CodeNEXT looks to revamp Austin development

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

For students, Austin housing is becoming more expensive every year. As the city grows and hundreds move here everyday, imagine the affordability crunch that UT students will face 10, 20, or even 30 years from now.

Students should take notice of efforts by Austin city and community leaders to offer more housing choices and improve our quality of life.  A critical piece of the affordable housing puzzle is CodeNEXT, the first major revision of Austin’s land development code, which governs what can be built and where, in nearly 30 years. By dictating where new and redeveloped homes and businesses are permitted and what kinds of forms, from single-family suburbia to mixed-use urban high-rises, they can take, the code defines the physical geography of Austin. It shapes our neighborhoods, our streets, our parks and all the places in which we live, work and play.

But the current land-use code does not
effectively serve our community — it’s horrendously complicated. Over the last 30 years, it’s accumulated over 800 amendments and revisions, and over 400 different combinations of zoning types. By segregating housing and jobs, with mixed-use spaces as an afterthought, it hampers efforts to address Austin’s twin transportation and affordability crises.

CodeNEXT promises to reform the code by simplifying its layers and layers of outdated regulation, making it more usable, clear and predictable for developers, homeowners and business owners. It also introduces a new class of “transect” zoning, which differentiates by urban form instead of land use type. Players of computer games like SimCity or Cities: Skylines are familiar with the traditional kind of residential-commercial-industrial zoning, which enforces a strict separation of homes and workplaces. In contrast, transect zoning designates land for low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise development — allowing greater leeway for buildings that mix the two kinds of spaces.

By locating housing and jobs closer together, connecting bicycle trails with neighborhoods, and concentrating dense, transit-friendly development along major corridors, CodeNEXT would make alternative forms of transportation viable. That means less traffic on Austin streets, and more opportunities for tomorrow’s students to live away from today’s crowded and expensive student neighborhoods.

According to Rich Heyman, a UT geography professor on the CodeNEXT Code Advisory Group, students are unlikely to see many short-term effects from the effort. But in the long run, Heyman says, it could open up new affordable housing options for students throughout the city. City official Jenn Todd concurred, saying that CodeNEXT will offer more kinds of housing options, such as that elusive “missing middle” between single-family homes and mid-rise apartment buildings.

The CodeNEXT working group faces the daunting task of reconciling our city’s diverse interests, from developers to neighborhood associations to community activists. So far, CodeNEXT has been a remarkable display of local democracy and compromise in action. In a time when national politics is characterized by gridlock and deep polarization, that’s a welcome sight.

The CodeNEXT reform is badly needed, and students should support it wholeheartedly. Over the next few months, the city will host several public meetings to engage the community and solicit feedback. Learn about the plan and get involved. Let’s shape the Austin that we want.

Young is a computer science junior from Bakersfield, California.