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Commission argues about downtown density, neighborhoods

Thursday, June 18, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The recommendations may not be syntax perfect, but the Downtown Commission last night made additional recommendations for ROMA to consider during a second draft of the downtown density bonus that will go to Council on July 23.

Much of the dialogue at the Downtown Commission centered around a suggested list of discussion points produced by Commissioner Richard Weiss. In the document, Weiss outlined four topics as a “jumping-off point” for discussion. Weiss’ overarching theme, however, was this: The actions of the downtown plan did more to hamper, rather than incentivize, desired high density in downtown Austin.

Specifically, Weiss wanted to rework downtown compatibility requirements, a point that certainly drew the attention of the Judges Hill neighborhood, which has defended itself against encroachment a number of times in recent months. Weiss had sent his comments to his fellow commissioners earlier in the week, and neighborhood leaders had those comments in hand at last night’s meeting.

Judges Hill is, for all intents and purposes, the only intact single-family neighborhood in what has become rather pricey downtown real estate. The city’s oldest neighborhood, with some of the highest priced per square foot single-family real estate in the city, continues to try to work through the kinks to gain local historic district status but until it does, almost any type of encroachment is possible.

But then comes the difference between policy and practice. Current city zoning maintains a buffer of 500 feet between single-family homes and other development. Such a buffer – almost two city blocks in length – was impractical downtown, Weiss told his colleagues. It wasted blocks of potential development in the highly prized downtown area. And, of course, looked oddly out-of-step with West Campus, where local homeowners have made their peace – and chosen where – development could happen in a way that would minimize the impact on intact neighborhoods.

Some read Weiss’ comments as possibly eliminating compatibility requirements. That raised the hackles of both the neighborhood association and Commissioner Linda Guerrero, who admitted she lived just beyond Judges Hill and if the central city neighborhood went down, it was likely that her neighborhood would be next.

Weiss was firm in his denials that he intended to punish neighborhoods.

“I do think, if you have a group of structures, it’s important to protect them. I know you’re working toward protecting them,” Weiss said, acknowledging Judges Hill’s efforts to be a local historic district. “But when you go significantly outside your boundaries, when you see what compatibility means block after block, that’s a case where the needs of a few outweigh the needs of the many. Downtown should be the very, very densest fabric of our city, and these kind of compatibility requirements inhibit the growth around you.”

To some, like Guerrero, a 200-foot skyscraper next to a single-family residence would ruin a neighborhood. Others, like Chair Stan Haas, argued it could be done properly. Council likely will be evenly split over the issue.

Weiss defended himself against questions from Judges Hill that he did not put neighborhood preservation as a priority, saying it was not his intention to sacrifice neighborhoods. In the end, Weiss and neighborhood leader Margaret Gosselink agreed the distance could be less than 500 feet, and that Judges Hill could bend a bit on the distance requirement as long as the neighborhood was maintained.

In another lengthy point of discussion, Commissioner Robert Knight boiled the discussion down to one issue: How tall was too tall downtown?

Unlike ROMA, Knight saw no problem with lifting the cap on height downtown, whether it was in the Central Business District or in the fringes of downtown where the actual zoning on a property often can be blurred. 

Knight’s proposal to lift the cap led to a rather spirited discussion among commissioners about the relationship between height and floor-to-area-ratios. Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance addressed the commission with his own concerns about the “bulkiness” of downtown development. He made a point of saying his point was made as an individual and not as a DAA representative.

If height is uncapped, then a building had the potential to be taller and slimmer, more of a point-tower such as Spring or 360 Condominiums. But nothing in the current ordinance would encourage slim and tall over short and squatty.

Or, in some cases — you might as well call it tall and squatty—like the Frost Bank Tower, which takes up a full city block. The Downtown Commission appeared universal in its desire to see some type of suggestion that buildings should be tall and slender, with good amounts of green space, rather than short and squatty, however it needed to be achieved.

To achieve that goal, Knight’s proposal was to support no cap on height on downtown buildings. Subsequent amendments, such as hold to FAR to a particular rate, failed due to opposition from Knight. That led to a vote of 9-2-1. Commissioners Bruce Willenzik and Tina Kubicek voted against the motion, with Guerrero abstaining.

Kubicek noting she had fielded plenty of complaints that downtown had grown too much. After the meeting, Guerrero said her vote to abstain was due to both the proximity of her house to downtown and the fact the drafted language was so broad.

When approached after the meeting, Guerrero was in discussion with Weiss, so it was clear the two commissioners harbored no hard feelings. Asked what other requirements in the city code might be put in place to encourage the “taller, slimmer” development – certainly Seattle and Vancouver are examples of such development — Planner Michael Knox noted Vancouver’s requirements to put a certain amount of space between buildings.

Other motions that passed the group as recommendations to ROMA included support to utilize the undeveloped “unhistorical” blocks in the warehouse district for development, since many are parking lots with the limitations of the Capitol view corridors. On this point, Commissioner Daniel Leary of the Historic Landmark Commission was quite vocal, providing good insights into historic downtown and noting specific considerations for proposed policy.

A motion on green building as a gatekeeper – two stars or better for basic consideration — failed because it was not specific enough to please Haas. However, Weiss did manage to pass a vote to suggest that density bonus money be used in the areas near transit-oriented development, with a priority given to those areas closest to downtown. Guerrero abstained, too, on this motion.

Weiss argued the point of Transit-Oriented Development in general, and even downtown development specifically, was to diminish the use of the automobile downtown. That is a goal a Council has consistently supported.

So, once a pool of “in lieu of” funds is collected for density bonuses on downtown projects, it should go to downtown affordable housing development first, Weiss said. Given the high price of downtown dirt, however, it might be used outside downtown. In those cases, the money should go to close-in projects first.

First, however, you have to find affordable housing. Rents at Crestview Commons, at the train station, by the way, show that rents start at almost $1,100 for a small one-bedroom unit. A similar unit at Mueller – at Mosaic at Mueller – go for only slight less, and hardly the $1.08 per-square-foot predicted in recent publications.

The Downtown Commission also agreed that requirements on accessory uses – adding a second unit for rental – should be loosened downtown.

A town hall meeting of the new ROMA draft is scheduled for July 13. Knox said the document should be ready for review in the first week of July.

Guerrero expressed her appreciation for draft changes, noting that ROMA had taken community comments into account when drafting new changes.

“There have been some great changes already to the draft,” Guerrero said. “I appreciate what ROMA is doing, and how they are listened to the public process.”

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