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City tries to get developers to embrace ‘great urban design’

Thursday, November 8, 2018 by Jack Craver

While the most often discussed aim of density bonuses has been to create affordable housing, the city also hopes to use them as a way to encourage other community benefits, including superior design.

“We’re trying to shift the narrative and shift the story and say great urban design is important,” Jorge Rousselin, who is the staff liaison to the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, said during a meeting last month of the Design Commission.

Staff members currently have dozens of design guidelines they use in their “qualitative review” of a project that is seeking greater height or size than the base zoning regulations allow.

Rousselin said that the city has decided a holistic, qualitative approach is better than setting strict rules.

“You may only meet five of the guidelines out of 46, but you knock them out of the park. Or you met 20 of them, but it’s kind of wishy-washy,” he said, explaining the value of staff discretion in seeking designs that will further the city’s goals of encouraging active streetscapes and public plazas, among other things.

While the Design Commission is supposed to play a key role in the review process, Commissioner Bart Whatley said that developers are often too committed to their project design by the time the commission looks at their plans.

“When a project’s designed well, we have no problem. But when we have issues with something, the applicant’s already months in and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “And they’ve got a site plan under review and they’ve invested in the architecture and engineering team and they really don’t want to change things at that point. And I don’t blame them.”

In such cases, Whatley said, developers often resort to blaming the “city system” for being inflexible.

Rousselin acknowledged this issue, but said that he believes developers are increasingly recognizing the value of collaborating with the commission.

Commissioner Aan Coleman said the commission struggles with what to request of project applicants in exchange for the additional entitlements they’re seeking: “If they want more height, what do we ask for?”

Chair David Carroll replied that the chief benefit is the affordable housing. In the downtown density program, developers almost always pay a fee-in-lieu to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, rather than provide on-site, income-restricted housing.

In contrast to the rest of the city, downtown projects do not have to require parking. In fact, the downtown plan that Council approved a decade ago prohibits the city from demanding or restricting parking as part of a density bonus program.

Some major commercial buildings, Rousselin noted, don’t have any on-site parking.

Commercial projects can receive density bonuses in exchange for a variety of “community benefits,” but they generally do not pay a fee toward affordable housing. City ordinance has a fee schedule in place for such projects, but it’s currently set at $0, Rousselin said. That was one of many parts of the code that staffers were expecting to address through CodeNEXT, the proposed overhaul of the land development code that Council abruptly called off in August in response to perceived public opposition.

This story has been corrected to properly reflect Rousselin’s position at the city of Austin. Photo by Fredlyfish4 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

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