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Council to update density benefit regulations for Rainey Street area

Friday, October 18, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday OK’d the start of a process that will result in a set of changes to the way that developers can exchange extra project density for community benefits in the area in and around Rainey Street. The new rules, once codified, are designed to bring Rainey’s development rules into alignment with those that govern the rest of the downtown region.


After some consideration of two proposed adjustments that would have immediately mandated on-site affordable housing for future residential projects along Rainey Street – one each from Council Members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison – Council members ultimately decided against the idea. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who brought the item forward highlighted her reasoning.


“I certainly value on-site affordable housing – and this resolution does maintain 5 percent of that – but it (also) gives builders a choice,” she said.


Later, Cole noted that fees-in-lieu recouped for Rainey projects “could be used for low-barrier permanent supportive housing.”


Council Member Mike Martinez framed the issue in terms of what he saw as on-the-ground reality. “When we begin these conversations, we always seem to, at least historically, refer to downtown workers as service industry employees,” he said. “But it’s my experience that most service industry employees that come and work downtown actually have families with children, and are not single. If we continue to simply require on-site affordability, we are not going to be serving those individuals; they are not going to spend that kind of money to live in a five-to-six-hundred square foot flat.”


Martinez continued: “I appreciate the goal of wanting to give opportunities to folks to live in downtown – and all over Austin – but I really want to know what the data is. If we are looking to serve that particular workforce, would they even contemplate living in one of these affordable units, considering their family situation.”


Still, Council Member Chris Riley noted that the on-site affordability conversation could continue through the code-making process. “Since we’re just initiating the code amendment process at this point, the coming weeks could provide an opportunity to look carefully at this and see exactly how it could play out in this setting,” he said.


Though appreciated by Council Member Kathie Tovo, Riley’s words were not enough to sway either her or Morrison. The resolution ultimately passed on a 5-2 vote.


Despite its history as a residential neighborhood, Rainey Street has emerged in recent years as a vibrant nightlife district. In their document, Cole and co-sponsor Chris Riley immediately group the region with the rest of downtown. They further note the discrepancy in allowable density and the community benefits that can be exchanged by developers for it that exists between Rainey Street and the rest of downtown.


The resolution instructs City Manager Marc Ott to return with code amendments that would address the issue.


Earlier coding along Rainey Street mandated on-site affordability as a condition of an increase in project density over zoned allowances. Morrison and Tovo remained concerned Thursday that a move away from that status – as seems likely under new coding – would be a move in the wrong direction.


The Morrison and Spelman compromises were items that would have enshrined the on-site affordability mandate alongside other, some might argue, superior community benefit features of the Downtown Austin Plan. Those proposals were attempts at syncing the two programs in a way that would not have provided excess administrative hassle.


City staff confirmed that a program so-designed would not be as difficult as full, side-by-side administration of Rainey and Downtown bonuses. However, staff also suggested that the original resolution would offer the least in the way of administrative heartburn.


Ott will be back with code amendments by the end of the year.

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