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Planning Commission puts off decision on density bonuses, affordable housing

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 by Austin Monitor

At last night’s session, the Austin Planning Commission took a number of actions – none of them final – on the topics of density bonuses, CURE zoning, and an affordable housing strategy.

At Chair Dave Sullivan’s suggestion, the commission is expected to draft a letter of recommendation to City Council similar to those from the Design, Downtown, and Community Development commissions.

Between now and Jan. 12, the Planning Commission’s executive committee will draft a proposal that represents the views of the commission, although it is clear that the commission has yet to land on positions on certain issues, such as whether to discourage payment of a fee in lieu of affordable units within buildings receiving density bonuses.

That’s only one issue. Other topics of discussion likely to be hashed out will be whether to support a staff recommendation to exclude properties such as office buildings and hotels from the density bonus, considering a push by the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Design Commission to prioritize open space preservation downtown, and considering whether some downtown areas—such as the warehouse district—should be excluded from the density bonus program, as historic preservation activist Linda McNeilage suggested during testimony before the commission last night.

The two-tier plan for the warehouse district would give warehouse owners the ability to sell development rights if the owner agrees to seek historic landmark designation and limit heights in the core of the district.

Neighborhood activist Jeff Jack was opposed, outright, to the density bonus proposal. In comments to the commission, Jack noted that Urban Officer Jim Robertson talked about the reasonable balance between what a developer gives and what the city should take. 

“If we’re talking about the balance between the community and the developer, we also need to talk about the taxpayer,” Jack told the commission. “The taxpayer should not be subsidizing the density proposed in this downtown plan. … When you know the value of property downtown is $15 to $25 per square feet, these are incredibly huge entitlements we’re giving developers.”

Commissioner Mandy Dealey noted that no one had taken advantage of the interim density bonus program. All had chosen CURE zoning, and Dealey is concerned that the ordinance is not attractive enough to be used.

The original CURE ordinance, before it was revised in 1999, had five criteria any project had to meet in order to receive CURE zoning, Jack said. Now it’s just one requirement, which has created a loophole for properties. The only requirement an approved CURE project must meet is to put in Great Streets.

“I strongly believe that it doesn’t work for us today,” Jack said of the ordinance. “It needs to be changed and fixed.”

The Downtown Austin Alliance made four recommendations: recognizing high-end 4- and 5-star green building for additional density; allowing buildings to earn additional density when the owner agrees to provide below-grade parking; waiving fees for residential projects, which was part of the interim ordinance; and supporting a fee in lieu option for parkland or open space.

Commissioner Saundra Kirk, in particular, wanted to raise the issue of the integration of affordable housing, preferably within the buildings that gain from the density bonus program. It would do the city no good to “ghettoize” certain parts of the city by forcing them to handle the full brunt of affordable housing.

Commissioners agreed to leave the public hearing open through the January meeting. Sullivan anticipates additional input and deliberations. In other decisions last night, the commission initiated discussion of a revised CURE ordinance that would exclude height and floor-to-area ratio but continue to use CURE for building owners that require other exceptions, such as compatibility. Several recent projects have used the CURE overlay in order to achieve additional density, and there is concern in the development community about the loss of that tool, especially given the current downturn.

Concerning an affordable housing strategy, the Planning Commission adopted the recommendations of Housing Works as a starting point. The commission also added language to collect an inventory of the current downtown affordable market and to support the preservation of Lakeside Place as affordable senior housing.

The on-site/off-site affordable housing stock issue will also be incorporated into the letter, although it, too, will be a topic of discussion in January.

Commissioner Kathryne Tovo, whose husband has worked on downtown projects, recused herself from the discussion and left the dais during the density bonus discussion but was present for the CURE and affordability strategy discussion.

At least two topics from last night’s density bonus discussion – green roofs and historic designation – will likely land as discussion items on the Planning Commission’s agenda when the density bonus topic is revisited on Jan. 12. Discussion of such topics, which started at the two-hour point of last night’s meeting, lasted only a minute. Sullivan invited speakers back for an expanded discussion in January.

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