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Council approves Rainey towers, pledges new LDC push

Friday, April 9, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

On Thursday City Council approved increased floor area ratio for three new towers in the Rainey Street area, bringing 1,000 more homes – 55 of them affordable – to the area.

The approval of the towers may have consequences beyond Rainey. First, Council is set to increase the Downtown Density Bonus program’s community benefits requirements, which aims to increase the supply of market-rate and affordable housing built in downtown and around the city. 

“I really look forward to that work being done swiftly,” Council Member Alison Alter said. 

The towers also spurred broader discussion on the urgent need to tackle the citywide housing and affordability crisis.

“We owe an obligation to the community to finish the Land Development Code work,” Mayor Steve Adler said.

The approved towers include the East Tower at 82 and 84 Interstate 35; River Street Residences at 61 and 69 Rainey St. and 60 East Ave.; and 9092 Rainey at 90 and 92 Rainey St. Council had to approve the projects because they exceeded the Downtown Density Bonus program’s 15:1 FAR cap, requesting 21:1, 22:1 and 32:1 FAR, respectively.

In exchange for the increased FAR, the projects will provide a combined 30 ownership units at 80 percent median family income, 25 rentals at 80 percent MFI, over $3 million in affordable housing fees-in-lieu, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in parkland dedication fees, much of which will be spent on improvements to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.

Though many Council members thought that the community benefits required of the projects were too low, only Council members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen opposed the towers. The votes were 9-2, with all others in favor. Tovo and Kitchen cited not only the projects’ inadequate benefits but also the area’s mobility problems.

“The infrastructure in that area has not kept up with the incredible pace of development and redevelopment in that area,” Tovo said. Rainey, in addition to much of downtown and Central Austin, lies within Tovo’s District 9.

Dozens of Rainey residents spoke out against allowing the extra FAR, arguing that Rainey’s infrastructure could not handle the influx of new residents.

Upal Barua, Austin Transportation Department acting assistant director, said that the department is working on the area’s mobility challenges. Negotiations are in progress for purchasing right-of-way to extend Red River Street south, connecting it to the Mexican American Cultural Center, and extending Rainey Street north, connecting it to Cesar Chavez Street and Sabine Street. 

Barua also mentioned that some “quick fixes” are in the works. The city will use the 2019 Rainey Mobility Study as the area’s main transportation planning document. 

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison argued that Rainey’s density makes it one of the most livable places in the city. “It is one of the few neighborhoods in Austin where people can live comfortably without having to own a car, especially once the Blue Line is completed,” she said. 

“The more housing we can build here gives more people access to the benefits of living in a walkable, complete community, which means so much to our future goals,” Harper-Madison said. 

Multiple Council members took the opportunity to address the city’s housing crisis.

“I just want to reiterate,” Council Member Greg Casar said, “how important it is for us to continue to work through these Land Development Code and housing issues together. We’ve had a housing crisis that’s been impacting people for a long time.”

“As we get into May and June, July, August,” Adler said, “my hope is that in that time frame, we’re able to fashion a step forward with respect to the Land Development Code – one that moves us forward and maybe doesn’t bring into the discussion the issues with respect to notice and petition rights.”

A judge halted Austin’s comprehensive new Land Development Code last year. Changes to the existing code are still possible, though other priorities have taken precedent – the pandemic, Winter Storm Uri and homelessness.

Casar said it is “intensely important for us to address both the housing supply issues and getting as much affordable housing subsidy for people the market isn’t going to serve.”

“We’re all here, understanding what you said, Council Member Casar,” Kitchen said. “I think it’s really important for us to remember that every single one of us cares about affordability, and every single one of us cares about housing and density. Our votes here do not mean that we are either against or for density.”

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