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Council makes late changes to Downtown Density Program

Monday, March 3, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

There were big changes at the last minute for the city’s Downtown Density Bonus Program Thursday night.


City Council voted 7-0 to codify community benefits of the Downtown Density Bonus Program not relating to affordability. They also voted to include the Rainey Street area in the program and establish an affordable housing land trust for units in Rainey Street. But the dozen or so amendments made in the final hours were not as universally embraced.


Perhaps the most significant amendment came from Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who added a provision that would allow downtown developers to gain increased floor-to-area ratio, or FAR, though City Council.                                                                    


Cole explained that the provision would allow development on smaller lots in the city, noting that as downtown has become more developed it has become increasingly difficult to assemble lots and create good design.


The amendment allows developers to get an increased floor-to-area ratio through the boards and commissions process, if approved by the director of the Planning and Development Review Department. When the density bonus program was adopted in July 2013, the city did away with Central Urban, or CURE, zoning, which also allowed developers to gain more FAR through City Council approval. That process was heavily favored by developers, who opted for the political process over the old administrative process every time until CURE was abolished.


Unlike CURE, anyone who hopes to gain additional FAR through City Council now will have already reached the maximum FAR through the administrative process. That means the “gatekeeper” requirements of community benefits will have already been established, at least in part. Any additional height would also be gained through the downtown density bonus program methodology.


Cole’s amendment passed on a vote of 5-2, with Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voting in opposition. Both Council members expressed grave concerns about such a major last-minute change.


“There’s a lot at stake here,” said Morrison. “And to do this in a haphazard way after seven years of discussion is, I think, inappropriate.”


“It just makes me very uncomfortable that it will become just another property by property controversy. And I just wish there was some way to put some bounds around it so it really is just extreme situations… It just feels like there’s nothing in here that will keep the property owner — every property owner – from thinking they might as well come try for larger FAR. I’m very uncomfortable with it,” said Morrison.


Tovo joined Morrison in her concerns, noting that the amendment would, effectively, change the FAR maps that were the result of a laborious public process.


“I just can’t emphasize enough what an extensive public process it was,” said Tovo. “I’m really glad to be here today working on the density bonus part of it, but this reopens up a much negotiated, much compromised document.”


Council Member Chris Riley saw it a different way, saying that the map would remain intact, but there would be more flexibility in the process, when necessary. He noted that the map would still dictate what FAR could be gained administratively. With the amendment, the limit could only be exceeded after a public process.


Riley said the availability of that option would become more important as the number of available building sites downtown continues to shrink, leaving only smaller sites to build on.


Cole’s amendment was far from the only change to the program, though many of the amendments were clarifications, some were significant.


As an addition to Cole’s amendment, Riley added an amendment that divorced parking from residential units. This is already the case in the University Neighborhood Overlay district, where apartment rentals are offered separately from parking spaces, which helps to reduce costs and, as Riley said, “provides a built-in incentive for people to consider reducing their dependence on cars.”


After extensive discussion, Council also altered the green building standards in the density bonus program. They replaced the requirement for LEED Gold with LEED Silver, which will achieve a 25 percent density bonus.


Council also passed a Morrison-proposed amendment banning “pay to play” in venues that have offered live music as one of their community benefits. Pay to play is the practice of charging musicians for time on stage. The concept has become more common in Austin lately, much to the dismay of the music community, which has been looking for a way to put an end to it. That amendment passed in a vote of 4-2 with Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Cole voting in opposition and Council Member Mike Martinez off the dais.

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