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Tovo crafts complex motion for HealthSouth talks

Wednesday, January 27, 2021 by Jo Clifton

At today’s meeting, City Council will finally consider negotiating an exclusive agreement with Aspen Heights Partners for the company to lease and redevelop the city-owned HealthSouth property at 1215 Red River and 606 E. 12th St. Council Member Kathie Tovo has posted a four-page set of instructions for City Manager Spencer Cronk and his team as a rough draft of the motion she intends to make to move the project forward.

The site is next to Waterloo Park, the future redeveloped Brackenridge Hospital and a future Project Connect Gold Line transit corridor. It is also in District 1, whose Council Member, Natasha Harper-Madison, briefly objected last month to postponing consideration of the motion. Harper-Madison may object to some parts of Tovo’s motion.

A chief concern expressed by Tovo as well as other Council members is the need to make the project a prime example of affordable housing. The motion she is proposing would direct the city manager to make sure that affordable housing is the site’s “significant and central use.”

In addition, Tovo’s motion would require “a significant shift from one-bedroom and studio homes to two-  and three-bedroom homes to align with” recommendations from a 2008 task force on families with children.

Any city profits above a certain internal rate of return once costs are covered “shall be used for the creation of Permanent Supportive Housing or vouchers and services for individuals experiencing homelessness,” according to the motion.

In addition, Tovo is seeking “on-site high-quality affordable child care” and a reduction in office space “as much as financially feasible.” She is asking that negotiators provide for communal learning spaces, such as computer labs, that are suitable for children.

Tovo is also seeking to ensure that commercial tenants will include a significant number of independent local merchants, without putting a number on the requirement.

Tovo is asking that any park or green space be fully accessible to the public and feature clear signage in both English and Spanish. She also wants to make sure that the public has access to any viewing deck built as part of the development.

Other amenities, such as a swimming pool, should also be free and open to the public without charge, Tovo says. In addition, she requests that costs for maintaining the park and any aquatic facility not be the city’s responsibility.

The motion includes requirements for acceptance of housing choice vouchers or other rental subsidies and sets maximum rents based on a household income at 60 percent median family income or below.

The final item on Tovo’s list of requests for the agreement is that the building achieve LEED Gold or 4-Star Green Building standards.

If Council adopts the motion, City Manager Spencer Cronk will be required to return to Council with an update within four months. More importantly, if Aspen Heights expresses “substantial concerns” about any of the community benefits requested by the city, Cronk is directed to share that information with the Council and “seek further direction” from them.

It is not clear whether Aspen Heights Partners, which developed the Independent, the city’s tallest downtown building, will agree to all of Tovo’s requirements. They proposed 365 apartments and 160 condos in a 36-story tower and a 15-story office tower. Their proposal offered more affordable housing than other proposals, but adding more affordable units may not suit them.

Even if the parties agree on all the terms, they could take many more months to work out the final agreement.

Tovo’s proposal specifically states that several departments be “deeply involved and engaged in the negotiation of the terms” of the agreement. However, because the central use of the tract is for housing, the motion states that the Economic Development Department “shall not be the primary lead in this negotiation.”

Rendering of proposed project by Aspen Heights Partners courtesy of the city of Austin. 

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