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Another look at downtown plan and affordability

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Members of the Council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee got the first official look at the new Downtown Austin Plan on Monday. Chair Brewster McCracken declared the plan “some of the best work I’ve ever seen,” but the issue of affordable housing remains a sticking point.


Jim Adams and Jana McCann with ROMA Group gave the committee a one-hour “short version” of the comprehensive plan, which looks at how to further develop Austin’s downtown area without changing its authenticity or diversity. Several groups got a sneak peek at the plan last week, but this was the first public viewing by city officials.  (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 10, 2008)  


Adams told committee members that in gathering public input on developing the plan, they heard terms such as livable, sustainable, diverse and inclusive, engaging, beautiful, and respectful of history and culture. Based on that vision, Adams said, ROMA developed a set of priorities:


·        Maintain Downtown’s competitive position in the region;

·        Re-invest in the public realm;

·        Make it a stronger place…not just a series of projects;

·        Keep it authentic and diverse; and

·        Dedicate leadership and funding towards implementation.


Adams and McCann outlined the elements of the plan tied to each of the five priorities, looking at items such as transportation, parking, streetscapes, land use, cultural venues and more for each.


One unique aspect of the project involves sub-dividing the central business district into 14 districts, with a plan focused on each area. Planners drew a square around the middle of the downtown area, or the Core District, with a smaller square district on each corner. On the east side is the Waller Creek District, to the south is the Waterfront District and on the west is the Northwest and Lamar-Shoal Creek districts. There is also a Capitol District and a UT-Northeast District. Each of the downtown districts gets its own plan, focusing on its strengths and priorities.


Adams also brought up the touchy subject of the Capitol View Corridors. Two of them, the corridor due east of the Capitol and the one protecting Wooldridge Park, should be up for discussion in terms of their value as a corridor versus the potential development they are blocking, he said.


Other corridors, Adams said, will actually benefit downtown by forcing development of low-rise residential housing, which has a lower building cost. McCann said much of the affordable housing may be concentrated in the low rise buildings due to the cost of construction.


A one or two-person Austin household making 100 percent of the median family income of $52,200 will not be able to afford a condo or townhome in the downtown area, she said. The average price of a condo or townhome in Downtown Austin is $820,000 for new construction and $389,000 for resale.


“A one or two-person household must make $128,000 – that’s 246 percent of MFI – to afford a 1-bedroom downtown condo,” McCann said. “Granting a zoning bonus alone is not sufficient for developers to incorporate affordable units into private or market-rate housing. A subsidy of some sort will be needed to fill the gaps.”


Strategies such as increasing the allowable floor-to-area ratio or a fee-in-lieu increase were discussed, but it was clear that much work would be needed to solve the affordability issue.


The plan will be presented to several other city boards and commissions over the next few weeks. ROMA will take the plan to City Council on Feb. 14. Information on the Downtown Austin Plan can be found at

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