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Affordable housing takes center stage in Statesman PUD debate

Thursday, April 7, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council Member Kathie Tovo revealed during Tuesday’s work session that she will be seeking a major change to the proposed planned unit development on the former Statesman site on Lady Bird Lake.

The Planning Commission unanimously approved plans for the site, which is currently proposed to include 1,378 residential units, 150,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 1.5 million square feet of offices, and a 275-room hotel at 305 S. Congress Ave.

Tovo told her colleagues she is going to ask Council to approve a requirement for 10 percent affordable rental housing on the site as opposed to the Planning Commission and staff recommendation of 4 percent.

Tovo said the South Central Waterfront Plan envisioned a total of 2,142,900 square feet of development on the site and suggested 4 percent on-site affordable housing. However, she said the proposed PUD exceeds that by about 3,515,000 square feet, worth an estimated $840 million more than what the smaller plan projected.

Since developers are asking for considerably more entitlements, Tovo said she thought it was reasonable to ask for 10 percent affordable units for people earning 60 percent of the median family income and 5 percent ownership units for those earning 80 percent of the MFI. She said those numbers would be in line with the PUD ordinance.

She also said it was important that people have access from the Congress Avenue Bridge to the park that will be part of the development. As currently configured, Tovo said, people wanting to visit the park would have to go through the development to get there.

Tovo said she would also like to see the developer participate in the Better Builder Program for its workers, and if the hotel is approved, to work with UNITE HERE, the union representing hotel workers.

Council Member Chito Vela has been arguing in favor of a cash contribution from the developer to the city’s affordable housing fund in lieu of building on-site affordable housing.

Vela points out that housing on the site will come at a much higher price than in most other areas. He told the Austin Monitor that he is still in favor of an idea he posted on the City Council Message Board last week urging his colleagues to join him in seeking cash instead of on-site housing. He suggested that the city could use that cash to build more affordable housing at One Texas Center, which is not far from the waterfront.

Vela also posed a number of questions about how the city is going to fund enough affordable housing when the HEAL initiative promises to take just 200 unhoused individuals off the streets this year.

Mayor Steve Adler indicated during Tuesday’s meeting that he might not be in favor of requiring more affordable housing on the Statesman site. He said, “I think we need to provide as much affordable housing as we can,” adding that he had reservations about putting affordable housing in the most expensive areas. “I’m not convinced that that is the way to help the greatest number of people,” he said.

Adler added, “I’ve always wanted us to take a look at housing that might be a stop or two stops away that might be able (to house) a greater number of people. For me, I don’t know if it needs to be at Ground Zero.”

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter and Council Member Leslie Pool both told Tovo they agreed with her idea to have direct access to the park from the Congress Avenue Bridge. As for Vela, he told the Monitor Wednesday that he thinks the 8 acres of parkland is the most important amenity the developer is offering on the 19-acre site.

There will no doubt be considerable discussion about funding park upkeep and improvements, because the developer evidently wants those improvements to be funded through money generated by the tax increment reinvestment zone, which Council has created but not yet funded. That’s a discussion that could take hours all by itself.

Rendering courtesy of 305 South Congress PUD via the city of Austin. 

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