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Council approves long-debated Downtown Plan on final reading

Monday, December 12, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

After years of work, City Council has finally passed the Downtown Plan.


The plan will function as a framework for future development downtown. City Council voted unanimously to pass the plan in the form it took on first reading on Nov. 4, save the addition of a few last-minute amendments.


Now the process of putting the plan into code, and recalibrating the up-until-now unsuccessful density bonus program can begin.


CURE zoning remains off the table as a means to achieve additional height and floor-to-area ratio. Council Member Bill Spelman’s amendment, which modifies density bonus fees-in-lieu and allows them to be spent on community benefits such as open space, public art, or underground parking remains intact.


Also intact is Council Member Chris Riley’s direction that the city staff explore means other than a 45-foot height restriction to preserve the character of the warehouse district. However, Council Member Kathie Tovo made a suggestion that threatened it.


Tovo pushed for additional language that allowed for a “context-sensitive development standards,” saying that it allowed for continuing conversations about alternative ways of preserving the warehouse district.


“Can I just ask, since the current proposed version does suggest that we really don’t want to have a strict height limit in place for the warehouse district, and we are taking that language out, is the intent for this amendment to suggest that strict height limits may be appropriate?” asked Riley.


Tovo replied, “certainly that would be a context-specific design standard,” but her amendment failed.


Morrison’s first suggested amendment provoked the most conversation. She suggested that the standards for green building within the context of the density bonus program be raised and further incentivized.


Morrison proposed that in order to participate in the density bonus program, developers must achieve two stars in the Austin Energy Green Building Program, instead of one.


“I think in terms of gatekeeper requirements as a small bit beyond what is already required in the code. And since it’s already required that CBD and DMU be one-star, the next step up is two-star. That brings us at least a small, guaranteed level of superiority, and that means that we have a base of that superiority,” said Morrison.


She also proposed that developers who achieve four stars get 25 percent density bonus those who achieve five stars get a 30 percent bonus. After some discussion, it was determined that these exact percentages would be subject to change after further research by staff.


“We’ve already committed to Council that in conjunction with developing the code amendments, that in putting a density bonus program in place, that we’d look at the calibration of that program simultaneously,” said co-project manager of the Downtown Austin Plan Jim Robertson.


“It’s pretty much fair game to say that within that calibration to take a look, working with AE, and working with other stakeholders as needed to make sure that we bring back a fair valuation… within the green building rating program,” said Robertson


Council Member Bill Spelman and Mayor Lee Leffingwell both expressed concern that the amendment could impose additional expense for developers.


“I am willing to accept this as a friendly amendment, in large part, because Mr. Roberson has suggested that he can tell us whether that is a small step, or a very large step, when we actually get to codification. If it is a large step, I will ask for it to be changed back to one star,” said Spelman.


Morrison also added an amendment that addresses historic preservation component of the program. Her proposal states that the density bonus program “should allow for contributions to on or off-site historic preservation exceeding applicable legal requirements.” Both Leffingwell and Cole expressed support for the change.


At one point, as City Council began to examine the minutiae amendment language, Council Member Mike Martinez made a “clarifying point.”


“What we are doing today is simply directing staff to begin codifying what we’ve said today… the language that we are adopting today is not exactly what is going to be in the final draft of the ordinance,” said Martinez.


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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