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Planning Commission OKs increased FAR for downtown high-rise

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission heard its first Downtown Density Bonus Program case last week. And, while there will be a contribution to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, developers were also asking for entitlements greater than those offered under the Downtown Austin Plan. Ultimately, the commission supported the project unanimously.


Riverside Resources Investments II, Ltd., plans to build a 39-story multifamily building at 718 West Fifth Street. In order to do that, they are seeking an FAR exception from Council. The map allows for an increase of up to 12:1 FAR (from the original 8:1). To complete the project, developers are asking for an FAR of 20:1.


When the Downtown Austin Plan was initially passed, the map of floor-to-area ratios, or FARs, to would be allowed was also passed, and meant to be an absolute limit for the delineated downtown sub-districts. But when City Council codified the rest of the plan in March, they also passed an exception that allows developers to get Council approval for FARs greater than what they would be allowed on the map.


Commissioner Danette Chimenti expressed concern that, after a long negotiation process to create the maps, Council then allowed for those limits to be exceeded.


“I guess the concern I would have is that (the change) kind of unravels – or could lead to, it seems like – an unraveling of the Downtown Plan,” said Chimenti. “There are no real guidelines for (staff) to use, or for us to use in evaluating if you just say, ‘well, gosh, Council can waive the Downtown Plan or waive the limits put together in the Downtown Plan.’”


Jim Robertson, the city’s Urban Development Design Review Manager, said that Chimenti was correct and the code that was adopted by Council did not provide staff with “any specific criteria upon which to evaluate a staff recommendation for this process.”


In the absence of any such guidelines, Robertson said that staff turned to the Downtown Austin Plan itself, which he said was “somewhat helpful.” He confirmed that it would be nice to get clearer guidelines on this exception.


The project meets the “gatekeeper” requirements of the Downtown Austin Plan, by complying with design, Great Streets and green building standards. In addition, the project will offer about $500,000 to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, $333,000 to the Shoal Creek Conservancy, and build to Three-Star Green Energy building standards (only two-star is required to meet the gatekeeper requirements.)


Because the lot is partially located in a Capitol View Corridor, the increased FAR would only apply to about half of the site. Plans call for a narrow tower to be built on the part not in the corridor, and that tower will contain about 162 residential units.


Husch Blackwell attorney Nikelle Meade explained that, in addition to the other community benefits the project was offering under the Downtown Austin Plan, they had also agreed to several compromises with neighbors and would be paying for Car2Go, B-Cycle and Shoal Creek Conservancy memberships for all property buyers.


These benefits, and the fact that the units will be offered for sale (not rent) helped win neighborhood support for the project, and the increased entitlements. Ted Siff, president of the Old Austin Neighborhood Association and board president of the Shoal Creek Conservancy, spoke in support of the project and the 20:1 FAR.


“This applicant has set a very high standard in terms of neighborhood outreach,” said Siff, who also spoke favorably about how the increase in residents will be beneficial to the neighborhood and the Shoal Creek Conservancy.


“Because it will be there, there won’t be another bar,” said Siff.


Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez said he was hopeful that more units being built downtown would lead to an increase in downtown residential affordability, though he admitted that hadn’t yet been the case.


“I’m really concerned about the average citizen really not being able to afford living downtown. That bugs me, because that’s really what we want – more affordability. The density is really so that more people can move downtown, not just so that wealthy people can move downtown,” said Hernandez.


The Planning Commission voted 7-0 in support of the project, with Commissioners Myron Smith and Brian Roark absent. Commissioner Stephen Oliver added an amendment that included the Capitol View Corridor context in their decision as a way to start establishing guidelines for FAR exceptions.


Chimenti added the location of the property – which is closer to the center of downtown and not in an area that is part of a transition into a neighborhood – as another amendment.

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