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Delay sought for Density Bonus plans for Rainey Street

Thursday, October 3, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole plans to delay an item on today’s Austin City Council agenda that seeks to reconcile the city’s new Downtown Density Bonus program with one in place in the exploding Rainy Rainey Street area. With the postponement, staff will have the opportunity to further delve into the issue.


“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,” said Cole at Tuesday’s Council work session.


Council Member Laura Morrison argued for clarity. “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),”


As currently written, Rainey Street development code requires that builders allow for 5 percent of a residential project to contain housing built for families living at 80 percent of the national median family income level. The Downtown Density Bonus program gets activated when a project calls for an 8:1 floor-to-area ratio. Rainey projects can earn additional floor-to-area considerations, up to a 10:1 ratio, if they meet other criteria for community benefits.


According to Jim Robertson, Urban Design Division Manager with Planning and Development Review, there is what he described as an overlap in code. “The Rainey program, of course, has an affordability requirement that is still applying in that gap (of between 8:1 FAR and 12:1 FAR), if you will,” Robertson said. “And the Downtown Plan has its own affordability requirements that kicks in at 8 (8:1 FAR).”


“It would be helpful for staff, as we move forward, if everybody can arrive at the same place as to how we want to handle that space between 8:1 and 12:1,” Robertson continued. “Whether we just want to essentially say the Rainey program does not require anything above 8(:1), and above 8(:1) the Downtown Plan kicks in – or the Rainey plan gets you to 12(:1) and the Downtown plan kicks in above that.”


Robertson argued against the idea of extending the Rainey program to 12:1 FAR, and having the Downtown plan cover everything in terms of density bonuses above that figure. He wondered whether that idea, “from an administrative point of view…(is) good for the applicants or staff – especially as we’re trying to make a process that can be handled administratively, and predictably, and efficiently.”


For his part, Council Member Bill Spelman wondered if the fact that affordable housing provisions in the Rainey Street area only apply to residential projects might incent solely commercial development.


“It seems to me, that’s a provocation for developers to put in office buildings and not residential buildings,” Spelman offered.


Robertson was not swayed by the idea. “The modeling we did for the Downtown plan, including the update we did just within the last few months, proved up once again that the economics – the financing and so forth – and the returns are different between residential and office,” he told Spelman. “So our recommendation continues that (affordable housing requirements) apply to residential buildings but not non-residential buildings.”


Cole did not suggest a new date for the item on Tuesday. Robertson will return after a consultation with city legal with a handful of, as he put, translated, real-world scenarios and options.

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