The Austin City Council is moving closer to a vote on a comprehensive rewrite of the city's land development code, which regulates how we use land and build things in Austin. For years, there have been arguments and misunderstandings about just what those rules would mean for the city.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler was so concerned about what he called "misinformation" in the last process in 2018 that he asked for it to be scrapped because, in his words, something had "gone horribly wrong.”
Adler says he believes this time around, the process has been characterized by a different, more focused approach from the city manager and staff and more opportunities for public input. He also thinks the city cannot afford to work any longer under the current code, which he describes as "out-of-date" and "bad."
City Council has scheduled a special meeting for Saturday at 10 a.m. at City Hall to hold a public hearing on the planned changes.
See below for more from Mayor Adler's discussion with KUT about the land development code rewrite.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
KUT: Last year, you asked the City Council — and they agreed with you — to stop the code rewrite process that was underway then and start over. You said there was a lot of misinformation out there, that something had gone "horribly wrong," people were confused — so you wanted to stop and start over. Tell me what was done differently this time? What did the city do with this process to keep that from happening again this time?
Mayor Steve Adler: I think it's the different approach that the city manager and the staff gave to this. They came very early to the City Council and said – before we begin the process of rewriting this code, we want you to give us policy direction. We gave policy direction on every contested issue that we could think of, and by doing that, we more focused the process.
KUT: Do you think that that corrected the misinformation problem? Because we're still hearing from people with questions that seem disconnected from the content of this rewrite. Or is that still a concern of yours, that people aren't understanding what's actually in the code?
Adler: I am real concerned about the misinformation that I see on some of the websites and in social media, but I think there are fewer people that are confused now than there were before. And that's in part because we have had, at this point, 66 public hearings and public meetings since 2017. This does not include neighborhood association meetings and other forums.
KUT: What about since 2018 and the end of that process?
Adler: A lot of them were after 2018 as well, but I think we began that process in 2017 and it was at the beginning of that process where I kept running into people who were hearing the presentations and saying, "Wait a second, this wasn't anything like what I was seeing on the website." So, we had started, I think, fixing the misinformation back then. It became apparent that we weren't going to be able to do a good enough job of that for us to be able to actually decide this issue in 2018.
KUT: There are still some groups, though, who say they feel like no matter how many community meetings they've been to that the process is still fast. And what they've said is this is a very dense document. There's a lot of pages, there's a lot of information in there. And to help get people educated about it takes a long time.
Now that there is a draft, do you feel like this part has gone too fast?
Adler: Even the most recent draft reflects the policy conversations that this community has been having for seven years. There aren't new policy conversations.
KUT: There are a lot of new people here, though, in the past seven years.
Adler: And there are, and if we don't make decisions in Austin to catch up to the new people, we're never going to make any decisions in this community. I mean, at some point you actually have to say, all right, we really have talked about this a lot; now we have to actually make the hard choices. We actually have to make decisions because every day that we're not making these decisions, I am watching properties being developed without housing supply associated with them, tracts that I wish were not being developed for another year.
At some point, we've talked about this enough. We're facing the repercussions of an out-of-date bad code. We have to take the big step forward and actually do something.
KUT: So you say you're seeing developments go up, and if we had done this sooner they wouldn't be happening. You wish they weren't going up like that. If this process stays on schedule right now, how fast would things be different then?
Adler: The code covers lots of different things, but the rules about green infrastructure being now an increased part of development happen immediately. As soon as it becomes effective, those things become immediately effective, so they would start helping us with environment and more flooding right away.
How quick will it become effective? Don't know the answer to that. That's one of the things that we need to be discussing over the next couple months. What is the phase-in period of time? How does that happen? But as soon as it is effective, there'll be changes that will be happening immediately.
Some of the things that the code will do we're not really going to feel for a long period of time. It's not like we passed this code, and suddenly we have 400,000 extra housing units in the city. But over a 10-year period of time, the hope is to have 400,000 more, real meaningful opportunities for housing supply, figuring that maybe a third of those will actually result in housing supply. But that's over a 10-year period of time.
KUT: Have you read the whole code rewrite?
KUT: You'd read the whole thing? It's 1,366 pages, but some are, as it says, intentionally left blank. You read the whole thing?
Adler: I have. Now, I have not read it and retained as much as our city staff has, but I think it's important to go through it, to be familiar with the document that we're going to be working on.
KUT: Do you expect everybody in Austin to read it? I mean, I was reading through it and some of the language is very legalese. It seems like if you are in the developer or builder community, it's accessible language, but it doesn't seem like it's accessible language for everybody. Do you expect everybody to read it and understand it?
Adler: Goodness, no, I don't expect everybody in our community to read all 1,300 pages or the thousands of pages that'll be part of the regulations that are adopted by city staff that then developers and homeowners and people use. Nor should everybody be expected to read it. That's what representative democracy is about.
There are staffs and stakeholders and a lot of people who are poring through this document word by word by word. But no, I don't expect everyone to do that. And it is not something that is accessible to everybody. It's legalese because – surprise – it's a legal document and it's drafted that way. But it is a lot more accessible than our existing code.