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Downtown Commission pushes for progress on housing, Palm District planning

Wednesday, September 27, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

Members of the Downtown Commission want the city to adjust density bonus programs and other initiatives intended to add middle-income and affordable housing to new developments downtown. They also see a need for better planning and economic development measures for the Palm District and the patchwork of cultural areas contained in the areas between the Rainey Street District and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

This month’s commission meeting featured an update from city staff on the implementation of the city’s Downtown Plan, which hasn’t been meaningfully evaluated or updated since 2018. Staff on hand from the Planning and Economic Development departments said work is beginning to assess the needs of downtown compared to five years ago, with the goal of selecting the most important priorities given the city’s staffing and resource challenges.

One of those will likely be new policy to streamline the creation of economic and cultural districts, with the goal of creating overlays for areas such as the Red River Cultural District to assist with preservation of the existing character of an area.

Among the concerns expressed by commissioners was the low amount of affordable housing yielded by the downtown density bonus program as of the 2018 assessment.

“In the millions of square feet that have been built as a part of the downtown density bonus program, there’s been 81 units created that are affordable downtown, and $6.5 million have been paid in fees (in lieu) collected, but four of those 81 units are affordable units created downtown, and I believe the rest are on Rainey Street,” Downtown Commissioner Jennifer Weaver said. “So out of all of the boom that we’ve had in the past decade of the downtown density bonus program, we’ve had four (affordable) units created downtown.”

In response, Commissioner Kim Levinson said the city should consider eliminating the fee-in-lieu option for developers, which would take away the ability to pay the city a community benefit payment to avoid adding affordable units to new buildings downtown.

Weaver also expressed concern over the lack of cohesion in the large area defined as the Palm District.

“When I’m in a district, it feels like it has a sense of character, and I understand that I am in this district because there are certain things that are similar,” she said.

“When we talk about the Palm District Plan, this is stretching from MLK to Rainey Street, and within that, we have several districts like the Red River Cultural District, East Sixth, and we have the Mexican American Heritage Cultural District.”

Over the summer, the Planning Commission approved an amendment to the Palm District. City Council also held a public hearing on the amended plan and approved the update at last week’s Council meeting.

Chair August Harris said those approvals came without the Downtown Commission ever receiving an update or a chance to weigh in on the future of an important portion of the downtown geography. Harris added that city staff has regularly failed to make presentations or solicit feedback from the commission on city budget and other matters.

“We were supposed to get a presentation of the Palm District Plan before it went to Planning Commission. Now it’s September and … we have yet to see it. What we’re going to get is what’s already been to Council when it should have come to us for recommendations first,” he said.

“We didn’t get the opportunity to talk about budget needs to continue the implementation of the (downtown) plan for the 2023-24 budget,” Harris said. “But soon city staff will begin the process of developing the (2024-25) budget, and with this presentation tonight it gives us the opportunity to ask you what you need in terms of budgetary support to continue the implementation of the plan.”

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