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Planning panel seeks more time to study downtown density bonus

Monday, January 11, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The one recommendation City Council members probably did not want to hear  – “Let’s spend some more time studying the proposed density bonus” – was exactly the one a Planning Commission subcommittee made last week, asking for an additional four months on the issue.

 

Among Austin’s commissions, Design and Downtown already have gone through the proposed revised downtown density bonus proposal and added suggestions. The downtown density bonus, so far, appears to be one of the more controversial aspects of the downtown plan, leading to additional commission review.

 

Commissioner Mandy Dealey hesitantly suggested the issue needed more study. Flipping through a copy of an earlier report, Dealey suggested many questions remained unanswered: What was at risk? Are measures in place that actually prevent putting the authenticity and soul of downtown district and neighborhoods in danger? What about a master infrastructure plan? Is there even enough water pressure to accommodate density?

 

“I would like to see us ask, in our letter, for additional time,” Dealey said. “At this point, we think it’s premature to know about what a lot of our specifics should be. A lot of questions have been raised.”

 

Dealey said she’d prefer to see the broad overview of the downtown plan be in place before moving forward with the specifics of a density bonus. That would, to some extent, be in line with the density bonus report prepared by consultants ROMA and HR&A Advisors last May. In the report, the consultants recommended that the density bonus be used as a tool to achieve the downtown plan’s goals.

 

While Chair Dave Sullivan did not agree that questions remained unanswered, he did agree to vote with Dealey on the delay. Survey after survey, he said, residents have stated their preferences and priorities regarding downtown.

 

“Those questions have been asked and answered,” Sullivan said. “Whether they have been asked correctly and answering fully is another issue.”

 

Sullivan, however, did agree that the lack of a citizen’s advisory committee had muddied the waters on the issue. With the exception of the downtown density plan, few major initiatives in Austin – waterfront overlay and Waller Creek tunnel project among them– have moved forward without some type of citizens’ advisory group.

 

Asked about the potential of a delay, planner Erica Leak said that the urgency noted by others on the density bonus – the city currently sits under an interim ordinance – is that the CURE zoning category continued to be the preferred option for downtown developers, rather than a density bonus option.

 

In response, Sullivan noted that the report on the issue had said that the best time to implement the bonus program – which would give greater density rights to developers in exchange for community benefits downtown — was now, during the economic downturn, or, at least, before an anticipated upswing in 2012.

 

The Downtown Austin Alliance, represented by Charlie Betts and Julie Fitch at the subcommittee meeting, continues to make a number of recommendations. In general, the group wants to find a system flexible enough to reward a business for coming up with creative solutions to downtown issues, such as credit for underground parking or encouragement of point towers like Spring.

 

The Warehouse District solution – selling off entitlements in order to maintain height limits in the sub-district — also remains at issue. Giving developers the right to sell unused height to others is still an untested issue and remains in play, given that it would set up a parallel process to density bonuses.

 

Density itself had plenty of benefits to downtown, Dealey said. But how, ultimately, does it fit into the picture of downtown the city wants to achieve?

 

“What kind of downtown are we actually going to have? What are we trying to accomplish?” Dealey said. “I would really like to see that answered before we move forward on this.”

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