On August 9, 2018, members of the Austin City Council voted unanimously to scrap CodeNEXT, the city’s $8.5M, six-year attempt to revise the Land Development Code, the document that determines future land use within Austin city limits.
Complaining that “something has gone horribly wrong,” Mayor Steven Adler called for a reset on the initiative citing misinformation over proposed changes to the code. Adler was referring to an intense public interest campaign against CodeNEXT that led residents, particularly those from Austin’s older and established neighborhoods, to become fearful that CodeNEXT’s proposed changes would destroy the character of the city.
It now falls on the new city manager, Spencer Cronk, to start the expensive, politically-charged process all over again.
Austin has experienced rapid growth over the last two decades. According to the most recent census figures, the city had the 12th largest growth in the nation, adding 12,515 people between 2016 and 2017. Overall, it is the eleventh largest city in the United States.
Though this figure may seem impressive, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas are currently outpacing Austin, and the number of people moving to the city is at the lowest since 2011. The main reason for the disparity is that suburbs like Pflugerville, Cedar Park, and Georgetown to the north, and New Braunfels to the south, are all growing at a faster rate than Austin. According to demographer Ryan Robinson, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman, “This is the inevitable result of extremely expensive land prices in the city and much more affordable land prices outside of the city.”
Revisions to the 34-year-old Land Development Code are desperately needed to address the issue of affordability as well as another thorny issue, one only intensified by continued suburban growth — the impact of sprawl and traffic on quality of life. CodeNEXT sought to rectify both these issues, by incentivizing affordable housing for residents displaced by rising property taxes through the creation of denser urban corridors to promote the development of mixed-use communities where residents could work, live, and play.
What Went Wrong?
Resolution 111, the document that officially put an end to CodeNEXT, cites “significant disruptions” to the process of implementing the controversial initiative, including changes in political leadership and adoption of the Strategic Housing Blueprint and Strategic Direction 2023 Plan.
However, it appears that the most significant challenge to CodeNEXT was “confusion” and “lack of confidence” in the proposed code changes. Residents felt that CodeNEXT would allow for unlimited commercial development in residential neighborhoods and fuel higher property taxes — exactly what the initiative was seeking to avoid.
Public outcry against CodeNEXT appeared to take on a life of its own — despite the fact that many residents did not seem to understand what the initiative would do for urban development.
A good example of the disconnect was the eleventh hour treatise released by a group of 17 creative businesses and non-profits, who sought to promote CodeNEXT by clarifying how the initiative could help artists and musicians, including a clarification of “live performance” use and incentives offered to new developments that would incorporate affordable creative spaces on the ground floor of their buildings.
The group published their treatise only after they realized how many creatives were against CodeNEXT, thinking it would hurt them — despite language and provisions that would, in fact, have made it easier for artists and musicians to afford to do business in the city.
The Lesson Moving Forward
How could something like Austin’s CodeNEXT disaster be avoided?
In retrospect, it’s clear that the main problem was the lack of a clear narrative about the kind of city Austin wants to be moving forward. Interest groups, especially neighborhood associations and their advocates, were swept into the vacuum left by competing interpretations of the code and pushed into warring silos of interest.
If new changes to the Land Development Code are to succeed in Austin, consultants and city officials must come together with a unified plan that emphasizes how the proposed changes will positively impact quality of life in the city. Many Austin residents currently feel trapped in their neighborhoods, and they are fearful of rising property taxes or characterless development in historic neighborhoods. It is crucial that their concerns be taken into consideration at the onset rather than letting the rumor mill take on a life of its own.
Most long-time Austin residents recognize that rapid growth has impacted many of the things they used to love about the city. A positive story of renewal and rejuvenation would go far to unite the city.