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Ahead of Council vote, committee sculpts VMU2 proposal

Wednesday, June 1, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

City Council members at Tuesday’s Housing and Planning Committee meeting shared their latest thinking on proposed changes to Vertical Mixed-Use (VMU) zoning ahead of a vote on June 9. 

Council Member Chito Vela outlined a new compromise to reduce compatibility and parking requirements for VMU properties along Project Connect light rail lines to allow more housing to be built near public transit.

Under Vela’s proposal, compatibility – a rule limiting the height of buildings near single-family homes – would only apply within 100 feet of a triggering property for VMU1 or VMU2 parcels along the Orange and Blue light rail lines. Compatibility currently applies within 540 feet of triggering properties. Most sites with VMU zoning are heavily constrained by compatibility, shrinking projects or rendering them infeasible altogether.

Parking requirements along the two light rail lines would be reduced to 25 percent of what the code otherwise requires. The proposal is more drastic than what currently applies to VMU buildings, which only have to build 60 percent of required parking.

With the changes, Vela is eyeing competitive federal funding for Project Connect. “I want to make sure that we send a message to the federal government that … we’re serious about housing along our light rail corridors,” Vela said. How much money comes through may depend on land use patterns near transit lines.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who originally proposed the VMU changes, accepted Vela’s amendment. This proposal is separate from recent discussions about reducing compatibility and parking along major streets.

A key area of tension also arose Tuesday, as Council members debated whether to require City Council approval for individual VMU2 projects.

Kitchen’s proposal would force each VMU2 project to ask the Planning Commission and City Council for approval – a process that, as critics have noted, costs time and money and injects uncertainty into the development process. 

Originally, VMU2 projects were not meant to be at Council’s discretion. But in light of a March court decision on the right of property owners to protest zoning changes near them, Kitchen Tuesday argued that “we have no choice” but to allow protest of VMU2 through valid petitions. “But if there’s another way to address that, I’m certainly open to listening,” Kitchen said.

Some Council members expressed concern that making every VMU2 project a rezoning would mean less housing gets built. “These cases can take months or years … for something to actually be approved,” Council Member Paige Ellis said. “And I want to be mindful that the clock is ticking for housing, and there’s people who are just seeing our rents go up every time they see that renewal come through.”

There was also discussion about VMU’s overall effectiveness in producing affordable and market-rate housing. Sam Tedford with the Housing and Planning Department shared that out of all VMU-zoned properties that have redeveloped since VMU was adopted in 2010, only one-third have chosen to build a VMU project. The rest have built whatever is allowed under the property’s base zoning, leading to things like self-storage units or other commercial projects, Tedford said. 

“I think that’s pretty good, don’t you?” Kitchen said of the VMU participation rate. Tedford said it was higher than programs in the North Burnet Gateway or East Riverside areas, but “pretty low” compared to the University Neighborhood Overlay or the Downtown Density Bonus Program. 

Other Council members, including Mayor Steve Adler and Vela, disagreed with Kitchen’s assessment. “Honestly, the participation rate, that I was not aware of – that raises some concerns,” Vela said. 

Over 15,000 housing units – including nearly 2,000 affordable units – have been built or are in the pipeline thanks to VMU, according to a presentation by city staffers.

The committee voted 3-0-2, with Ellis and Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison abstaining, to forward Kitchen’s proposed VMU changes to the full Council for discussion on June 9. 

Photo by Brett VA made available through a Creative Commons license.

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