By Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance
Recent backlash against the third draft of CodeNEXT has sparked a move to scrap the draft altogether, wasting millions of dollars and countless hours of effort from both city representatives and invested citizens. We cannot afford to reach the end of this process with merely a surface-level code clean-up or an $8 million code reformat.
It is important to realize this is our opportunity to create a code that works for everyone. The goal for a new code was to realize the vision for Austin’s development set out in the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan (Imagine Austin). That plan, adopted in 2012, reflects the wishes and priorities expressed by the community for a 30-year approach to planning, incorporating Austin’s transportation, housing, economy, public and social services, as well as its cultural identity.
CodeNEXT should encourage continued density in the downtown district. According to Imagine Austin, the city will have several “regional centers,” which are areas defined as having “the greatest density of people and jobs and the tallest buildings in the region.” This downtown “regional center” is intended to be a hub of commerce that supports the surrounding areas. Currently, our downtown district supports broader Travis County services such as parks and schools through contributed taxes. With its density and efficient use of land, downtown Austin generates greater tax dollars with minimal infrastructure needs. A 2014 study from consulting firm Urban3 found that it would take an area 28 times larger than a downtown Austin block to generate the same amount of property taxes. Such knowledge suggests that the code must support density and let downtown be downtown.
As the city continues to grow, transportation becomes even more critical. Access is key to downtown jobs, government, entertainment and more. All of which lures visitors and residents from every part of the city. However, we currently have a tourniquet around downtown, making it more and more difficult to navigate the area. A proposed increase in density along corridors is a step in the right direction to alleviate this issue. If more people live along corridors, public transit can provide access, lessen traffic in and out of downtown, and all the while decrease environmental impacts.
CodeNEXT should be nimble enough for properties to be built to their fullest potential, and certainly not to less potential than is allowed today. The growth and development in the downtown and university areas in the years since Imagine Austin was adopted is far greater than anyone anticipated. The tools must be in place to support this growth and allow downtown to continue to be an economic driver for the region.
The draft code is written to allow enough new homes to accommodate our city’s projected growth, but the cumulative effect of new regulations may have the unintended consequence of decreasing the number of homes that can be built. This could happen so frequently that our code no longer provides enough places for people to live, further exacerbating our community’s affordability issues. We believe this can be fixed so that we have enough housing for those living here today and those moving here for great jobs and quality of life.
With our city’s expected growth, the code must also allow for the preservation of character and history. In Austin, this includes protecting historic buildings and our reputation as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” The key to preserving the city’s core identity is to provide an incentive for new construction while saving existing music venues. There’s potential for the code to help achieve that harmony. With the right code, we can preserve and create. We can enjoy live music venues alongside tall office buildings. It requires a code that enables multiple conditions to exist and thrive together. It cannot be an “either/or” code.
Changes in economy, technology and transportation are inevitable. Now is our chance to ensure Austin remains stable and attractive in the future. Having the proper mechanisms in place is critical to being able to shape the inevitable growth and development around us. The NEXT in CodeNEXT is happening. Let’s do the work now to create a code that makes it possible to prepare for tomorrow.
This letter appeared as an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman entitled "With the right CodeNext, we can preserve and create" on April 16, 2018. It was published in both the print and online editions. Click here to view the op-ed.