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Commission rejects proposed changes to CURE in Downtown Plan

Friday, September 16, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission this week gave a chilly reception to proposed last-minute changes to the Downtown Plan. With a vote of 7-0, they opted to recommend the original plan, removing the density bonus portion of CURE zoning.


The modified Downtown Plan calls for the retention of CURE zoning, which allows for additional height and floor-to-area ratio (FAR), as well as the density bonus plan. However, CURE zoning would be amended so that developers would be required to explain why they could not reach the standards of the density bonus plan.


Though the Downtown Plan has been in the works since 2005, the decision to retain CURE was recommended subsequent to its recommendation by the Planning Commission. City Council delayed their vote on the plan until October 6, giving the commission time to weigh in on the change.


Jim Robertson, co-project manager of the Downtown Austin Plan, explained that CURE would be amended to include a framework, where developers would explain why they could not participate in different components of the density bonus program, piece by piece.


“The CURE route need not necessarily provide zero community benefits. Our hope is that when the CURE cases are evaluated against this framework, it would be apparent that projects could provide some community benefits,” said Robertson.


“I think there was a lot of vetting, four years worth of vetting, and for you guys to come in now and try to change that seems a little problematic to me,” said Commissioner Saundra Kirk. “If we do this, if we have the two alternative approaches, I don’t think we’re going to see anybody go through the density bonus program.”


“We have already had an expanded interim period where they are running concurrently as alternatives. I could speculate that maybe one of the reasons that we don’t have any takers on the density bonus is because we have this other way that is more attractive financially, maybe not procedurally, but financially,” said Kirk


The density bonus was designed in order to streamline the zoning process, offering increased FAR and height in return for certain community benefits. However, some have argued that those benefits, particularly the affordable housing requirements, are not cost effective.


While the commission acknowledged that the density bonus plan might need some “tweaking,” they agreed that it would best be done after the downtown plan passed.


“We are not saying get rid of CURE altogether, because there is flexibility, with parking and other things that I think are really necessary, but just consistent with our other motion to continue what’s in the downtown plan now, and not amend it with regards to the density,” said Commissioner Dannette Chementi.


“What if there was no such thing as CURE?” asked Chair Dave Sullivan, who imagined that were that the case, an administrative process for appealing density bonus requirements would be developed as the need arose.


“I kind of hate to see us step backwards and say, ‘oh gosh, this needs some more work.’ So maybe an alternative to that would be for this motion to go forward, saying we are in favor of the density bonus plan with the flexibility that is built into the Downtown Plan currently,” said Chimenti. “And then, if we ever get the Downtown Plan passed, maybe this body could look at whether tweaks need to be made.”


Sullivan agreed, telling In Fact Daily that if the bonus does seem to stand in the way of building downtown, it will be changed. At the commission, he was unequivocal in his support for downtown development, despite his vote.


“I might disagree with many of you in that I see that a lot of the tall buildings that we build downtown, there are public amenities created by those buildings simply because they use less water per person, less energy per person, and there’s much research that says that people who live downtown don’t drive as much as people that live outside of downtown. So, I’m very happy that we have tall buildings going in downtown, and I don’t want to slow that down,” said Sullivan. “I want to see more tall buildings downtown, because we need to build it up to fight global warming.”


It is not clear what the Council will do with the CURE provisions. Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo supported deleting CURE from the downtown plan when staff presented it to Council in August. But Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he applauded the change. 


Tovo, who supported the original recommendation to change use of the CURE category when she was on the commission, told In Fact Daily Thursday, “I strongly support the consultant’s original recommendation to modify CURE. The downtown density bonus came through a diverse group of stakeholders and they came up with a process that encourages development and redevelopment while also supporting our community goals of increasing affordable housing opportunities.”

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