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Council likely to delay downtown Density Bonus Plan ordinance

Friday, January 15, 2010 by Austin Monitor

There was little doubt Thursday that City Council action on the proposed Downtown Density Bonus Program will be delayed beyond Jan. 28, the date it was due for consideration. The question now is how much time Council members will give the Planning Commission to come up with a recommendation.


Council Members heard a lengthy presentation on Thursday about the proposed Downtown Density Bonus Program. Planning Commission Member Mandy Dealey, who chairs a subcommittee studying the proposal, is seeking a four-month delay in order to answer a number of questions that have come up regarding the plan.


Dealey says she would prefer to see a more complete version of Downtown Plan before moving forward with the specifics of a density bonus. That is in line with the density bonus report prepared by consultants ROMA and HR&A Advisors, who recommended that the density bonus be used to achieve the Downtown Plan’s goals.


Currently the city has two options for developers: an interim Density Bonus Ordinance and Central Urban Redevelopment (CURE) zoning. No developer has used the interim density bonus. Instead, the few projects that have come through the process recently have done so under the easier to use CURE zoning provisions.


Jim Robertson of Planning and Development Review Department went through the various concerns of a potential ordinance: primarily that the economics for a density bonus program work, that the community benefits like affordable housing be included and the warehouse district preserved. “Where programs like this work,” Robertson said, “is when the value is shared between the community and owners of the project.”


The process has been a lengthy one, involving Council briefings, Planning Commission considerations and subcommittee considerations as well as stakeholder and public meetings. The recommendations Robertson outlined were compiled after this input.


Following the presentation, Council Member Sheryl Cole had some questions. “If you were to poll the people living downtown, the property owners, the visitors and social services ‘What’s your biggest concern with downtown?’ I think they’d say the homeless.” She wondered whether or not fees-in-lieu could be used not just to find some housing for the homeless population but to actually divert finances to social services intended to reduce the number of homeless downtown. Robertson said 170 units of “supportive housing” were in the recommendations of another downtown affordability document, but Cole said other cities were ensuring that steady streams of money be directed at services.


Council Member Laura Morrison was concerned that the bonus program “may want to not incentivize,” certain things such as live music venues in incompatible areas.


Dealey reiterated the Planning Commission’s request for a four-month delay, but conceded it could be done in slightly less time. She told Council, “Most of the public meetings are more like seminars, but there hasn’t been much opportunity for individuals to sit down and talk about it.”


Council Member Bill Spelman wondered if the Planning Commission could appoint its own group to work through some of the issues that Dealey raised. City legal staff said that Council would have to authorize such appointing power first. Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the next council meeting could provide an opportunity to “flesh out the appointment of a citizen group to look at this.”


Spelman said he hopes that the commission, rather than asking for a formal task force – which would only delay matters – would have a subcommittee, which would then “host a conversation with all the stakeholders of the density bonus program downtown. And let us know the results of that conversation.”


Spelman told In Fact Daily, “It’s certainly been talked about a lot, but the question is ’What’s the nature of the conversation?’ My understanding is that a lot of people participated in discussion but not in a formalized way.” He said a four month delay would “be a pretty low risk proposition,” because there didn’t seem to be much demand for new projects, however he added “it depends upon what we do with CURE.”

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