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Amendment delays Council vote on Downtown Austin Plan

Monday, August 22, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Those hoping for a vote next week on the long-awaited Downtown Austin Plan, which has been in the works since 2005, may have to wait a little longer.


A last-minute addition to the plan would retain amended CURE zoning as an alternative to the downtown density bonus during an unspecified transition period. Under the amended CURE, applicants would be required to demonstrate that they had met as many density bonus provisions as possible.


Although the city approved the downtown density bonus in January 2008, no developer has chosen to use it. Instead, developers have opted for the traditional process of obtaining CURE zoning, which can grant the same zoning allowances without the requirement of affordable housing, or the fee-in lieu, neither of which are things that the city can legally require.


Council seemed divided between whether the bonus standards are prohibitively high and require modification, or whether developers have simply opted for CURE standards because they are there, and they are easier and cheaper to obtain.


“If you are asking developers who are seeking increased entitlements to provide some community benefits, but also allowing them the opportunity to come here and ask for those same entitlements with no community benefits, it’s pretty clear what option they are going to select, almost 100 percent of the time,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo. “To take the provisions that we have and dilute them further by making these additional changes to CURE is not, in my mind, the right way to proceed.”


Tovo told In Fact Daily that this was the first she had heard of the change.


“The language in the plan still talks about repealing CURE for purposes of density and height increases, so this was a surprise,” said Tovo. “We got an email from some affordable housing advocates yesterday in support of that aspect of the plan, so they are clearly not informed about it.”


“A lot of work has gone into thinking through the density bonus program, and again, thinking about the compromises and tradeoffs and coming up with something that was, at least, a good start. So, I’m pretty distressed by this proposed change,” said Tovo.


Jim Robertson, co-project manager of the Downtown Austin Plan, explained that the city needed time to “recalibrate” the bonus standard.


“The basic philosophy behind the density bonus is the community saying ‘let’s share the additional benefits created by that additional density.’  The density program would be a failure if it extracted from the project all of the incremental benefit that a project was going to recoup,” said Robertson. “Any rational developer would say, ‘Why am I going undertake all this additional risk, if all the benefits of taking that risk are extracted from it?’”


Robertson argued that leaving CURE in place, but requiring developers to explicitly detail why they couldn’t participate in the bonus density program would give the city better information about why the program wasn’t working, and what elements needed recalibration and refinement.


“Down the road, we might decide, we don’t need CURE anymore. But we thought an interim step would be to leave CURE in place,” said Robertson. “It continues to provide some flexibility to the Council, but also it gives us a useful source of data moving forward in order to ensure ultimately there is a program in place that is functional.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell called the retention of CURE zoning for the time being “a very positive change” from his perspective. He called the new CURE process “a totally different animal,” that would allow for Council to discuss density bonus provisions to a greater extent than previously permitted.


Council Member Laura Morrison remained opposed, saying the plan had a “fundamental logical flaw” in that the CURE option allowed for increased property values that made current density bonus requirements cost-prohibitive.


“If we put into place clear expectations of community values, and it has to be done in a fair way, absolutely, then the land values will equilibrate. They will balance out, because you won’t be able to ask for something that will preclude you from doing the density bonus program,” said Morrison. “So if we allow a transition, we are going to allow the circular phenomenon that makes it infeasible to do a density bonus program….Folks know they can come down and get the density they need to support the high cost of land.


Council is scheduled to vote on adoption of the plan next week, though Council Member Sheryl Cole expressed doubt as to whether that would take place.


“I don’t think we’ll be actually ready to vote on the plan next week,” said Cole. “Sometimes, you have to understand that we’re the ones who get stopped in the grocery store.”


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