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Stakeholders still lack agreement on UNO height provisions

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Stakeholders intent on revising the University Neighborhood Overlay’s affordability requirements have made progress but still lack agreement on revisions to bonus height provisions within the proposed ordinance changes.


The Planning Commission’s Codes & Ordinances Committee hosted a hasty meeting on the ordinance changes on last week, hoping to reach some resolution before Council approved its annual budget. Stakeholders, however, had failed to find agreement between the Central Area Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, or CANPAC, and other stakeholders, which included the University Area Partners and University of Texas Student Government.


Increased height entitlements, CANPAC’s Mary Ingle told the committee, were out of the question in the revised changes. During negotiations, developers had asked to go from 15 feet to 24 feet in additional possible entitlements. That would equate to giving up two stories of additional construction rather than one.


Surrounding neighborhoods, which had conceded much in the name of affordability in the initial ordinance, still want to see compatibility buffers with existing homes, Ingle said. CANPAC also raised objections to allowing height bonuses solely with onsite affordable bedrooms, without fee in lieu options.


“CANPAC voted unanimously against supporting these two points due to stress and the negative effects additional height bonuses created to our homes neighboring the UNO area,” according to the CANPAC statement that Ingle provided the committee. “The existing UNO heights were carefully crafted to help support the neighborhood plan, and while CANPAC supports affordable housing, it should not be at the expense of the neighborhood plan.”


Commissioner Dave Sullivan carefully questioned CANPAC on its exact objections, asking whether a now-problematic residential neighbor was a problem due to its additional height entitlements or its new party deck. Ingle and others agreed that additional entitlements and issues such as increased traffic, excessive noise and late-night activity next to a single-family neighborhood appeared to go hand-in-hand.


John Lawler, who spoke on behalf of UT Student Government, said he had no interest in the entitlement issues. Instead, he wanted the committee to focus on the fact that a proposal to base a fee on bedrooms, rather than apartment units, could double the funding of affordable beds in the area.


Lawler stressed how many different perspectives had landed on a common vision for the affordability provisions, with the exception of the height provisions.


“That’s amazing, knowing everyone involved,” Lawler told the group.


Lawler called the height provisions something he considered to be separate and apart from the affordability, although developers addressing the cost of construction would likely disagree. Agent Mike McHone, representing University Area Partners, played down the height provision issue, noting that the concerns were really limited to a handful of corridors.


Stakeholders have agreed to a number of other changes, which Stuart Hersh outlined during the meeting: using University of Texas cost of attendance as a measure of need rather than traditional HUD rates; adopting a needs based financial letter as income qualifying documentation for SMART housing consideration; requiring all subsequent projects to provide 10 percent of on-site units for SMART housing, with rent based on 75 percent cost of attendance; and require new projects to pay $1 per conditioned residential unit into the UNO affordable housing trust fund.


In exchange, developers have agreed to lengthen the affordability period of apartment units from 15 years to 40 years, McHone told commissioners. In exchange, bonus height provisions would be increased and at least 40 percent of housing trust funds will be devoted to more affordable housing co-op projects. The guidelines also provide for double occupancy of some housing units, as long as the combined rent is not 110 percent of the required SMART housing rental rates.


Other changes would correct what McHone called unintended changes in the UNO ordinance that limited height requirements along a number of commercial corridors, including Guadalupe Street. Those changes were unintended and rolled back entitlements already granted to commercial properties, he said.


Supporters estimate the proposed guidelines would double the number of affordable housing units in the West University area, from 350 to 700.


The meeting was somewhat rushed because Commissioners Mandy Dealey and Saundra Kirk had to depart for the annual meeting of the Heritage Society of Austin. Committee members, including newly appointed Commissioner Jean Stevens, agreed that work was not done on the affordability issue until stakeholders were in full agreement on all points.


Commissioners will consider the topic again at the next Codes & Ordinances Committee meeting.

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