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Density bonus program raises doubts in commission

Monday, May 2, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

A change to the Land Development Code that would include multifamily zoning in the city’s density bonus programs hit a stumbling block at last week’s Planning Commission meeting. Commissioners voted overwhelmingly to pass the proposal on to City Council without a recommendation and expressed doubt that the change would ultimately do much at all.

Essentially, the code amendment, as proposed by staff, would eliminate the current Multifamily-6 (MF-6) regulations that allow development with no site area requirement and no floor-to-area limit. Those entitlements could be earned back, however, by participation in an affordable housing program. In addition, staff has recommended that two additional entitlements be added to the density bonus program: reduced parking requirements and up to 30 feet of additional height (for a total of 120 feet, compatibility standards notwithstanding).

After several failed votes to endorse the changes, the commission voted 12-1 to move the ordinance to Council with no recommendation. Commissioner Karen McGraw voted in opposition.

Planning manager Jerry Rusthoven was upfront about the fact that how these changes would be integrated into the CodeNEXT process is extremely unclear. “I don’t even know if there is going to be an MF-6 category under CodeNEXT. I kind of doubt it would exist in the form that it exists today,” he said. “I can just say we have an amendment from the Council to amend the code as it exists today.”

At any rate, to qualify for the proposed density bonus program, developers must offer on-site affordable housing in line with the city’s other programs. Staff recommends that 10 percent of units be affordable, with owner-occupied units at 80 percent median family income and rental units at 50 percent median family income.

Despite some consensus that the ideas contained within the amendment are worthwhile, commissioners ultimately were not able to recommend this particular change, given the fact that it would affect very few properties in the city at best.

Chair Stephen Oliver said he couldn’t support the amendment because, basically, it “doesn’t impact any real properties in this town. … For just a few, I feel like it’s kind of weird.” Specifically, he pointed out that the code amendment could affect 19 properties, though it was unclear how many of those 19 properties would redevelop and, of course, whether the amendment would still have an impact after CodeNEXT.

“The development community, the neighborhood community — everyone was against it. That told me something,” said Oliver. “On principle, it just doesn’t seem like good planning. It seems reactionary, and I don’t like that.”

Oliver’s concerns were echoed by some commissioners, but others were reluctant to discard any opportunity for affordability. Commissioner Trinity White argued that the amendment would offer tangible affordability, even if it wasn’t a huge change.

“I completely understand the sentiment that this is too small to make a difference. I personally have a difficult time with that sentiment,” said White. “I think that’s what discourages people from voting, I think that’s what discourages people from getting up and saying something that they believe in. I think that’s what discourages a lot of people from making decisions and from acting. … This would make a difference on these properties.”

A.J. Bingham, who is the director of government affairs with the Real Estate Council of Austin, also spoke against the draft ordinance. He said that RECA would like to see the existing MF-6 entitlements remain as they are, for the maximum floor-to-area ratio to be increased and for the affordability standards to be set at 80 percent MFI, not 60 percent.

Mary Ingle, who spoke on behalf of the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, explained that the group had voted not to support the height increase and sent the item back to CodeNEXT.

Speaking on her own behalf, Ingle urged the commission to examine the proposed amendment “very carefully” because it wasn’t clear where the 120-foot height limit came from. She also noted that the extra height was not something in the original Council resolution.

By LoneStarMikeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10863832

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