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Council postpones vote on Rainey towers, Tovo pushes density bonus changes

Friday, March 26, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Council Member Kathie Tovo previewed her upcoming push to change the downtown density bonus rules as part of her opposition to three new residential towers planned for the Rainey Street District.

“I believe we need to have a policy conversation that was deferred from 2014 about what benefits should be embedded within our density bonus programs when projects are proposing to exceed those caps,” Tovo said at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

The towers, which together would provide more than 1,000 homes – including over 50 affordable units – need approval from Council to exceed the floor area ratio allowable by the district’s zoning and the caps set as part of the downtown density bonus program.

The East Tower, a 41-story, 455-foot residential building with 284 units and an art gallery at 82 & 84 N. I-35. Rendering by STG Design.

“I am not supportive of these cases as they currently are for reasons that I hope we have an opportunity to discuss,” Tovo said, adding that she shares the concerns of Rainey residents who say the new buildings are too dense for the area.

More density, more benefits

Developers of downtown towers sometimes go through the city’s downtown density bonus program to ask for greater floor area ratio, which allows them to build taller and denser in exchange for community benefits. These benefits may include streetscape, design and green building requirements, in addition to on-site affordable housing and/or a fee-in-lieu for affordable housing elsewhere.

Though Rainey Street does not have height limits for towers, it does cap FAR at 8-1 (or 15-1 through the downtown density bonus program). The towers, with 32-1, 22-1 and 21-1 FAR, would exceed the program’s cap. 

River Street Residences, a 48-story, 569-foot residential building with 409 units plus retail and market space at 61 & 69 Rainey St. and 60 East Ave. Rendering by Lake-Flato Architects.

Tovo said she will bring forth an amendment to the Land Development Code to address the issue. Council is set to discuss the amendment at its next work session on Tuesday, April 6.

Tovo will likely seek changes to the program that require developers to provide more affordable units. In an interview with KXAN, she said, “We’re leaving money on the table for affordable housing, and we’re really limiting our opportunities for affordable units right here in Rainey.”

“If there’s a way to fix the code and have it apply (to these projects),” she said, “then I’m all for it. I just don’t know that that’s a possibility.” 

The neighborhood has several other towers in development, including a 1,030-foot mixed-use tower that would become the tallest building in Texas. Though the rules likely wouldn’t apply to the three towers up for Council approval, they could apply to future towers.

Too dense?

9092 Rainey, a 51-story, 602-foot tower with 446 residential units plus two cocktail lounges at 90 & 92 Rainey St. Rendering by Nelsen Partners.

Some neighborhood residents have vehemently opposed new development, especially projects that exceed the standard zoning entitlements. 

Neighbors say that Rainey, with its limited road infrastructure, can’t handle all the new people. The increases in traffic associated with the new towers would overwhelm the neighborhood’s road infrastructure, some neighbors say, creating jams that would inconvenience residents and impede emergency services. Some also worry that more tall buildings would create a “concrete canyon,” blocking views and leaving Rainey Street in shade for most of the day. Some neighbors have claimed the area would be “denser than Manhattan.”

Other neighbors welcome the new development, as do urbanists and affordable housing advocates.

“We have a lot of room to grow in downtown,” urbanist Greg Anderson said. “There are thousands of housing cost-burdened Austinites … getting pushed out of Austin altogether by the lack of available housing. After all, the best way to guarantee displacement in a growing community is to limit the new housing supply.”

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said she plans to post a response to Tovo’s move on the City Council Message Board. Harper-Madison has shown support for new, dense housing and often stresses that the city is in an affordability crisis caused by lack of housing supply.

Though it is unclear whether there are enough Council members aligned with Tovo for any measure she brings to pass, Council is sure to have a thorough discussion of the program’s incentives early next month. 

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