Austin may get denser without CodeNEXT


It’s hard not to interpret Mayor Steve Adler’s announced surrender on CodeNEXT as anything but an unmitigated failure for the Council majority’s aspirations of a more compact, connected and integrated community.

On its face, the mayor’s message announcing his idea to abandon CodeNEXT doesn’t make any sense. He bemoans the “misinformation, hyperbole, fear mongering and divisive rhetoric” surrounding the process but then seems to concede victory to the misinformers. He then seems to suggest that by starting a new process, those who torpedoed the previous process won’t be as effective the next time around.

For a national analogy, do you really believe that if Obama had surrendered on Obamacare that there could have been another health care bill that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would have accepted?

Obamacare and CodeNEXT are similar political tragedies. Neither were in fact radical overhauls, but they were cast as such by their opponents, who largely appealed to the fears of older people who have a (relatively) good deal under the current system, be that Medicare or a single-family home in Central Austin.

The key difference, of course, was that Obama actually believed in Obamacare. It’s not clear what Adler believed about CodeNEXT, except that he desperately and naively wanted to achieve a “consensus” that his opponents were not interested in seeking.

In recent weeks I’ve remarked to a number of people that most of the goals of CodeNEXT could have been much more easily realized if the city simply hadn’t made such a big deal out of it. Many of the biggest zoning changes could have simply been achieved through relatively discrete code amendments. The usual cast of neighborhood activists would have come down to oppose them –– just like they opposed the accessory dwelling unit (garage apartment) reform in 2015 –– but there would have been at least 7 votes to approve them.

As for the technical parts of the code –– the stuff that regular people don’t notice or care about –– that could have been overhauled separately and probably with relatively little controversy. In fact, my sense is that it is commonplace when cities overhaul their codes to do the zoning and technical parts separately.

But for some reason we decided to try to swallow the whole elephant in one bite. And by one bite I mean Austin-style, so six years of public engagement/task forces/consultants/boards and commissions. The first draft of the code, which was released in spring of 2017, included many of the principles that the process was supposed to achieve (more housing, compact & connected, blah blah blah). But in response to neighborhood association opposition, the consultants and staff steadily watered down the product in the two subsequent drafts, leaving it up to the Planning Commission and Council to add meaningful reforms.

The problem was, Council, specifically Adler, had already let the process drag on for so long that election season was already underway by the time Council took up CodeNEXT. Adler didn’t want to do anything controversial and Kitchen wanted to make sure that her candidacy remained unopposed.  Renteria, facing a well-funded opponent backed by neighborhood preservationists, may have also been getting a little nervous.

The next problem, of course, was the petition. I’m pretty sure that Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen –– the other moderate when it comes to development –– were not expecting a judge to side with the anti-CodeNEXT folks. And frankly, it’s not clear that their expectation was wrong. But they also put themselves in a box by saying that they wouldn’t appeal a decision if a judge ruled in favor of the petition. Now you have a decision (or lack thereof) that has many legal observers scratching their heads, but Adler and Kitchen don’t want to take another swing at keeping the matter off the ballot.

I think Adler finally decided that his efforts would be better-spent running his re-election campaign alongside the $250 million housing bond that is on the ballot and taking the CodeNEXT issue away from Laura Morrison and preservationist candidates in District 3 and District 8.

What must be monumentally frustrating to Adler, the lawyer, is that he knows that it’s very likely that a judge would have ultimately ruled that CodeNEXT –– at least its zoning portions –– could not be subjected to a citizen initiative. But the process of getting that ruling might have been very painful politically.

From a policy perspective, it makes sense to do a comprehensive code re-write every once in a while. But politically, more discrete routes that do not lend themselves to yard signs and petitions might be more effective at actually accomplishing the goals.

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