Commentary: CodeNEXT Puts the People's Plan into Action

Cities are dynamic, living things. Austin is no exception.

In 2015, the Austin metro was the nation’s second-fastest-growing economy and has maintained an annual growth rate of 4 percent since the Great Recession.

Over the next 25 years, our region is expected to double in population. For those of us who have witnessed Austin’s growth over the previous two decades, that statistic gives us pause. It also raises a fundamental question at the heart of nearly every debate at City Hall: How do we balance the need to expand economic opportunity with our duty to preserve what is unique and wonderful about Austin?

There are voices in our community who believe that growth and maintaining an excellent quality of life are competing agendas. Nonsense.

The central question is not whether Austin can handle 2 million additional neighbors but rather how we manage that growth in a way that alleviates traffic congestion, protects the natural environment, keeps Austin affordable and preserves our creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

However, everyone can agree that the rules that have dictated our physical development as a city up to this point make us ill-prepared to face tomorrow’s challenges. We need to reassess those policies to ensure that our built environment is aligned with the community’s desire for the Austin that we love.

Thankfully, we have a plan to make that happen. In 2012, after thousands of hours of community engagement, the Austin City Council unanimously adopted a new comprehensive plan known as Imagine Austin.

Imagine Austin was developed over multiple years with input from every corner of the city. Imagine Austin articulates a set of principles to help guide development and lays out a vision for a more affordable, mobile and sustainable city.

Informed by Austin’s core values, Imagine Austin is truly the people’s plan.

But Imagine Austin is still just a collection of policy objectives. In order to deliver on the vision that the community has decided it wants, we need to craft a set of tools to implement those policies. CodeNEXT, the much-anticipated overhaul of Austin’s land development code, promises to help deliver on the first of Imagine Austin’s core principles: growing as a compact and connected city.

Compact and connected means focusing growth within the city’s already built-up areas — known as infill development — and reversing our trend toward sprawl — the low-density settlement pattern that creates traffic congestion, destroys our natural resources, increases our property tax burden and accelerates the displacement of longtime residents and businesses.

Compact and connected is the lynchpin principle that holds everything else together. Unless we use land more efficiently and provide people with real transportation choices, our shared goals of affordability, mobility, environmental sustainability, social equity and preserving Austin’s creative spirit will remain outside our reach.

Unfortunately, some interests have interpreted Imagine Austin in a way that will undermine the plan’s vision of creating compact and connected communities in favor of preserving “neighborhood character.” But Austin’s character is shaped by the diverse and creative people who chose to live here. A code that doesn’t create room for the working- and middle-classes throughout the entire city — one that fails to create complete communities — is not a true expression of our character.

Make no mistake: Maintaining the status quo will only result in more green space being consumed and more families being pushed into the urban periphery in search of affordably priced housing. Change itself is not the enemy; Austin’s capacity to reinvent itself is what makes this town great.

The first working draft of CodeNEXT was released on Jan. 30. Over the next several months, we will be sifting through the text to highlight where CodeNEXT aligns with the vision of Imagine Austin – the people’s plan — and where it falls short.

This is the first step toward putting Austin on a path to a more affordable, mobile and sustainable future. Evolve Austin invites you to join us as champions of that future.

Galindo is president of Evolve Austin Partners, a nonpartisan, nonprofit coalition of 18 civic-minded nonprofit organizations working together to champion the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, crafted by residents to create a more affordable, mobile and sustainable city.

This essay originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on February 13, 2017