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Council at odds over immediate change to rules for alleys, density bonus

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council Member Kathie Tovo wants city staff to execute an extensive study on the City of Austin’s alleys. Tovo argues that the study could help preserve a disappearing resource.


She also wants the city to prioritize the codification of the Downtown Density Bonus over other segments of the city’s downtown plan. That, Tovo suggests, would install a preferred method of calculating an exchange of affordable housing for project density.


However, Tovo ran into stiff opposition from Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Leffingwell summed up his concerns as part of the Downtown Density Bonus discussion. “This language has basically the same problem as (the other item): It’s establishing a policy to address future actions of the Council and I can’t support anything like that,” he said at Tuesday’s work session.


The alley study was inspired by the 2009 work of a University of Texas architecture student, whose masters’ report suggested that the city needed a downtown alleys master plan. Tovo cited a score of alley vacations as a major concern. “Like other cities, we have lost an opportunity to really preserve our alleys,” she said.


However, Tovo also acknowledged that the resolution would keep Council members from making a change to city code that would specifically allow alleys to be counted as loading and unloading zones in the central business district also set for Thursday. “I don’t think we should enter into any permanent changes to our city code regarding alleys and I know there is one contemplated for Thursday, which is why – in part – why I wanted to have this discussion now, rather than at some future point,” she said.


Indeed, if approved as-is, language in the resolution would theoretically keep this and future Councils from making any changes in city code regarding alleys until the study is completed. Council Member Mike Martinez asked city attorney Karen Kennard if that practice is legal.


“I don’t think there are any legal issues with the posting language,” said Kennard. “I think that the Council can always, though – just as it passes something that says ‘we won’t do this’ – can repeal it or adopt something else that does away with whatever you’ve adopted previously.”


Still, Martinez noted that he also has problems with the wording. “We’re contemplating all kinds of different policy changes right now. Let’s say there are four Council members who didn’t want us to change our economic incentive policy, and those four passed an item that says ‘the Council is precluded from changing economic incentive deals,” he said. “It may not be illegal to post language like this, but it just doesn’t make sense.”


The issue resurfaced as Council members discussed Tovo’s pitch to make the Downtown Density Bonus a top priority for codification as city staff works to make the Downtown Plan into law. Originally passed in December 2011, the Downtown Plan has yet to be codified. The current situation leaves Council members and city staff stuck between a still-active CBD-CURE option and a preferred – but yet-to-be-formalized – density bonus plan as a way for the city to gain affordable housing in exchange for additional density. This has created some confusion – particularly in association with the Hotel ZaZa project (See In Fact Daily, March 8, 2013).


Tovo’s measure would immediately initiate the coding process for the downtown bonus program, and instruct city staff to usher it through a series of boards and commissions in time for Council approval on June 6. “This basically puts a priority rush on the downtown density bonus program as it relates to CURE rezoning,” Tovo said. “It is not contemplating anything outside of what is already going on with the codification of the downtown plan.”


“In the interest in providing the kind of consistency and predictability to the development community that we often hear that they would like, stating a guiding principal – stating that this is going to be our guiding principal from here on out – I think makes good sense,” Tovo later said.


Indeed, the posting language of the item – specifically the idea that it could theoretically bind future Councils – brought the Mayor’s public objection.


Both of the items are scheduled for Thursday action.

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