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Downtown Plan amendments address CURE, density bonus

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Following years of deliberations and workgroups, and several postponements, City Council last week approved a framework for the Downtown Plan on first reading, with a revision of the downtown density bonus and elimination of the height and FAR perks for CURE zoning, both proposed by Council Member Bill Spelman.


Staff had recommended keeping CURE zoning as a means to obtain additional density. If approved on second and third reading, Spelman’s amendment would change allow developers to spend up to half of the affordable housing fee-in-lieu to be used for community benefits such as open space, art projects, or underground parking.


Spelman told In Fact Daily this change would both provide flexibility for developers and give the affordable housing community what they wanted.


Downtown Austin Alliance Executive Director Charlie Betts told In Fact Daily that the DAA was comfortable with the staff recommendation, but they were in the process of examining all the amendments that passed Thursday night in what was at times a fairly confusing process. 


“It was sausage making to the nth degree, and that’s not always pretty,” said Betts.


Betts said that the DAA wanted to be sure that they understood Spelman’s amendment, and were not quite ready to take a stance on it.


Affordable housing advocate Karen Paup told In Fact Daily that doing away with CURE and allowing the density bonus to be put to work was, from her perspective, the most important issue.


“We’ve had a number of properties come through and get CURE zoning. You compare the cost of what consultants say it would cost to create affordable housing for the homeless to what we could have generated if those properties had paid the in-lieu fees prescribed by the interim density bonus, we would be a long way to reaching that goal. But we missed out,” said Paup.


Council Member Mike Martinez remarked during the density bonus discussion, “I think Council Member Spelman has come up with something that’s creative, and I’m going to support it with the understanding, obviously, this is just first reading. I understand folks have a lot of questions. I am going to be asking questions, but this is just first reading. And if we make it to third reading.. and I say ‘if,’ we will monitor this closely.”


“I think it is a really unique blend of all of these competing interests,” said Martinez. “One of the downsides that I see as it relates to affordability downtown is that it may slow down the achievement of that affordability downtown… So we will monitor that. But it may not have that negative effect.”


Council Member Chris Riley proposed an amendment that directed staff to explore alternative affordable housing funding mechanisms, including tools that draw on the tax base and fees associated with events. He emphasized that the alternatives could serve a community-wide need in a way that does not rely exclusively on the resources of developers. The amendment passed 7-0.


Riley also addressed the concerns of several property owners with the most controversial suggestion of the night – a direction that the staff explore means other than a 45-foot height restriction to preserve the character of the warehouse district.


Council Members Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison, and Spelman all voted against Riley’s amendment.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole passed two amendments, both unanimously. The first changed wording so that a proposed bonus for three-bedroom residences would only be given to those that conformed to affordability standards. The second changed the density bonus program so that it would allow a fee-in-lieu to achieve downtown open-space requirements.


The Council also unanimously passed an amendment by Morrison that historic-zoned properties that sought density bonuses “shall maintain the architectural integrity of the historic landmark, as determined by the Historic Landmark Commission.”


Riley proposed the final amendment of the night, directing staff to focus on areas outside of the entertainment districts and explore positive incentives for development other than cocktail lounges. It was suggested that cocktail lounges be a conditional use downtown, but this is no longer the case.


The extended voting session followed a period of public comment. The bulk of the speakers were representatives from the “panhandle” of downtown and the city’s warehouse districts, objecting to limitations on development in their area. The panhandle area is just south of MLK and east of Judges Hill.


The Council voted unanimously to approve the framework with Riley abstaining from the vote related to the Northwest District and Tovo abstaining from the Uptown/District due to conflicts-of-interest.

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