It’s far from clear how the gains made by urbanists in last year’s election will translate into policy. I have no idea what City Manager Spencer Cronk, who Council ordered to develop a new code proposal and process, is going to offer. The expectation is that he will present something in February or March, but that’s not clear either.
Those who are in favor of land use reform are likely heartened by the fact that Cronk put assigned Development Services Director Rodney Gonzales to oversee issues related to affordability and economic opportunity as an assistant city manager. Presumably, that will put him in an important role in the process of crafting a code aimed at making housing more affordable in the city. What urbanists want is somebody to counter the influence of Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey, who oversaw the watering down of CodeNEXT to the point where the final draft barely amounted to a reform of the current land use rules.
Similarly, it’s not at all clear what City Council is willing to support. While there are four or five members who appear eager to support significant change (Casar, Garza, Renteria, Flannigan, Harper-Madison), it’s not clear how bold the two moderates, Adler and Kitchen, are willing to go. New Council Member Paige Ellis is also a wild card: she has emphasized support for increased density, but that could mean a lot of different things. The same goes for Adler. He has talked a lot about voters rejecting the “status quo” voices in November, but it’s hardly apparent what progress he envisions on land use.
An ambitious plan would look something like the comprehensive plan implemented in Minneapolis. That plan eliminates single-family zoning entirely. Triplexes will be allowed on every lot.
The Minneapolis plan is what Austin urbanists dream of achieving here, but it’s highly unlikely. Most likely any zoning changes Council approves will be far more modest. But how much more modest? Has the mayor learned from his landslide victory and the failure of Prop J that the Austin Neighborhoods Council is not the tiger it used to be? Is he willing to accept that meaningful reform will probably be “divisive”?
If Cronk offers up a plan that basically keeps the status quo in place but allows some tiny reform ––accessory dwelling units on every lot –– the mayor and a couple others on Council may be tempted to embrace it as “reform” and pass it. That’s what reform advocates should fear. And what neighborhood preservationists should hope for.
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