Tag Archives: CodeNEXT

Let’s Bring AISD Into the CodeNext Process – To Avoid An “Affordability Perfect Storm”

By Bill Oakey, January 22, 2018

The following is an email that I sent this morning to Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and City Council Member Alison Alter:

Hello Mayor Pro Tem Tovo & CM Alter:

At a meeting about affordability issues at AISD last week, I offered to try to help bring AISD and City officials closer together on CodeNext. So, let me introduce all of you in this email to Beth Wilson, AISD’s Director of Planning Services. I am also sending this email to Nicole Conley Johnson, Chief Financial Officer for AISD and her Executive Assistant, Amanda Ortiz.

It is my understanding that AISD would like to have much greater access to the CodeNext revision process, and to have their concerns addressed fully before the final draft is completed.

As an affordability and taxpayer advocate, I believe that CodeNext should be structured in a way that would allow families with children to remain in their homes. And new development in many existing neighborhoods should be affordable for families with children. In recent years, too many families have been forced to leave AISD because of high property taxes and gentrification.

We can see the devastating results reflected in AISD’s annual student enrollment drops. To add insult to injury, AISD is projected to send $2.6 billion in local tax revenue back to the State over the next five years, under the “Robin Hood” school finance system. This toxic combination of factors could result in an “affordability perfect storm” for AISD and Central Texas taxpayers.

Therefore, I strongly recommend that the City work closely with AISD to ensure that the CodeNext process not only includes full participation by AISD, but also implements code policies that reflect their concerns.

Thank you for any help you can provide to facilitate the engagement between the City and AISD. Below is an American-Statesman editorial that focuses on the importance of this collaboration:
Viewpoints: City should not overlook Austin ISD in CodeNext talks
By Editorial Board
Posted: 10:07 a.m. Friday, November 24, 2017

“We need a seat at the table.”

That is the message the Austin Independent School District is sending to the city of Austin with a proposed resolution regarding CodeNext that trustees are expected to approve Monday.

A firm statement outlining the district’s position on CodeNext is needed because city officials thus far have overlooked – if not ignored — Austin ISD’s input and concerns, though the district has a huge stake in the rewrite of city zoning and land-use rules, said Kendall Pace, president of the school board.

Consider that Austin ISD is one of the city’s largest property owners with 145 facilities. Its boundaries encompass 230 square miles, said chief financial officer Nicole Conley Johnson. That’s about three-fourths the size of New York City, about 305 square miles. With 11,500 employees, the district also is one of the region’s largest employers.

Austin ISD’s interests, however, go beyond property and employment issues. They include families. At this point, the district is losing families and students because of massive redevelopment in core neighborhoods — mostly in East Austin — that is displacing lower-income families with kids to make way for higher-income families with fewer or no children.

Even as Austin’s population is growing, the district’s enrollment, now at 82,000, is declining. Austin ISD administrators and trustees worry that without key changes to CodeNext, those trends will accelerate.

“Displacement of families living in those core Austin neighborhoods – and not competition from charter or private schools – is the primary driver for our enrollment declines,” Conley Johnson said.

Pace, Conley and others said they’ve tried to get a coordinated planning effort going with the city, but have been ping-ponged around different offices without progress.

That back-and-forth bureaucracy prompted Austin ISD officials to take a more public, forceful approach with something in writing they aim to back with a vote in hopes of grabbing the city’s attention: a resolution that mostly is centered around stabilizing enrollment declines by holding on to and creating more affordable housing.

Specifically, the resolution emphasizes the need for CodeNext to create more duplexes, townhomes, apartments and additional dwelling units that are affordable for families earning 60 percent or less of Austin’s median family income and housing for teachers and staff.

It also calls for limits on up-zoning that doesn’t help lower-income families, especially in areas affected by gentrification, such as East Austin.

Another request encourages the preservation of older-market, affordable, single-family detached homes, duplexes and multi-unit apartments by not increasing entitlements on existing properties without a clear affordability requirement.

The resolution calls for an expansion of incentives, such as density bonuses that permit developers to build taller or with greater density in exchange for benefits, such as affordable housing. But they should be combined with other incentives or funding to create permanently affordable housing instead of studio or one-bedroom apartments.

It’s worth noting that more than half Austin ISD students are economically disadvantaged. Their families depend on “deeply affordable” or subsidized housing. The resolution points out that most new housing units that are being built are small, expensive apartments and condos that aren’t family friendly. It notes that just 46 children were enrolled in Austin ISD in 6,895 new units that were sampled.

The district’s resolution also objects to CodeNext’s reductions for onsite parking in residential and commercial areas near schools, which they say could create safety problems for students and hinder access to school grounds.

In our view, those are legitimate concerns that should be addressed by the city sooner rather than later. The city’s lack of response so far only gives credence to critics who complain that the CodeNext rewrite is too heavily dominated by a narrow group of city staffers and paid consultants.

With so many unanswered questions regarding CodeNext, which would determine the city’s physical and economic makeup for decades to come, we recently called for a pause so the city could answer residents’ concerns. Following that, the city announced it would slow down the release of a third draft of CodeNext and perhaps push back its April deadline for approval.

That is progress. But the city must do more in ensuring that Austin residents understand how CodeNext – contained in more than 1,300 pages — would impact their communities, then seek their input on revising proposals that don’t address Austin’s affordability crisis, economic segregation and the displacement of families leaving Austin ISD because they no longer can afford the rent, mortgage or property taxes.

They should answer concerns of others, who point out that Austin needs more so-called missing-middle housing for the thousands of people flocking to Austin each year. Questions linger about how CodeNext would address Austin’s growing traffic congestion. Over the next decade, the city will need about 130,000 homes to fill Austin’s housing needs, city officials have said.

We understand that density, which allows more to be built on less land, is a way to address such challenges. But up-zoning for the sake of generating more housing — without an eye on whether that would worsen the housing crisis for working and low-income families, further segregate the city, or accelerate enrollment declines in public schools — could prove disastrous.

“We need a seat at the table,” Pace told us in explaining the need for the resolution. “We want input.”

The city should waste no time in making room for Austin ISD at the CodeNext discussion.


Three Words To Improve Austin Traffic – Hard Capacity Caps

By Bill Oakey – January 26, 2017

Traffic congestion and affordability go hand in hand, because building and improving roads is very expensive. Many Austerities swallowed hard when they voted “Yes” on last November’s whopping $720 mobility bond proposition. It was an audacious and very precarious leap of faith that all that money would indeed lead to meaningful traffic relief.

There were many skeptics on that question, myself included. Not all of the skeptics voiced outright opposition to the bonds, but there were wide-ranging fears that betrayed their silence. The heart of the mobility bond package was the so-called “corridor improvement plans.” These plans have been on the books for several years, and the complete picture of their purpose may not be clear to everyone in Austin.

But make no mistake about it. The corridor plans are geared much more heavily to growth enhancement prerogatives than to traffic relief for existing residents. These plans, their direction and their outcomes were crafted and influenced from beginning to end by major development interests. So, if you like your friendly neighborhood pet shops, bakeries and local handmade craft shops, be prepared to see many of them bulldozed and replaced by mountain-sized resort-style apartment “communities.”

You will be free to sell your comfortable home on its quiet tree-lined street and move into one of those ugly, imposing structures. That is, if you are wiling to write a check every month to an out-of-state landlord for anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500. It is all rent with no equity, but you will have your very own protected bike lane to ride 7 miles  to and from work in the 105 degree summer heat. The nearby homeowners who pass you in their cars will be saddened to see their property values continue to skyrocket because of the luxury accommodations that have encroached upon them.

Setting the Stage for a Series of Traffic Nightmares

People need to know that the implementation of the corridor plans is directly linked to the policy prescriptions in the ongoing CodeNext discussions. You can be sure that every developer from Austin to Boston, to New York to Dubai, and everywhere in between has been having wet dreams about every square inch of land along Austin’s roadway corridors. Knocking down those charming little shops with a lifetime of memories for Austin residents promises a whole generation of new developer profits. Step one will be the one to two-block long high rises. Step two will be the total gentrification and annihilation of existing single family areas. Each corridor and its adjoining neighborhood is already on some developer’s drawing board to become a trendy, utopian “complete community” that will be walkable and bike-able. But it will also be  ultra-luxurious, and frighteningly expensive

So, What’s Wrong With This Picture?

It’s the Traffic Impact!

Whenever a developer submits a plan for a new project, they are supposed to provide a “traffic impact analysis.” But have any of your friends ever seen a literal translation of one of those bureaucratic documents? Do they really have any real meaning or enforcement mechanisms attached to them? Undoubtedly not.

There is only one way to assure that a traffic impact analysis lends actual value to real people in real neighborhoods. And that would be for the City to determine a few simple things:

  1. How many vehicle trips per day can the roadway handle? That’s the road’s capacity.
  2. What is the current number of vehicle trips per day on that road?
  3. How many new vehicle trips per day will the proposed development generate?

If the City Transportation Department reviews those numbers and publishes them accurately and honestly, then the solution to traffic congestion becomes very simple. The developer cannot be granted more living units than the exact number that will avoid exceeding the roadway’s vehicle capacity. And how do we establish an enforcement policy along those lines? We ask the City to determine the “hard capacity caps” for each of the corridors, and simply not allow any developer to build anything that would generate traffic that exceeds those caps.

Transparency Is Key to Maintaining the Hard Capacity Caps

This is where CodeNext comes into play. It is absolutely critical that the time-honored phrase “traffic impact” when applied to the new development code be strictly and transparently defined and communicated to everyone. And it needs to be done with real numbers that are unambiguous. For example, if a roadway corridor is determined to have a capacity of X number of vehicles per day, then any proposed development must be required to generate not a single iota more traffic than that number.

Here’s the Bottom Line!

The Capacity Numbers for Each Corridor Must Be Published Online By the City. Along With the Current Number of Vehicles Per Day. And finally, Published Verification That Each Proposed Development Will Not Exceed That Capacity.


Firestorm Erupts Over 100,000 Housing Unit Target Issue

By Bill Oakey – August 4, 2015

The reaction to Monday’s posting on this topic has been swift and fierce. The same reaction fell upon Marty Toohey after his blog posting in the American-Statesman. Austin has indeed hit a tipping point that in some respects mirrors the national divide over wealth inequality and wage stagnation. Your viewpoint on a variety of issues depends on where you sit along the economic divide. Politics also enters the picture. Nationally speaking, I have made my position clear. I am an official Elizabeth Warren Person In Waiting.

As for the uproar over the affordability and sustainability of Austin’s current boom, I would just suggest this question to ponder, What comes after a reckless boom without any foresight or careful planning? Here in Austin, we have seen that movie more than once before. The crash at the end of the 1980’s sent many out of town landlords, well, back out of town for a pretty good while. And a great many of us were not sorry to see them go.

This blog welcomes a wholesome discussion from all points of view. See the comments below. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone else is entitled to agree or disagree. We should do so with passion, but in a polite and civil manner. In my view it is unduly harsh and insensitive to sacrifice a community of several hundred thousand people for the benefit of an encroaching wealthy class. To not expect the citizens who have invested decades of their lives in their community to fight for their homes and their neighborhoods is unrealistic, at the very least. Yes, gentrification can be a natural consequence of “free market forces” or “supply and demand.” But in a democracy, we govern ourselves. We get to decide how we want to interact with our elected officials. And what values we want our elected officials to incorporate into their policies.

We certainly need new housing, and of course we cannot call a halt to all growth. That has never been my argument. The challenge and the controversy involves how to incorporate new housing into the planning process. We need to find some way to allow existing neighborhoods to thrive and co-exist with new housing. The CodeNEXT rewrite of the land development code should complement rather than replace current neighborhood master plans. Developers are pushing hard to build housing with little or no zoning regulations. The wrong kind of planning can lead to gentrification rather than preservation of existing neighborhoods. Housing that is already affordable cannot be torn down and replaced in every corner of the City, if we want to be fair and reasonable to longtime residents. We have seen an abundance of discussion on how and where to build new housing, and even how best to make that new housing affordable. But there is no official policy or planning effort directed toward preserving the existing affordable housing that has not yet been scraped off the lots.

Austin has historically seen battle lines drawn between developers and real estate interests versus neighborhood and environmental interests. We call ourselves a “progressive city” that welcomes diversity and embraces social justice and equality. However, we are not immune to the immense power of money and influence that infects all levels of government. I was both saddened and appalled to learn recently about yet another City ordinance that passed two years ago and then fell into a black hole. In 2012 there was a public outcry after a balcony collapsed at a low-income apartment complex. Investigative reports from the Statesman revealed that Austin had one of the poorest sets of policies and enforcement to help this class of vulnerable residents. The landlords got away with shabby conditions and disrepair year after year. So, the City Council wrote a tougher ordinance and demanded action on enforcement from the City Manager. But guess what…Here we are two years later, and the new ordinance is not being enforced.

Another hot button issue is short-term rentals. Here again, peaceful neighborhoods with hard working residents ate being disrupted by rude, late-night partiers who could care less about anyone else around them. And the  “entrepreneurs” who own the commercial short-term rental properties often get by without proper registration and with wildly excessive occupancy levels at their party-pads. We could just back off and say, “Let the free market rule.” But what kind of “freedom” would that leave for the neighborhood folks who are stuck with the noise and the parking issues. One part of this problem could be solved easily. The City should require that a valid license number be included in every website, blog, social media and print ad listing. But I can only imagine a bitter battle with the special interests over such a simple and logical suggestion.

I will end back where I started by mentioning that Austin is at a tipping point. We simply cannot afford to continue on a path that puts growth for the sake of growth ahead of common-sense planning. Choices will need to be made that will determine whether an “Austin for Everyone” means truly everyone, or just the outsiders without regard to what happens to current residents and their neighborhoods.

One final thought. Whether Austin can defy gravity and keep booming forever depends on its capacity to sustain the costs of the boom. This may sound like a wild idea, but we could…just maybe…consider adding up the total cost of all the plans that Austin, Travis County, CAMPO, Central Health and the other entities have already approved. Then, simply measure that total cost against the taxpayers’ likely ability to absorb it. There isn’t a private business or corporation of any size that would dare embark on an unbridled expansion without careful planning with cost projections and analysis. Cities, on the other hand, are more apt to march their citizens to the edge of a cliff. Before someone finally shouts, “Hey look, we might have a problem here!” Then after the crash, the leaders all sigh and say, “Gee, it’s not our fault. None of us ever saw it coming.”

Top Neighborhood Leader Files CodeNEXT-Related Ethics Complaint

By Bill Oakey – July 25, 2014

Mary Ingle, President of the Austin Neighborhoods Council has filed a complaint with the City Ethics Review Commission over the alleged lobbyist status of a CodeNEXT Advisory Group appointee.  The Austin City Code bans lobbyists from serving on boards, commissions and citizen advisory panels.

Ms. Ingle’s primary concern is the fact that the Land Development Code Advisory Group is stacked with special interest members from the real estate and development community.  This is the group that is working with City staff and hired consultants on the CodeNEXT project, which will overhaul the established City Code provisions for land use planning and zoning. Neighborhood leaders are seriously concerned that CodeNEXT will be used to override hard-fought neighborhood protections from inappropriate development.

Implementing Code Revisions Before They Are Even Written

Without a doubt, anyone can see that elements of CodeNEXT are already creeping into certain areas of the City, even before the ink has time to dry on the preliminary stages of the code revision process.  In fact, the November bond proposition for urban rail pre-supposes that certain parts of town will be turned into CodeNEXT-styled corridors of massive multifamily “activity centers.”  So, not only was the output of the CodeNEXT consultant work pre-ordained before it started, but the imprint from the special interest “advisory group” can be viewed from anyone’s car window, bicycle or skateboard.  Or even from a Capital Metro rapid accordion bus.

Can We Limit Special Interest Representation on Advisory Panels?

When Mary Ingle emailed her press release to me last night, it triggered some old memories from 1985.  That was the year that I tried to get the City Council to adopt a Public Interest Protection Ordinance.  It would limit the number of special interest members on boards, commissions, and advisory panels.  Today I retrieved the old documents and a newspaper clipping form the Austin History Center.  This calls to mind another reform that was suggested in the old days, but never came to pass.  My hope is to revive it and bring it before the newly elected City Council next year.  I have a blog posting on it planned for next week.

Mary Ingle’s Press Release – Kudos to Her!


Austin, Texas

July 24, 2014

On July 24, Mary Ingle, who is president of the Austin Neighborhood s Council, filed on her own behalf an ethics complaint against a member of the City’s Land Development Code Advisory Group. The complaint alleges that Melissa Neslund is an unregistered lobbyist in violation of the City Code and that she is barred from serving on the Code Advisory Group that was created for citizen input on the current plan to revise the City’s Land Development Code.

“By filing this complaint, I am trying to signal what is symptomatically wrong with our City’s land planning and development process,” said Ingle. “The Land Development Code Advisory Committee was appointed by the City Council and City Manager. The composition of this group is almost exclusively from members of the real estate industry to the virtual exclusion of neighborhood advocates. Only one of the 11 members of the group can be characterized as speaking for neighborhood interests. Too many of the others either have financial ties to real estate industry or motives to please the City staff. I think that I can safely say that the real estate industry shares my lack of confidence in the Planning and Development Review Department. The bottom line is that this exclusionary group will produce undue, biased influence on the new code product. Undue influence of developer – financial interests can be linked to the root cause of many of our community’s problems.”

At a press conference today in East Austin, Ingle observed that older core neighborhoods are being radically transformed by profit – driven developers given almost a free hand by City staff to demolish existing affordable homes and replace them with less affordable structures not compatible with neighborhoods.

She said that higher property taxes are driving ordinary citizens to the suburbs. “We can do a better job than this,” she said. “The current process to revise our land development code is flawed. The data- gathering process is statistically invalid, an d those relative few people who have given input have been excluded from commenting on the data compilation. This is a bad start for a process that will affect the live s of generations of ordinary citizens”.

Ingle said that the complaint is not personal. “Our laws should be enforced, and an investigation of business relationships of other members of the Citizens Advisory Committee should commence.”

“It’s time for ordinary citizens to wake up,” she said. The Citizens Advisory Committee and City Staff are advocating sweeping changes in our neighborhoods, including possible radical zoning changes. Our Land Development Code needs updating, but not this way,” she said.

“We need to go back to the drawing board and get this right, “ Ingle concluded.

Imagine ONE Austin – Just Imagine!

By Bill Oakey – July 21, 2014

Imagine ONE Austin.  Just imagine.

No more weirdness, no more aging hippies or former flower children selling Armadillo music posters.  No more riffraff tax protestors fighting for their single family homes, quiet streets, and backyard barbecues.

Just one fully gentrified, hipster, “new urbanist” Austin.  With month-long festivals, loud all night parties and no parking anywhere.  For the rest of eternity.

But wait.  Instead of grumbling about losing the laid back, easy going, affordable Austin that we enjoyed for most of our lives, maybe it’s time to adjust our thinking. Maybe we should all join hands and embrace the changes.

So, let’s just imagine it.  Think of the pathway envisioned by the likes of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Project Connect, and Imagine ONE Austin. Here is a smattering of the news headlines that we can expect to see in the coming years.

January 2023 – Austin Installs Cloned City Council

Austin will begin the bright new year with a smooth transition to the new City Council.  The bold experiment to clone all seven members of the 2014 City Council and advance their ages to adulthood was a perfect laboratory success.

After eight tumultuous years with Council members elected from ten districts, America’s Chosen City will return to an era of orderly progress.  Last night, the Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin presided over the swearing in of the new Council.  Austin will soon be back in business with business as usual.

“I’m ready and eager to get back on track,” Mayor Bluffingwell announced.  “I’m grateful that the people listened and they voted exactly the way we told them to.  Everyone in the room today recognizes that our namesakes made Austin a booming city.  Now we can return to predictable 5-2 votes on every critical issue.”

June 2025 – Music Concerts Cancelled at Condominium Shores

As everyone expected since the renaming of the former Auditorium Shores, the City announced today that all remaining concerts there have been cancelled.  Dogs, frisbees and kites will also be permanently banned.  Leases for high-density development have been finalized for the last 100 acres of open space.  The new revenue from the leases will allow the City to reduce property tax increases from 10% down to 9.8% for most homeowners.

Beginning this September, ACL Fest will be held in the streets, along Congress Ave. from Lady Bird Lake to the Capitol, and along East Sixth Street from I-35 all the way to Lake Austin Boulevard west to Lake Austin.

March 2026 – City Adopts New Slogan, “Keep Austin Cleared”

Today marks the start of one of the most progressive initiatives ever undertaken in Austin.  The City Council has voted to have all trees removed from the City.  The planning consultants and staff advisers have determined that trees are a serious impediment to high rises and multifamily developments.  The new slogan, “Keep Austin Cleared” will be printed on all utility bills, which will include a new “tree removal fee” until the cost to obliterate every tree in Austin is recovered.

October 2028 – Austin to Revise Land Development Code

Octopus Consulting has been hired to guide the City in a new revision of the Land Development Code.  To be dubbed CodeLAST, the new zoning system will be streamlined to generate the speediest development permits ever provided by an American city.  “We have devised a plan that will accommodate every need,” stated a spokesperson for the Real Estate Council of Austin.  “The consultants will be able to formulate it even faster than they did with CodeNEXT.”

The heart of the plan is an innovative zoning category called “Vertical Combined Use (VCU).”  It will allow developers to construct multistory towers that completely surround single family homes.  In fact, in selected neighborhoods, entire blocks could be reconfigured with interconnected structures that consume almost all of the available space.  It has been suggested that some of the old fashioned homes could be turned into tourist attractions.  Others could be demolished, and a few could remain for families eager to experience the joys of onsite community living.

February 2030 – Austin to Host Circus of the Americas

The long battle over the fate of Lions Municipal Golf Course in West Austin has finally been resolved.  The Governor and the U.T. Board of Regents announced this morning that the site will be the future home of the Circus of the Americas.  All state and local taxes for the enterprise will be waived for 25 years.

The mayor has vowed to address any logistical concerns.  He acknowledged that international guests may encounter problems with limited neighborhood street parking, but he pledged to accommodate them with 24 hour helicopter service from anywhere in the City.

Once again, Austin has landed an economic development wonder that will be the envy of the nation.  It is certain to restore the circus industry to all of its former glory.  The owners issued a statement promising to satisfy any potential critics, “It is our firm goal not to abuse the animals any more than necessary to provide a rich and rewarding entertainment experience.”


Imagine what a fabulous place our ONE Austin could become!

Can Austin Taxpayers Afford To Build A Whole New City?

By Bill Oakey – July 9, 2014

Late in the spring, tens of thousands of Austinites were stunned by the high property tax appraisals that they received in the mail.  Even if your appraisal did not increase at all, you were treated to daily newspaper stories about a looming City tax increase, two types of upcoming water rate increases, a 4.4% Austin Energy fuel increase for the second year in a row, a parade of utility add-on fee increases and so on.  Even Texas Gas Service managed to slide in a $1.69 monthly increase.  But the homeowners who saw their tax appraisals spiral out of control are the most worried, and rightfully so.  AISD would have to lower their tax rate to break even with last year’s revenue.  But they won’t because they are thrilled to have the extra money coming in from appraisal increases.

Then we were told that a double-decker boatload of bond propositions will come at us in November.  $1 billion for urban rail and roads, plus another $386 million for ACC.

What If I Told You That All of That Is Just the Front Edge of the Tip Of the Iceberg?

Between 2011 and 2013, I began compiling archived material on affordability with the intention of publishing a comprehensive report.  That report, which you can read here, ended up being just a bump in the road.  When I published it last August, I had no way of knowing that the avalanche of planned cost increases would soon reach levels that look not only unsustainable, but so wildly unimaginable as to be absurd.

Let’s cut to the chase and look at some examples:

1. The Capital Area Metropolitan Transit Organization (CAMPO) estimates that it will cost $32.4 billion to build roads, rail, and other transportation infrastructure between 2015 and 2040.  That comes out to $1.3 billion per year.  And, here’s the craziest part.  The local government share of those costs is pegged at 80%!  If you haven’t fallen off your chair yet, click here and see the projections on Page 7 of this report.  Even a good science fiction or fantasy writer would not abuse his readers with that level of tomfoolery.

2. The Travis County Downtown Campus Plan calls for over a billion in spending:

New Civil and Family Courthouse: $200-$300 million

Criminal Justice Center expansion and renovation: $512 million

New Central Booking Facility: $192 million

Renovation of Sweatt Travis County Courthouse: $92 million

Renovation of Ned Granger building and parking garage: $29 million

Plans, Plans, and More Plans

For every local taxing authority, there are ambitious and aggressively expensive plans.  Attempting to digest all of them at once would not be advisable for health reasons.  But they are highlighted in the discussion below, if you care to wade into them cautiously:

1. Imagine Austin Plan.  This is the all-encompassing Master Plan that envisions a new future city, divided into “mixed-use activity centers.”  This one is closely tied to the CodeNEXT zoning replacement plan and the Project Connect Strategic Mobility Plan.  In a nutshell, these plans call for clusters of super high-density multi-family housing units located near proposed rail stops.  One example of an “activity center” would be the ACC Highland Campus with private business partners and row after row of “new urbanist” apartment and condo buildings along Airport Blvd.  These might have some merit in theory.  However, the plans are designed to attract hundreds of thousand of new residents over time, and you and I will be asked to contribute billions of dollars in taxes, utilities, roads, trains, and buses to help pay for them.

2. The Corridor-ization of Austin.  This future city that will probably still be called Austin, is already being reshaped into “corridors.”  You’ve probably heard that the City is working on a major re-write of the Land Development Code.  CodeNEXT was and still is supposed to accomplish that.  However, it is gradually being implemented even before it is formally adopted.  I have been told that this is being done legally, through the use of “overlays.”  The zoning jargon is not my area of expertise, but suffice it to say that we are being CodeNEXT-ed before the new code policy is formally vetted and approved.  From the taxpayers’ perspective, we were given a clue on June 26, when the City Council adopted Chris Riley’s Resolution # 20140626-089.  The key phrase for taxpayers and utility ratepayers is this one:


“The City Manager is directed to report the timeline for getting financing for public infrastructure on the mall site such as streets, streetscapes, water and wastewater amenities in place by the end of 2014. The report should also include a single point of contact for the partnership, a timeline for the form-based code for the Highland Mall site and the corridor, as well as plans to finance improvements along the corridor. This report should come to Council by August 1, 2014.”

My Comment:  We know that many other such corridors are already in the works.  To the extent that some of the activity centers might foster job training and paid internships, they could fulfill a useful purpose.  But there is certainly a limit to how much existing residents can afford to contribute  for new trains, buses, utilities, “streetscapes,” and other amenities for tens of thousands of high-density, mostly luxury housing units.

Do You Need a Calculator to Figure This Out?

No, not really.  It doesn’t take advanced math skills to determine that Austin would have to defy gravity and the rest of reality in order to sustain the costs for this litany of plans.  There are others, such as the University of Texas Medical District Master Plan, which calls for replacing Brackenridge Hospital and the Frank Erwin Center.  Travis County recently passed a Growth Guidance Plan.  And there’s the Downtown Austin Plan, which envisions turning Congress Avenue into the Champs Elysees, among other things.  And nobody knows yet what AISD will do about the bonds that failed to pass last year.

What we do know is that Austin’s hyper-growth may be showing signs of strain.  Forbes Magazine reports in its June 27 issue that Austin’s housing prices are the fifth most overvalued in the country, at 13%.  None of our local leaders want to consider the fact that successful private businesses never practice the policy of “build like crazy and hope for the best.”  If they continue to ignore the public’s ability to pay in all of their planning processes, I suppose they will eventually discover that Austin can’t defy gravity after all.

New Reform Needed For Public Engagement Process

By Bill Oakey – June 30, 2014

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that major new projects and planning processes by local authorities lack sufficient citizen involvement.  We have seen this evidenced by published reports that lack quantifiable results of citizen input.  A perfect example is the so-called “Listening to the Community Report,” issued by the CodeNEXT team that is revising Austin’s Land Development Code.  The glossy report does not mention one sentence of public sentiment nor does it feature a single chart or graph summering the opinions or contributions by citizens who came to public meetings or submitted online suggestions.

The Project Connect process that evolved into the East Riverside to Highland Mall urban rail plan featured open houses where citizens could come and ask questions.  But there was no formal process for citizens to actually become functioning participants in the development and formulation of the plan.  Not only that, the City Council did not hold a public hearing to solicit input from citizens after the final plan was adopted, during their joint meeting with the Capital Metro Board.

Rightly or wrongly, this lack of a formal citizen participation structure creates the perception that some of these major planning initiatives are driven by outside consultants who are handed pre-ordained marching orders at the beginning of the process.  The end result is a fractured public opinion of the outcome, combined with a lack of trust in both the integrity of the process and the public officials behind it.

What we need is a fresh approach that strives to achieve consensus among interested stakeholders.  It has often been said that democracy is a messy business.  There is no way to get around division of opinions or to arrive at perfect conclusions that make everybody happy.  But an open, inclusive process where the participants can see their ideas and contributions honestly reflected in elements of important plans would ensure much better public support at the end.

To not hold public hearings on major projects is nothing less than shameful.  Public hearings should be held within enough time ahead of the final vote for the citizen input to be respected and considered in a meaningful way

Any major project or plan being considered will impact affordability.  The public should be given accurate and timely cost estimates, where applicable, throughout the process.

What I propose is for interested citizens and local officials to develop the framework for a whole new reform to address this problem.  It would probably take considerable time to work out the details of the reform and set it down on paper.  But it might be one of the best things we could do to arrive at a point where Austinites feel comfortable working together on major, transformative plans that will shape the City’s future for generations to come.

A Public Engagement Ordinance

To kick off a discussion on this proposal, here are a few ideas for how public inclusion in local planning could be improved:

1. The City of Austin could develop and pass a general ordinance that prescribes a method for including public involvement in planning sessions for major projects or significant revisions to City laws and codes.

2. This ordinance should define how the public input will be gathered, compiled and reported by the group that is charged with writing the plan.  Specific methods for evaluating citizen viewpoints and suggestions and incorporating them into the plans should also be defined.

3. Outside consultants and City staff who oversee major plans and projects should be required to adhere to the guidelines in the public involvement ordinance.

4. In a given planning process, various stakeholders from the community would participate in give and take sessions, where differing viewpoints are moderated on a fair and impartial basis.  Facilitators at the public meetings should guide the participants in a consensus-building effort.  Not everyone would end of with everything they like, but the process would help foster a spirit of openness and cooperation.

5. If there are easily discernible factions among the stakeholder groups, the moderators at the public meetings should attempt to resolve conflicts, in part by exploring the pros and cons of various scenarios.

6. Reports on the results of the plans would clearly articulate the prevailing viewpoints of the stakeholder groups, and illustrate the steps taken to resolve differences and arrive at a consensus.  Clear explanations should be written showing why predominant ideas and suggestions from the public did not get adopted.

7. As a guide for putting together the framework for this reform, we should be able to find published resources with best practices for consensus-building efforts that have already been tried with successful results.

8. If the Austin City Council can formulate a workable planning procedure that better serves the public interest, then perhaps we can utilize that same model for Travis County, Capital Metro and other public entities.

The ideas listed above represent a very rough outline intended to start a discussion.  Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that our new district representatives on the City Council will be eager to seek ways to make local governance more open, transparent and inclusive.  After all, they themselves will come from a reformed election process that sprang from the same goal.

CodeNEXT Takes Austin To Another Dimension – Do We Really Want To Go There?

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!

Can The People Take Control Under The New 10-1 City Council?

By Bill Oakey – June 23, 2014

We often hear that the City of Austin is at a crossroads.  Some call it a tipping point.  Water, traffic, and affordability have overwhelmed the community.  And unless we do something to change direction, the status quo threatens to put our neighborhoods and our very way of life at risk.

The new 10-1 district representation system for the Austin City Council offers an unprecedented opportunity for people at the grassroots level to take control of their destiny.  After all, the citizens are listed at the top of the City’s official organization chart.  But for far too long, we have been subjugated to the whims of special interests, most often with the assistance of their hand-picked outside consultants.

Austin maintains a council-manager form of government, rather than the strong-mayor type. Our mayor simply chairs the meetings, and has no more power than the other members.  However, most major decisions voted on by the City Council are filtered through the city staff at the behest of a very powerful city manager.  Our current city manager, Marc Ott, has often been depicted as a puppet of the powerful big business and real estate interests.  He manifests his control over the City in part by refusing to provide detailed responses to written questions from boards and commissions, or even to questions from our elected council members.

How Can the People Wrest Control Away From the Special Interests?

Step one has already been laid in front of us with the November election of council members from neighborhood districts.  Once these grassroots candidates are elected, we should insist that they hold some neighborhood forums to introduce us to candidates for a new city manager.  If the current City Council does not appoint an interim city manager from within the existing executive team, then the new City Council should do that early next year.  Then, they should seek community input on the selection of a permanent city manager who will be accountable to all the people.

How Can the District Council Members Best Represent the Interests of the People?

We should consider establishing formal lines of communication between council members and neighborhood leaders and other interested citizens from within each district.  Status quo communication is very haphazard and disorganized.  Have you ever tried to obtain a time-certain from a Council member on when a particular City Council agenda item might come up for discussion?  The rule of thumb is that you alert your friends and neighbors of a critical issue posted for action in the upcoming week.  Then you try to organize speakers to go to the council meeting.  You could wait as long as from 10:00 AM on Thursday morning until the meeting adjourns as late as 3:30 AM on Friday morning.

Under a new system of people-centric governance, the communication between district neighbors and their council member would not have to wait until the regular council meeting.  A website or Facebook page could be used to facilitate the communication.  Liaisons within each district could communicate through newsletters and listservs about pending issues that affect their area or the City at large.  District Council Members should hold regular meetings and forums right in their districts, as well as at City Hall.  Under the current system, a typical citizen is lucky to get a Council member or a policy aide to return a phone call or email.  There is no worthwhile process for the people to be effectively heard.

The Two Biggest Projects That Will Shape Our Future

There are two huge projects that directly affect affordability and the prospect of existing residents to survive Austin’s current transformation.

1. The Urban Rail Plan – The massively expensive plan to install electric streetcars from Highland Mall through U.T.’s new Medical District and across Lady Bird Lake to East Riverside is a dream scenario for land speculators and developers in the northeastern and southeastern sectors.  It would do little to help transportation for the heavy concentration of existing residents in North, Central, and West Austin.  The important thing to keep in mind here is that most of the route for urban rail was pre-ordained in 2008 by a consultant study.  See a 2008 Austin Chronicle report here.  For an eye-opening view of the gentrification and affordability issues with Washington D.C.’s new urban rail system, click here.

Those who say that “We have to start somewhere” should be aware that if the rail bonds pass, the other competing rail route along Lamar and Guadalupe would be removed from future consideration.  Project Connect has already planned to lay permanent concrete dedicated bus lanes along that route after the bond election.  For all of these reasons, we should vote no on the bonds and let the new City Council work with the entire community on an inclusive plan that earns broad based citizen support.

2. The Revision of the Land Development Code

You have probably heard about CodeNEXT.  This was sold to us as an opportunity to streamline and modernize our outdated land development code.  It was supposed to make it cheaper and less time consuming to remodel your home or expand or remodel an existing local business. But once again, it has been commandeered by the special interests and a very clever consulting team.

Just take a look at one report that has come out of the “community involvement” process.  Click here to see the “Listening to the Community Report.”  You will see lots of charts, graphs, and categories of significant issues raised by the citizens who attended the public meetings.  But notice the carefully and skillfully designed format of the report.  You can search every line on every page and you will see no summaries of public opinions of any kind whatsoever!

Yes, all of the prevailing issues are there: affordability, walkability, compatibility.  The word “density” is sprinkled generously throughout the pages.  But absolutely nowhere will you see a gauge of public opinion on maintaining compatibility in neighborhoods, limiting density, or even a clue as to what types of changes, if any, that the neighborhood participants would like to see. All one has to do, however, is read between the lines and look around to areas of Austin that have already been transformed.  What you will see is gentrification and high density, vertical mixed use (VMU) developments, nearly all of which contain luxury-priced living units.  Expect these buildings to arrive soon at a neighborhood near you.

Even more disturbing is another CodeNEXT report, called the “Land Development Code Diagnosis.”  On Page 30 you will find a pronouncement that individual neighborhood plans are “too restrictive” and “too complex,” compared to the envisioned scenario of a one-size-fits-all system, where anybody can build anything anywhere without too many burdensome regulations!

Here again, we need the new City Council to revisit the entire concept of rewriting the land development code.  But the involvement of the community and the format of the reports need to reflect what the people really want, as opposed to the pre-ordained whims of national consultants and the local special interests who control them like puppets on a string.