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Planning Commission recommends Imagine Austin amendments but postpones neighborhood request

Thursday, February 27, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

At Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, city staff asked commissioners for their recommendations for amending the language of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.

Staff brought two requests to the dais. One was for an endorsement to alter the language of the Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map and Downtown Austin Plan to reflect that residential uses are appropriate for commercial and office land use designations. The second request was to update the text and maps of the Downtown Austin Plan to expand the use options for the affordable housing density bonus program and to extend mixed-use streets in the urban core and South Central Waterfront District.

While three downtown neighborhood associations expressed their support for staff’s recommended changes, they said these amendments did not sufficiently address the needs of their “Northwest District,” between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and 7th Street.

Ted Siff, who was representing the Old Austin Neighborhood Association (OANA), told commissioners that the density bonus amendments did not adequately account for the fact that the 2011 Downtown Austin Plan separated out the Northwest District. Similarly, he noted that when Council has contemplated downtown density bonus programs during the course of the Land Development Code rewrite, it has continued to consider this district independently.

On first reading of the new land code draft on Dec. 11, Council Member Greg Casar made an amendment to carve out Judges Hill, which adjacent to the Northwest District, from the affordable housing bonus proposed by the Planning Commission for commercial core lots. Although the bonus program will allow for unlimited height, he said the height limits for this section of downtown should be considered separately by staff.

Pointing out that this amendment passed, Siff asked the Planning Commission to consider the neighborhoods’ proposal for density bonus as part of the amendments to the Imagine Austin Plan.

“We feel that the provisions of the density bonus ensure that we are welcoming density in a way that will advance long-term neighborhood goals,” said OWANA member Chris Riley, a former City Council member.

The primary recommendation from the neighborhood was to extend a two-part density bonus through the Northwest District. North of 15th Street, they proposed a stair-stepped transition for heights down to single-family height. South of 15th Street, Riley said the neighborhood is recommending that the density bonus program apply as it does in the rest of the Downtown Austin Plan geography.

The proposed density bonus will also limit above-ground parking. Developers who elect to pursue a density bonus in this area will not be permitted to build above-grade parking with the square footage gained by added density. Additionally, any parking that is constructed will count toward the floor area ratio limits of the development.

The Planning Commission felt that these amendment requests should be considered separately from what city staff proposed. “Are we going to throw a wrench in the entire LDC by recommending changes at this moment?” Commissioner Awais Azhar asked.

Land Development Code rewrite team member Brent Lloyd said such substantial amendments are currently beyond the scope of the revision process. “I think we’ve just come to the conclusion that at some point, further changes … should really be deferred,” he said.

Commissioner Patricia Seeger suggested that the neighborhoods go through the city process and return to the commission as a case for a vote.

Siff grudgingly accepted that course of action, saying, “I was a foot taller and a decade younger when that recommendation was made about 10 years ago.”

The commission agreed to bring back these amendments at a future meeting and only voted on the two Imagine Austin Plan amendments staff had proposed. On the first amendment to include residential uses as part of commercial and office future land use map designations, the commission voted unanimously to recommend the change. The second amendment to expand the affordable housing density bonus program and mixed-use streets passed 11-1 with Commissioner Carmen Llanes-Pulido voting against the motion. Commissioner James Shieh was absent.

This article has been changed since publication to correct the name of the neighborhood association and clarify the boundaries of the Northwest District. Image from the Downtown Austin Plan courtesy of City of Austin/McCann Adams Studio.

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