Tag Archives: CodeNEXT

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.