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Downtown plan sparks controversy with density, affordable housing proposals

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The downtown plan’s strategy for affordable housing and density bonuses includes several controversial proposals that will ultimately be decided by council.

The first major point raised at last night’s stakeholder meeting came from Tom Stacy of the Downtown Austin Alliance. One downtown plan strategy would transfer development rights out of the warehouse district to other lots downtown, in order to keep the current height and density around the intersection of 4th Street and Colorado Street.

“We at the DAA are opposed to downzoning lots, simply for the transfer of development rights,” said Stacy. “Given the Capitol View corridors, there are pretty precious few lots in the area that can develop without height restrictions.”

Urban Officer Jim Robertson said the consultants had gotten a spectrum of responses to the warehouse district strategy, from those who warn that destroying a single building would “take away something you will never get back” to those who would be just as happy to say “get over it, let it go.”

“There’s a huge range for judgment as to where that policy choice should land,” Robertson admitted to an audience of about 70 at Town Lake Center last night.

The city intends to maintain some standards specific to the warehouse district: basic setback requirements; a certain height to create a pedestrian experience at the street level; awnings or canopies at every building; and the maintenance of elevated sidewalks, which are a core element of the warehouse district experience.

The second issue, raised by consultant Stuart Hersh, but apparently shared by many in the affordable housing community, is that the affordable housing income levels have been calibrated too high for downtown.

As Director Margaret Shaw of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department explained, the intention was to create a range of housing from single-room occupancy to live-work to somewhat affordable mid- and high-rise. Hersh, and others in the affordable housing community, are concerned that so much emphasis is being focused on those with a median-family income, or MFI, of 80 to 120 percent of average, which would be an individual with a $40,000 annual income and a family of four with income of somewhere around $60,000.

To affordable housing advocates, this isn’t acceptable. The need is greatest at an affordability level of 65 percent of MFI for home ownership and affordability between 30 and 50 percent MFI for rental units.

“We want a program that produces more density, but for different reasons than you do,” Hersh told Robertson and Shaw. “We want increased density downtown, because it reduces gentrification pressures east of Interstate 35.”

Consultant Jim Adams of ROMA said he sympathized with Hersh’s concerns but noted that the price point for “affordable housing” downtown was a delicate balance, since land and construction costs are so expensive there. Adams said the affordable housing price point would be revisited in subsequent years to review the identified price point.

The recommendations, which have gone through a number of boards and commissions, will be presented for review next week and up for approval in August. Then they would be translated into ordinance, to be approved by Council.

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