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Council eliminates use of CURE zoning to gain development height, density

Monday, May 13, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though there was plenty of debate leading up to it, in the end City Council resoundingly approved a resolution that will make short work of Central Urban Redevelopment Combining District, or CURE, zoning.


In a vote of 6-1 last Thursday, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell in opposition, City Council eliminated CURE zoning as a means of achieving additional height or density in downtown Austin.


Kurt Cadena-Mitchell, a leader with Austin Interfaith, spoke in favor of the resolution, and “eliminating the loopholes that have allowed us to miss out on the opportunity to invest in affordable housing in our city.” He echoed the concerns of others who have criticized the zoning as a way of circumventing community benefits, especially affordable housing.


“What we learned recently from staff is that we have lost out on nearly $20 million that could have potentially been invested in affordable housing because we’ve been circumventing the density bonus program which has already passed in the Downtown Plan, although it has not been codified,” said Cadena-Mitchell.


That codification is already underway, after a request from City Council to have the code back ready by early June for approval.


According to the resolution passed Thursday, City Council will process the code amendment eliminating CURE zoning on the same date that they consider the streamlined Downtown Density Bonus program. Both the program and the elimination of CURE zoning were part of the Downtown Plan, which the City Council approved in December 2011.


Cadena-Mitchell also took the opportunity to let the Council know that, from now on, Austin Interfaith would be organizing around any zoning case that attempts to circumvent contributions to affordable housing.


“If this doesn’t pass today, you will see us down here for any zoning case that would allow you to use your discretionary zoning authority to require participation,” said Cadena-Mitchell. “And of course we will be letting all of our members know which Council Members are using their discretionary zoning authority to actually support affordable housing, and which council members are not.”


Leffingwell disputed Cadena-Mitchell’s assertions, specifically questioning the claim that $20 million that would have gone towards affordable housing had been lost. The mayor pointed out that it was impossible to say what would have been built if different zoning codes were in place.


“What makes you so sure that these applicants for CURE zoning would have built the additional height and FAR that they did build, because they were able to get that zoning, if they had not been able to get that zoning?” asked Leffingwell. “I think the true answer is that you don’t know.”


“To make the flat statement that we lost $20 million is simply inaccurate,” said Leffingwell, who reiterated his point in several different ways before dismissing Cadena-Mitchell with the pronouncement that “he was not willing to listen to anybody.”


Leffingwell explained his reason for voting against the resolution saying that he believed there were many good uses for CURE zoning.


“I think this will be discouraging density in the downtown area and I don’t think that it necessarily means we are going to be able to get additional revenue,” said Leffingwell.


Council Member Laura Morrison, who sponsored the resolution, said that she was happy to be moving forward with the Downtown Austin Plan and thanked Austin Interfaith for the work that they had done.


In a separate item, CURE zoning was, in fact, approved on Thursday. City Council approved the zoning change, which will allow a 13.5 to 1 floor-to-area ratio for a proposed office building at Third and Colorado Streets. It’s worth noting that, while not required by code, the developers voluntarily donated $200,000 to Foundation Communities in a private restrictive covenant.

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