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Council looks at compromise on Rainey Street density bonus plan

Thursday, October 17, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members returned Tuesday to the question of how to calculate public amenities associated with density bonuses for projects located in the Rainey Street neighborhood downtown. As part of the discussion – postponed from Council’s last agenda – Council Member Laura Morrison offered a potential compromise.


Morrison’s proposal would adopt the Downtown Austin Density Bonus Program for Rainey Street, but substitute the Rainey affordable housing mandates that call for on-site affordable housing for residential projects – for developments calling for between 8:1 and 12:1 in floor-to-area ratio. 


“That way, we would still be able to achieve on-site (affordable housing) getting to 12:1, but nobody would have to do the collection of programs in the Rainey program for the bonuses,” she offered. “Any time you are going to be doing the other (community) benefits, it would be the (Downtown plan) benefits.”


The original item as brought forward by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Member Chris Riley is an attempt to reconcile a gap in the respective density bonus program offered for Rainey Street and the new Downtown Density Bonus Program. Both efforts are city-offered options that allow developers to exchange extra project density for a host of public amenities. Most notably, these include affordable housing.


Though the Rainey Street neighborhood is adjacent to areas included in the Downtown Density Bonus Program, it hosts its own set of policies. Current rules mandate the inclusion of on-site affordable housing for projects that extend above 8:1in floor-to-area ratio.


The Downtown Density Bonus program offers developers the option of a fee in lieu of providing local affordable housing. That fact has raised concerns from Council Member Kathie Tovo.


On Tuesday, Tovo asked her colleagues to consider an option that “would not have…what I would perceive as a little bit of a step back from that Rainey Street affordability” – the on-site mandate for affordable units.


Morrison had called for more clarity on the issue as part of deliberations two weeks ago. “It makes sense with regard to extra square footage for some of the community benefits but when it comes to affordable housing – since affordability is a central component of the Downtown Density Bonus plan – what wasn’t clear to me was: How do you actually integrate those two (the Rainey and Downtown bonuses),” she said at the time.


Cole agreed that a delay two weeks ago was for the best. “I want to make sure that as we go from base zoning to 15:1, as we have in the Downtown Austin Plan, that we do that consistent with the code and there are some conflicting provisions that are coming into play and I want to visit with staff about it,” she said then.


Tuesday, it was clear that Cole and Riley were ready to move forward. As Tovo pushed toward the idea of including on-site affordability, Cole acknowledged that she had considered the option. However, Cole added that it was deemed a practical one.


Cole told Tovo that she had considered implementing Rainey Street restrictions up to 12:1 FAR, but that it was ruled out because she wants the Rainey rules “to be more consistent with the Downtown Austin Plan and put those community benefits in place at a lower level.”


She also reminded her colleagues that the ordinance as proposed by herself and Riley would offer more clarity to the city’s Planning and Development Review Department.


The city’s Urban Development Design Review Manager, Jim Robertson, confirmed that this was the case. “I’m not highly enthused about (the Tovo proposal),” Robertson said. “Some of the basic tenants – at least within the Downtown Plan about density bonus programs – is that they should be fairly predictable administratively transparent, and relatively easy to execute.”


Robertson carefully suggested that this might not be the case with the Tovo proposal.


Morrison’s proposal emerged as a suggestion for a compromise between the Tovo and Cole positions. Robertson also appeared to leave room for Morrison’s idea. “The option you are proposing would remove some of this layering (of programs),” he told Morrison.


The item is set for a vote today.

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