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Canceled work session leaves several Council issues hanging

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members were prepared to discuss new visitability regulations, an agreement between the City of Austin and the University of Texas that would have allowed for an $85,000 study of the Project Connect effort, and the Holly Shores Master Plan, among other items, had Tuesday’s work session not been canceled due to weather.


Those issues, along with a discussion about development incentives for AthenaHealth and a potential break in the city’s ongoing contractual dispute with its firefighters union, the return of the Little Woodrow’s zoning case and work authorizations for City Hall renovations associated with the coming change in government remain likely sources of robust debate for Thursday’s Council agenda.


In addition to all of that, Council Member Bill Spelman told the Monitor that he’d hoped to discuss an affordability benchmarking study with his colleagues at Tuesday’s meeting. The item, intended to provide data about the efficacy of the city’s efforts to promote affordability in housing, could prove an issue.


Multiple Council offices are watching the visitability issue. If approved, the measure would mandate that new construction within the city’s jurisdiction provide a host of accessible features. Officials with the Home Builders’ Association of Greater Austin have expressed concerns that the changes could drive home prices up substantially.


Real Estate Council of Austin President Ward Tisdale expressed his organization’s concerns Tuesday afternoon. “RECA has long been concerned about overregulation in real estate development because of its effect on housing affordability,” Tisdale wrote in an email to the Monitor. “Ultimately policies such as visitability, while well intentioned, increase housing prices to the detriment of the consumer. We need policies that decrease costs, not raise them.”


The Austin Board of Realtors remains neutral on the idea.


For his part, Council Member Mike Martinez told the Monitor that he is “supportive” of the coming regulations, so long as the city can implement them in a way that doesn’t excessively increase housing prices. Martinez pointed to six variances approved by the city in the 15 years that its SMART housing regulations have been in place, and noted that there could be similar variances for exceptional circumstances.


As for the idea in general, he said, “it can be done.”


Council Member Laura Morrison’s office indicated that she would vote for the visitability regulations as currently written. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, on the other hand, said he was happy with some parts of the visitability ordinance but not all of it. “The one that bothers me,” he said, is the requirement for ramps. He suggested, as he has previously, that the city devise some kind of fee-in-lieu for homebuilders who can’t or don’t want to build the ramps.


The AthenaHealth incentives package drew sharp criticism last week from Morrison as well as Council member Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo. (See Austin Monitor, Jan. 24) That item appears as though it will also be a loud one.


Monitor Editor Jo Clifton and intern Chris Thompson contributed to this report.

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