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Zoning Austin, Texas: Land Development Code (CodeNext: The Sequel)

Dan

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Let's talk about the proposed Land Development Code in Austin.

code_next.jpg

Zoning reform in Austin has a long and tumultuous history, only part of which this article in Curbed describes. It's harder to follow than a Westworld binge. There's so much backstory, with so many twists and turns, that it would take all day for me to comprehend and compile everything, and turn it into some kind of timeline. This is a casual forum post, not a serious attempt at an article, so I'll try to summarize my understanding of what's been going on. I hope I have this right.
A question to those who might have been keeping up with the drama more than me: is there any substantive difference between the last draft of CodeNext, and what's being presented now? Considering that the draft doesn't have many illustration, why does it take up close to 1,400 pages? Does the new LDC implement the city's comp plan? Does it reform the planning process in any meaningful way?
 

Suburb Repairman

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Dan I've been keeping up with it... let me think about how I would frame my description of the CodeNext circumstances in a manner understandable to someone that hasn't been in the middle of it, with decades of knowledge about Austin's planning culture and especially the whole neighborhood association ceding of power. It really takes hours to tell the story of how Austin's code got the way it did, and then what happened with CodeNext.

There's a couple of good comparison documents that I'll track back down as well. Fundamentally, you're correct that it is an incredible feat of legalese. It is incredibly difficult to understand and navigate because they are trying to save way too many sacred cows. Also, they are uber-conservative on the legal side now, so they pucker-up anytime graphics-based regulations are suggested.

By the way, CodeNext just got zinged in a lawsuit over some due process issues with the amendment adoption. As an outsider, I think they were abusing the use of district equivalency tables to skirt around making separate map amendments.

CodeNext is better than their current code, but that is nothing more than damning with faint praise.

The damn thing is cursed.
 
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DVD

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Working for a bigger city now I better understand the difficulty of doing even a small code change. I could never see us do something as drastic as CodeNext, but I would love to see someone take our code section by section and just clean it up. Put it in plain english instead of the thou shalt crap and maybe organize it so even an idiot could under stand what we want. There is some crap in ours about side yard encroachments and a 10' clear area that kills me every time I read it. So I'll applaud Austin on at least attempting it, but I sometime think you have to take baby steps until you get to the goal.

In our case we have a now old New London overreaction where we can't do anything if there is a "perceived" loss of value. Which basically means anyone can sue as at any time over a code change. I think the lawyers have a way of getting around the small changes, but no new overlays or sweeping map changes.
 
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Suburb Repairman

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I'll say this... there is not a firm or group of firms that I respect LESS than those that were involved in CodeNext. Over $8M, and STILL not adopted. Major change can be accomplished in big cities, including Austin. You just have to know how to do it, know which battles to fight, and tell your story before someone else creates the narrative for you. And you cannot take shortcuts. CodeNext's problem began from the first meetings--I distinctly remember going to the first couple of meetings and walking out with one phrase on my lips: "uh oh."
 
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DVD

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Not saying it's impossible, just difficult. I believe Miami did it recently.
 

Suburb Repairman

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Alright I'm gonna take a stab at this...

I believe CodeNext could've been successful as a comprehensive change to development regulation. It could've been in the same sentences with progressive code-reform cities. But it takes the right ingredients, right methods and right circumstances. CodeNext may have missed on all three of those through errors.

A few thoughts initially:
  • Code Studio, to my knowledge, did not pursue the Austin project. There is such a thing as "too local," and Lee may have viewed it (somewhat rightfully) as a poison project. I"ve never asked him about it. Lee is strategic about what Code Studio goes after, and may have opted to position for another project elsewhere with better odds of success or simply viewed Austin as too much a risk to his sterling reputation. Our firm discussed partnering with him to pursue the project, but ultimately decided not to go for it (for the same reasons I mentioned for Lee). I was not at the firm yet obviously.
  • Opticos was not the choice of firm by staff. They wanted Clarion, and I believe Clarion was the better choice. Unfortunately, Clarion had a subconsultant that was a poison-pill. Opticos has a fine reputation and they do great work. I think they were a bad cultural fit. All firms made a major mistake of not including one of a couple of premier Texas firms in code writing on their teams (I work for one of them). It is also possible that those two firms refused to touch the project. Austin's reputation precedes it--a difficult place to plan and a rather notorious contract/procurement environment to work in.
    • For the record, I think Opticos is highly overrated and just has a talent for self-promotion. There are tons of smaller/lesser-known firms that do as good or better work.
  • The Planning Director in charge of writing the 1984 code is actually a pretty well-regarded code consultant in his own right; the firm he birthed is known for well-organized codes that are fairly in-line with your plain English mantra and use of graphics, tables & charts. His 1984 code was considered fairly progressive at the time... but we've made a lot of progress since then. The code also got amended to death. The problem is that he was also on the steering committee and the Zoning and Planning Commission. He eventually turned on the process and became a vocal opponent (and lit the fuse that caused CodeNext to die).
  • Austin has had incredibly high growth rates (151 people per day in the metro), but the city core is not very large. This has made the gentrification issue more pronounced. An interesting comparison is San Antonio. San Antonio has a huge core area by geography, so its redevelopment isn't resulting in the same displacement issues. Also, San Antonio's code does a better job of accommodating incremental change and densification. Austin's core is very urban now, and jumping into what were historically very stable neighborhoods. The catch is, those jumps are in the form of massive projects rather than incremental density increases. You'll see a SF home next to a six-story urban apartment building.
  • Austin's transit system is complete garbage. It is not a viable means of transportation. Bad headways. Bad connections. Bad experience in general.
The role of Paul Zucker gets downplayed. I have said that he is the only person to have escaped Austin with his reputation fully-intact.

Understanding the Austin culture:
  • Set the right frame for discussing Austin... it is fundamentally a very large college town and hippie headquarters. While it has since diversified, that funky mix of libertarian, socialist, academic, stoner populism pervades still (though most have been displaced due to affordability issues and tech-bros).
  • Austin believes it is weird and different from anywhere else in Texas. This causes it to look outside of Texas for inspiration more than it should. While it professes to be unique, in reality it is always seeking to emulate someone else that they perceive as cooler/hipper.
  • Austin has developed severe growth fatigue and drawbridge syndrome (I'm here now, lift the drawbridge behind me). What happens to good hippies? They inevitably become bad hippies and become the thing they fought against
  • Cheap older housing getting displaced by condos… no incrementalism… you’ll see multi-story condos go in right next to a house… then the land value of that house skyrockets and displaces the resident due to property tax… It is the only frame of reference on redevelopment Austinites are familiar with. That means that when it comes to missing middle, there is heavy skepticism and a steep learning curve. Breaking through that requires finese and cultural understanding.
  • Where density is being built, it is still hugely expensive on a per-unit basis compared to even recent history. This undermines the affordability narrative for densification (rightly or wrongly).
  • Enter Zucker... he roasted them in the 80s for "The Austin Way" of basically just sucking at development processes and general functioning. No one listens--they embrace the dysfunction as fulfilling their narrative of distrusting the government as well as viewing it as a path to curb growth.
  • Zucker comes back and eviscerates the department and City. Scathing by every measure and over 700 pages long. It is a manifesto in poorly run departments. This obliterates any trust/credibility for the department.

All of this means Austin has a severe allergy to comprehensive-rational policymaking and tends toward incremental change. Such change is often slow. Also, this description above also means Austin organizations & people in general are very prone to astroturfing.

So what the hell happened? Here's my breakdown:
  • Inexperienced staff and too many cooks in the kitchen (12 departments). There were 5 project managers at the city in five years.
  • In the 80s and early 90s, Austin effectively abdicated legislative authority to neighborhood associations and the Austin Neighborhoods Council. This fundamentally broke Austin, empowering NIMBYs.
    • This is important because they were largely ignored early in the CodeNext rewrite as Austin focused on trying to get new voices in the room. That's great, but you better not forget about those old voices. This is what I alluded to when I said "uh oh" in my prior post. I was struck by who was NOT in the room early on.
    • “Community Not Commodity” formed as a populist-appearing astroturf entity that hijacked the public process by going out into the community and historically-involved groups (like should have been done to start with); East Austin became hyper-organized, which had experienced the most displacement, and labeled CodeNext “systemic racism.” The Citizens Advisory Group and ANC asked for derivation and disposition tables to help identify proposed code changes, but staff refused. Volunteer architects filled this void. Not a great narrative, obviously.
  • When you don't create a narrative, one will get created for you. And you won't like it. That is exactly what happened.
  • During CodeNext, Austin transitioned from an at-large City Council to single-member districts. Ward politics ensued. I would argue timing was bad.
    • Divided City Council... "pro-density" and "pro-neighborhood" unable to come together even though there is no reason for them to be mutually exclusive
    • Before single-member districts, the Plan Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission was pro-density and pro-development... afterward, ZAP was pro-neighborhood. In May 2018, ZAP voted to terminate CodeNext. Some pro-density Council members tried to remove ZAP from the process... again, not a great narrative.
  • The Citizens Advisory Group was not used effectively. They couldn't get requested information and were not given adequate time to review the draft. It was disbanded early.
  • They hired a good consultant, but the consultant was either wrong for the job or poorly leveraged. It is notable that the background reports were excellent, which leads me to think the issue was City management. But I also believe Opticos may not have asserted themselves well when they saw things going off track.
  • CodeNext did not link its actions to the goals & objectives of ImagineAustin very well, or cherry-picked them.
    • fundamental contradictions in Imagine Austin… opened opportunity for “density vs. neighborhoods” narrative to emerge…
    • Took hits for continually emphasizing being "Market-driven." This allowed opposition to embrace "plan-driven" as the better alternative even if they didn't really mean it.
  • Poor process & product that was unnecessarily complex and difficult to understand.
    • First draft made terrible first impression, damaging credibility permanently
    • Should have been divided into bite-size modules, and deal with map and tech manuals after the text is adopted.
    • CodeNext was delivered as one massive draft ranging from 1,100 pages up to 1,600 pages. That doesn't follow any kind of best practice.
  • 2/3 of people that lived in Austin more than 35 years opposed… those less than 10 years were in favor by 2/3.
  • The work program was unrealistic. They tackled too much at once: the code text, maps and technical manuals were all being done at the same time (and not well-coordinated).
And let's talk about why the firms involved do not get respect from me: This project started with $2,000,000… then +$591,247 for Airport Blvd form code… then $1,065,215 for code and mobility plan… then $851,858 for work related to draft…. Then $1,627,200 for draft maps… then $2,275,000 for draft 3, maps and mobility. AND NOTHING TO SHOW. That's $8.5M, with no results. While it certainly isn't all their fault, a good chunk of it may be. I struggle to believe they actually took the money and feel good about their work.
 
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mendelman

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How can one justify $1.6 million to have a project manager and a couple GIS grunts redraw the zoning map(s)?

Is Austin 1,000 sq. miles?

No?

Hmmm.
 
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Planit

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The Planning Director in charge of writing the 1984 code is actually a pretty well-regarded code consultant in his own right; the firm he birthed is known for well-organized codes that are fairly in-line with your plain English mantra and use of graphics, tables & charts. His 1984 code was considered fairly progressive at the time... but we've made a lot of progress since then. The code also got amended to death. The problem is that he was also on the steering committee and the Zoning and Planning Commission. He eventually turned on the process and became a vocal opponent (and lit the fuse that caused CodeNext to die).

Jim Duncan?
 

DVD

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I see pieces of my city in this, but I also see where we are different (at least I hope to think we're different). We also have a different political environment and state laws that would make something like this nearly impossible.

The price tag is what's really killing me.
 
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Suburb Repairman

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Jim Duncan?
Yep. He's a good guy and a talented contributor to our profession, and his firm does solid work (he's retired... as much as any planner ever really retires). I think it is asking a lot though for someone to swallow the pride of authorship, but I feel he gave CodeNext an honest shake as long as he could. I do wish he had not become such a vocal critic--I feel like that hurt his reputation a little bit as he started to sound a bit curmudgeonly. The neighborhood associations are absolutely wrong and have gone full-NIMBY, but a different approach could have or would have made it more transparent and kept them from building momentum. Austin has an underlying racism in its neighborhood associations, and they are sophisticated enough to astroturf with other groups.

I see pieces of my city in this, but I also see where we are different (at least I hope to think we're different). We also have a different political environment and state laws that would make something like this nearly impossible.

The price tag is what's really killing me.
Austin is one of the only cities with this level of dysfunction--where it is almost intentional. You have to look at the Bay Area to see this same phenomenon to this level. They do have some great change agents, but they've got decades of scar tissue to remove. They probably won't get to make the changes themselves, but they'll be able to set things up for the next group of change agents.

I have BIG issues with the price tag. Maybe they have a different perspective, but I would not be comfortable taking that amount of money for the effort performed. The initial contract was probably about right to do the code--its the amendments and the resulting loss of focus.

I try to be cautious outright criticizing another firm, simply because I'm not privy to exactly what they experienced. But with what I do know, I would have taken a different approach.
 

Planit

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I had the pleasure of working with Jim about 10-12 years ago. Yes he is a good guy and enjoyed the collaboration, until he stepped away from the project and one of his contract code writers came in, who later was taken off the project because of the issues. Jim came in and tried to salvage it, but the electards said no and staff had to 'fix' things. Unknown to the electards, we worked in the back room with Jim to take care of everything.


Entire code rewrites are a very delicate matter. There are many people with unfounded concerns and simple initial distrust that things can go south quickly. On the project I worked on with Jim, the EDC Director was a massive pain which was surprising (along with the usual NIMBY suspects).
 
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