By Bill Oakey – June 26, 2014, Revised on June 27, 2014
I happened to notice a City Council Resolution on the agenda for the June 26th meeting. It pertained to a new partnership with ACC at Highland Mall. One clause caught my attention:
“WHEREAS, the redevelopment of the mall presents a unique opportunity for the City to partner with ACC to further workforce development opportunities and showcase the high quality development that a form-based code can foster.”
You’re Traveling To Another Dimension – Called CodeNEXT
I scratched my head, wondering what “form-based code” means. A Google search took me to the Austin Chronicle. They ran a story back in 2010 that addressed my question. You can read it here, “What Is Form-Based Code?” It turns out that it is part of CodeNEXT, the project to revise Austin’s Land Development Code.
If you’ve ever read Brian Greene’s excellent books on astrophysics or contemplated the existence of parallel universes, you will appreciate what is happening here on earth in the City of Austin. Let’s travel to another dimension, so you can peer into the “public realm” of form-based codes. Trust me, it matters if you plan to stay in Austin.
First I’ll give you a snippet of the technical B.S. Then I’ll tell you what it really means. Here’s how the Chronicle article introduces it:
“Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, form-based codes are not merely advisory; they are adopted into city or county law as regulations. Form-based codes can be mandatory or optional/parallel.”
Now, What In The Heck Does All That Mean?
CodeNEXT is a plan is to effectively do away with old fashioned things like neighborhood zoning and building use restrictions. Those are too complex and burdensome. Now that Austin has become a “destination city,” we shouldn’t live in houses on blocks in neighborhoods. Instead, we should be divided into “corridors,” “nodes” and “transit hubs.” While this may work for designing certain sectors of undeveloped land, it should not be imposed on existing neighborhoods against their will.
That laid back tree-lined street that you used to live on may be transformed by the time you wake up in the morning. You won’t have to worry about a McMansion going in next door. It will be a McBuilding. With cute little choreographed shrubs and “trendy” expensive shops on the ground floor. You will be invited to an open house. If you move in, they might even let you keep your pets. In fact, the place I visited recently on East Riverside requires DNA testing for dogs. So, if you find dog poop on your doorstep, the management will tell you who you can sue.
All of this is easier to understand if you think in terms of a Stephen King novel. Austin has been taken over by a “presence” that most of you will never see. The outsiders are dressed like humans and they identify themselves with the earth-like term “consultants.” If you as an ordinary citizen walk into a room where the “presence” is in charge, you will learn. You will adapt. And, according to the Grand Plan, you will eventually become one of them. You will conform. This actually may be closer to George Orwell than Stephen King, but you get the picture.
For one more direct hit on what form-based coding is all about, this sums it up chillingly:
“A comprehensive planning process that uses codes to integrate the built environment into larger economic development strategies.”
What Is “Next” for You and Your Neighborhood?
You can go check out the CodeNEXT site here. The “Listening to the Community Report” artfully speaks in the reverse. You will see page after page of the same phrases, but not a single hint of public suggestions, public comments, or even any summaries of public likes and dislikes of any of the concepts mentioned. There is a long roster of consultants and assorted private firms listed in these reports. The City’s website lists 11 members of an advisory group that is working with these firms as part of CodeNEXT. But nowhere will you find the backgrounds of the advisory group members, who they work for, or who appointed them.
This is most likely another consultant-driven process with pre-ordained results. The level of trust that we can reasonably expect from it can be measured by the voting history of the City Council majority. As a worst-case scenario, think about where Austin’s leadership is pointing the city. Just think density. Density. And density. They want you go to bed as a home-grown Austinite, but wake up in the same body as a “new urbanist.” You might want to check the bushes by your bedroom window for a giant, eerie looking seed pod. (You can rent “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” from Netflix).
We need to stay awake and wake up our neighbors, before it is too late. Talk to the new Council candidates and warn them that they too could be “next.”
Nix CodeNEXT Before It Nixes Us!