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Tovo, Morrison reject upzoning in two downtown cases

Monday, August 1, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo are Council’s two most neighborhood-centric allies, but the pair stood against neighborhood wishes, and their colleagues, on two downtown zoning cases at last week’s Council meeting.


Tovo’s choice to pull a zoning case on 7Th Street off Council’s consent agenda at her first regular meeting would be no surprise to anyone who has followed her work on the Planning Commission. Tovo and Danette Chimenti, in particular, frequently expressed frustration that few developers had availed themselves of the city’s interim density bonus ordinance with Downtown Mixed Use zoning.


The Original Austin Neighborhood Association (OANA), on the other hand, considers DMU zoning to have a serious downside. DMU zoning requires meeting compatibility requirements with surrounding single-family properties. Compatibility limits height. And for OANA, height and density are actually a big plus when it comes to adding new life, and residents, to their neighborhood.


Most developers have chosen to bypass the complexity of Downtown Mixed Use zoning, or DMU, and go directly to Central Business District, or CBD, on their cases. That choice ends the option to negotiate a laundry list of community benefits that would come in exchange for increased entitlements such as additional height or higher floor-to-area ratios.


Last week, agent Ron Thrower noted the neighborhood, staff and Downtown Commission all favored CBD zoning—and a 375-foot height—for 701 and 711 W 7th Street, with a variety of conditions set out that included underground parking and CBD zoning with DMU uses. DMU zoning, on the other hand, would limit the building to about 95 feet in height, which would limit the number of residential units, Thrower said.


OANA is one of the downtown neighborhoods most agreeable to density.


“We only have a few opportunities to really get it right, to have mixed use and residential density,” OANA’s Albert Stowell told Council. “So we recommended the 375 foot, because it’s a real benefit to our community to have more residents. They agreed to that and they agreed to many of the other items.”


A downtown plan is still months from passing at Council, and developers have little incentive to take DMU zoning and then negotiate with city leaders to underwrite affordable housing, open space or cultural facilities.


In the case of the property on 7th Street, Council Member Bill Spelman’s rough calculation was that a choice of DMU zoning, and the interim density bonus program, would cost the developer roughly $1 million.



Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who noted the agreement of developer and neighborhood, was ready to offer the re-zoning from GR and GO to CBD-CO on first reading. Mayor Lee Leffingwell joked such an agreement was “happy time.” Morrison, on the other hand, said she could not support the motion.


“So not so fast with the happy time,” Morrison told her colleagues, noting CBD was a huge increased in entitlements. “As we move forward, we are not going to have the downtown that we want this downtown to be, with mixed income and vibrancy and diversity and day care centers, and all the things that can come along with community benefits and increased entitlements, unless people start offering them or unless we’re under the downtown plan. So I’m very worried about the future of downtown.”


Council Member Chris Riley, a long-time proponent of increased downtown density, called the development an effective residential buffer. So Morrison and Tovo lost that vote on the zoning change, 5-2, as well as a second case that for the Robinson Foundation property at 510 West 8th Street.


The second case was to re-zone from MF-4 to DMU, but the objection from Morrison and Tovo was that affordable housing would be removed from the property. Tovo was on Planning Commission when the zoning case was heard and noted the passionate speech from a mother who would be forced to lose her affordable apartment with the building’s redevelopment.


“She wanted to keep her family together. She wanted to have residential dwellings downtown, and I think she lived for at least 15 years there,” Tovo said. “Again, this has been a residential site, so I will not be supporting the motion.”


Morrison agreed with Tovo, saying she worried that the affordability of new residences downtown would not match the affordability of what was currently on the ground. The price of land per square foot in downtown was too steep. “The more we approve things that don’t serve the community, the more people learn in the community that land speculation is good,” Morrison said.


Cole countered that community benefits were important but Council also had to respect market forces. Part of supporting a new vibrant downtown was to support the economics that would make that happen.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell protested the term “land speculation,” noting that the atmosphere to develop downtown is something Council has created and nurtured. By the time a project gets to Council, it’s not speculative. Instead, it’s been vetted by a variety of systems for input, concurrence and approval.


“I think that’s a little bit of distortion to say that anything goes,” Leffingwell said.


Morrison reiterated that she did not see sufficient community benefit from the upzoning. The final vote for the zoning change was 5-2, with Morrison and Tovo voting against the motion.

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