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Consultant outlines ideas for downtown density bonus

Friday, May 29, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Consultant Jana McCann of ROMA Design Group outlined the highlights of new standards being proposed for a permanent downtown density bonus in an appearance before the Parks and Recreation Board on Tuesday night. Any ordinance approved by Council should provide some kind of true economic incentive for the developer, McCann said, noting that the fee in lieu arrangement should be based on the developer’s profits.

Austin has been under a temporary density bonus ordinance since January 2008. McCann, the city’s former urban officer, is spearheading the downtown plan for ROMA. McCann told the board that any revised density bonus should meet a number of guidelines: It should be predictable and transparent. It should be based on economic conditions. It should support continued healthy growth of downtown. And it should result in clear community benefits.

It’s a tricky balance. Density downtown – at least in the right areas – should be encouraged and not penalized, McCann said. Good urban design principles should be the norm for all projects downtown.

What ROMA found, in its study of downtown development, is that increased density benefits residential development, but is of marginal benefit for commercial and retail development. ROMA’s density bonus recommendation included preferred areas for higher-density development, as well as places where it should be discouraged downtown, such as Judges Hill. In the case of Judges Hill, where there are many older homes, such density would alter the character of a long-term neighborhood.

The report also recommends getting rid of CURE zoning, since it lacks predictability and often is a wild card when it comes to determining proper parameters. And, of interest to the Parks Board, it recommends reclaiming all four public squares downtown, including the one on which First Baptist Church sits. That would be a long-term goal for the city, McCann said.

ROMA divided the analysis of downtown into three areas: core; uptown; and northwest. And various building types were considered for each area: residential; office; and retail. An economic analysis was intended to distinguish whether increased density, offered in the terms of a bonus, might eventually support affordable housing.

According to the analysis, those residential properties in the high-demand areas such as the waterfront, Rainey and Lower Shoal Creek, should be paying about $10 per square foot for a density bonus. Other parts of downtown, out toward the fringes of downtown, would pay $5 per square foot.

McCann provided a chart for the Parks Board to review, one that outlined some “gatekeeper,” or minimum requirements, to qualify for a density bonus: meeting Great Street and the urban design guidelines; including publicly-accessible open space; and achieving either 10 percent affordable housing of the bonus floor area or a fee in lieu arrangement.

ROMA also is evaluating whether the green energy standards for downtown development, set by Austin Energy, are simply too low a bar. A two-star green energy rating should be the norm rather than a standard that allows a developer to claim additional density, McCann said.

And, once more, the topic of the transfer of development rights is on the table. McCann noted that if Council wanted to preserve the current character of the area loosely known as the warehouse district, it could involve transferring the development rights on what ROMA has calculated to be 1.4 million square feet of unissued floor-to-area-ratio space on existing warehouse sites.

During the brief discussion, Parks Board members emphasized a need for increased open space, as well as some density-bonus-like incentive for preserving historical buildings. McCann said most of ROMA’s efforts have been aimed at addressing new development downtown, rather than addressing downtown’s existing space.

McCann’s goal is to get the density bonus/affordable housing proposal to Council at its July 23 meeting. That will be a feat, of course, since Council only has one meeting in July.

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