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Council looks to increase height allowed under VMU zoning

Monday, November 22, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council last Thursday took a step toward addressing housing affordability, passing a resolution to allow greater building height in areas zoned Vertical Mixed-Use (VMU).

The code change would create VMU2, a new zoning category that allows 90 feet of height in exchange for on-site affordable housing. The current VMU zoning, which allows 60 feet of height, would change in name only, becoming VMU1.

VMU, one of the city’s several density bonus programs, aims to create dense, mixed-use development on major corridors. If developers opt in, building restrictions are relaxed in exchange for providing on-site affordable housing and ground-floor commercial space.

Final approval of the code change is set for early next year. In the meantime, city staffers will calibrate VMU2’s affordability requirement. Because VMU zoning is optional, calibration must be done carefully. If the affordability requirement is too onerous, developers won’t participate. 

The resolution’s sponsor, Council Member Ann Kitchen, said the idea came about in response to zoning cases in which developers had requested Multifamily Residence-Highest Density (MF-6) zoning, which allows 90-foot heights, in areas zoned VMU and offered affordable housing. Council recently approved one such zoning case, in which a developer plans a 450-unit apartment building on South Lamar

The proposition is not ideal because the city must rely on restrictive covenants to enforce promises of affordable housing, and developers have to endure a lengthy, uncertain rezoning process. The new VMU ordinance ensures affordable housing while letting developers bypass rezoning. 

The resolution, which passed 9-0 with Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and Council Member Pio Renteria off the dais, was seen as an easy step ahead of more in-depth and controversial land use conversations to come. 

“It is not going to solve all issues around affordability, and it’s not intended to,” Kitchen said. “It’s intended to be one piece of the range of options that we’ll be talking about.” 

Council is just now tackling housing affordability in earnest after a judge halted the city’s Land Development Code rewrite a year and a half ago. At a special meeting set for Nov. 30, Council will contemplate code amendments aimed at creating more housing, particularly affordable housing.

A number of potential changes have been circulating, including a resolution from Mayor Steve Adler that would allow residential use in commercial zones. Other potential changes include simplifying the city’s permitting process, reducing parking requirements and eliminating barriers to accessory dwelling unit construction.

Changes to VMU1 will also be central in the forthcoming discussions. Adler on Thursday directed city staff to analyze the impact of various affordability requirements in VMU zoning on affordable housing production. “VMU is one of the most effective things we can do, and I want to make sure that it’s maximizing the level of affordability that we can get,” Adler said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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