recommendations that the Obama administration unveiled in 2016 aimed at encouraging economic integration and housing affordability.

“Those are five principles that I’d like to go ahead and vote on,” said Hart.

Commissioner Karen McGraw was incredulous: “We can only vote to make the code looser now?”

Hart later told the Austin Monitor that she wanted to set aside discussion of those amendments until the very end of the CodeNEXT discussion, but that she recognized that Chair Stephen Oliver, a swing vote, would only support setting them aside until the end of the discussion on that chapter of the code.

Hart’s motion passed 7-6, with Oliver and commissioners Greg Anderson, Fayez Kazi, James Schissler, Conor Kenny and Jeffrey Thompson joining Hart in support, while McGraw and commissioners James Shieh, Trinity White, Todd Shaw, Patricia Seeger and Tom Nuckols voted against.

Technically, what the Planning Commission does on CodeNEXT doesn’t matter. Although PC, unlike most other city commissions, has certain duties that are actually enshrined in state law, the great majority of what it does is merely a recommendation to City Council, not a final decision. That’s definitely the case when it comes to CodeNEXT.


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Conor Kenny and others pushed through a bunch of urbanist recommendations.

So why are so many people eagerly watching as the Planning Commission churns through amendments to CodeNEXT? At the risk of engaging in some political process punditry…here are my thoughts on why it matters.

Simply put, people want their side to win as much ground as possible now so that they have less fighting to do when Council gets to work.

Urbanists will feel a lot better about their chances of pushing through meaningful land use reform if it’s the neighborhood bloc (Tovo, Pool, Alter, Houston) that is trying to reduce density, rather than the urbanist bloc (Casar, Garza, Renteria, Flannigan) trying to increase it.

Why? Because the moderates on the dais –– Ann Kitchen and Mayor Steve Adler –– will likely feel more comfortable supporting a recommendation that is already in front of them. It’s the status quo bias (even if in this case the recommendation is actually changing the status quo).

(On a side note, Ellen Troxclair, who is currently on maternity leave, will most likely support the urbanist bloc on increasing density through increased entitlements, but she likely won’t be a fan of some of the attempts to encourage cheaper housing, such as through the recently unveiled “anti-McMansion ordinance,” which she will view as an unnecessary restriction of the market.)

The progress that urbanists are making at PC will likely have an even greater impact on the Council debate due to the fact that the neighborhood-dominated Zoning and Platting Commission essentially chose to remove itself from the debate by simply recommending that Council give up on CodeNEXT. That’s definitely not a recommendation that Adler is going to heed and I doubt Kitchen is interested in it either. If ZAP had come up with a comprehensive list of recommendations to match PC’s, then Council would be presented with two competing recommendations to work from, and Adler and Kitchen would likely feel more pressure to embrace some parts of both.

All of this being said, urbanists only have a one-vote majority on Planning Commission and that majority is not rock-solid, since Chair Steve Oliver will sometimes vote the other way. As a result, the recommendation that PC produces will likely fall short of what most urbanists would like to see happen in Austin.

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