Photo by Ryan Thornton
Wednesday, July 14, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City staffers propose Great Streets fees-in-lieu

City staffers have recommended new fees-in-lieu for the Great Streets requirement of the Downtown Density Bonus program, as City Council directed last year. On June 28, they presented their recommendations to the Design Commission. 

Establishing fees-in-lieu for Great Streets is a “specific solution to a specific problem,” as Design Commission Chair David Carroll put it. Downtown towers that apply for a density bonus – which gives more entitlements in exchange for community benefits – are required to build sidewalks that comply with Great Streets, the city’s most pedestrian-friendly street design that’s used only in downtown. But after two recent projects couldn’t comply with Great Streets because they front Interstate 35 (whose right of way is controlled by the Texas Department of Transportation), Council asked staffers to create a fee-in-lieu option.

TxDOT severely limited what the two projects, the East Tower and River Street Residences, could put in the right of way. TxDOT was particularly strict with the East Tower, prohibiting any enhanced sidewalk treatments like trees, benches or bike racks, essentially mandating a bare sidewalk.

“We have begged TxDOT to let us do anything across that boundary and they have not given us any flexibility there,” Leah Bojo, agent for the developer of the East Tower, told the Design Commission last November. The East Tower voluntarily committed a Great Streets fee-in-lieu and added extra streetscape features on its property. 

Council, having learned about the right-of-way complications last year, directed staff members to consider a fee-in-lieu option for such situations. That way, Great Streets could be built in places where they might not otherwise. 

Jorge Rousselin with the Housing and Planning Department told the commission in June that because TxDOT’s right of way downtown only applies to downtown projects along I-35 outside Capitol View Corridors, “the scope of this is quite narrow.” It essentially affects just 5,500 feet of right of way, according to Rousselin.

City staffers recommend setting the fees-in-lieu between $55 and $60 per square foot of right of way to help cover the cost of Great Streets elsewhere. An additional 10 percent ($5.50-$6) will be added for maintenance costs. Staffers also recommend updating the fees annually to adjust for inflation and fluctuations in prices of construction materials. 

Staff members will present their recommendations in the early fall of 2021 and ask Council to initiate a code amendment by the end of the year. If the schedule sticks, the fees could be in place by early next spring. 

The commission voted unanimously to recommend city staffers’ plan to Council.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City of Austin Design Commission: The city's design commission recommends City Council on urban development, with a focus on excellence in design.

Great Streets: A development project focused on remodeling streets for vehicle, pedestrian and bike use.

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