SOCA: CodeNEXT & the Austin Bargain

There’s no rule that says we have to keep having the same planning and zoning fights over and over again.

(Actually, for all we know, there really might be such a rule in the land development code. I mean no one can be completely sure what’s in it.)

This year, we will rewrite our land development code. There are going to be few things, if any, that are as important as this project.

It is also critical that we change the land use code in the Austin way.
CodeNEXT, the name we’ve given to the land development code re-write process, is a huge opportunity for our community.

On Wednesday, just four days from now and after a two year wait, everyone is invited to see the first draft of the new land use code at the Palmer Events Center.

What happens on Wednesday is important.

And so is how we as a community react and engage. Will our community use this wonderful opportunity to pull together to get this right? Or will we listen to those voices that try to avoid consensus by talking up and even creating conflicts? There will be some people who will raise objections about anything, even the number of pages or the color of the cover.

I want to propose a different way – one that embraces the opportunity to do change as well as Austin has ever done it – and to do it together, aiming for a resolution where we all win.

In rewriting our land development code, I’d like to propose we treat each other like we’re on the same team. We can all win if we achieve two goals: (1) protect our neighborhoods, and (2) deliver the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable.

How do we do both? Maybe it makes sense to agree on a compromise up front. Let’s call it the “Austin Bargain,” an agreement that protects all of us from our worst fears so the community as a whole can achieve the best possible outcome.

For starters, let’s agree we will not force density in the middle of neighborhoods. There’s no sense in shoving density where it would ruin the character of the city we’re trying to save in the first place, where it’s not wanted by its neighbors, and where we would never get enough of the additional housing supply we need anyway.
And in exchange, let’s also agree that we will adopt a code rewrite that will give us the housing supply we need by focusing along our major corridors like Lamar, Burnet, and Airport Boulevard and our major activity centers like the area around the Domain, Mueller, and downtown.

That will enable the mixed-income housing supply that creates opportunities for more Austinites to stay in Austin, and also to give us the concentration we need to make transit work.

Sure, we’ll need to make hard decisions in the transition areas between corridors, centers, and our neighborhoods, but an Austin Bargain would mean that we would begin the code revision process with agreement on as many as 95% of all properties in the city. What a great way to start.

I would also urge that neighborhoods be given significant influence in deciding how these transition areas are done in those neighborhoods, so long as each accommodates an appropriate share of the city’s needed housing supply.

A land use code that makes sense for everyone could mean we won’t have to hash out practically every tough zoning case in this room, some until three in the morning. To me and my family, that alone would make this worth the trouble.

A land use code that makes sense for everyone means that we begin to learn that managing growth depends upon cooperation instead of mutually assured distraction.
If we can make the new land use code a reflection of our values, in 20 years when our regional population has doubled yet again, as it is predicted to do and has always done, someone can return here and still find the character of Austin. Now that would be change the Austin way.

Wednesday’s just a starting point. And we get to choose if we’re going to engage each other constructively or waste our time making pot shots from political bunkers.
We know what happens if we spend our time fighting. We’ll end up with more traffic, higher rents and taxes, endangered neighborhoods, and turbo-charged gentrification. The Do Nothing forces will destroy us. If we insist upon the fallacy that we can stand in the way of change, we are guaranteed to lose our city to increased displacement and inequality, higher prices and worse traffic.

But here’s the payoff: If we work together, we can reach a consensus on how to manage growth. We’ll have agreement on where we want to add housing – and where we don’t – on what kind of housing is appropriate in different places. If we do this right, the code re-write will help us increase mobility, hold down housing prices, protect the character of our neighborhoods and address gentrification in an equitable manner. That’s the kind of change Austin will take any way, any time, any day.