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Council: Passes Corridor Plan, Kills CURE

Council paves the way for a new urban makeover of the strip east of I-35

By Amy Smith, Fri., May 17, 2013

One vision of a transit-friendly East Riverside Corridor
One vision of a transit-friendly East Riverside Corridor
Courtesy of City of Austin

Last week, City Council did manage to accomplish some important business, even with the president's visit cutting a hole into its meeting schedule and causing reshuffling and postponements of a number of agenda items. Rest assured, though, that the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan secured final approval (despite incorrect reporting on this end that it had been postponed). The months-long perennial agenda item passed after a series of separate, complex – and sometimes split – votes from Council. The new development rules pave the way for a new urban makeover of the strip east of I-35, long a transitory hodgepodge of low-slung commercial businesses and apartment complexes catering to students and low-income residents.

Under the new plan, high-end apartments will continue to replace the aged and affordable residential structures, drive-through businesses will have seven years to conform to new standards, and new service stations will be prohibited while existing stations can stay in place. The gentrified vision driving the changes is one that includes more density, walkability, and, perhaps someday, urban rail.

Council also a took the first step in eliminating CURE zoning in Downtown, which developers have routinely relied on to obtain additional height and density without the requirements tied to the Density Bonus Program – a component of the Council-adopted Downtown Plan that's designed to beef up the city's affordable housing efforts. The resolution, which passed on a 6-1 vote with Mayor Lee Leffingwell dissenting, served to affirm the city's commitment to the Density Bonus Program and make it more difficult for developers to circumvent it by removing CURE (Central Urban Redevelopment Combined District) as a zoning option Downtown. A public hearing on the code amendments is tentatively set for June 27. The resolution was not without a few minutes of unexpected drama. Interfaith Austin's Kurt Cadena-Mitchell spoke in favor of the resolution, but his remarks, for whatever reason, angered Lef­fing­well. Said Cadena-Mitchell: "What we learned recently from staff is that we have lost out on nearly $20 million that could have potentially been invested in affordable housing because we've been circumventing the Density Bonus Program ..."

The mayor took strong issue with Cadena-Mitchell's $20 million claim. "What makes you so sure that [developers seeking CURE zoning] would have built the additional height and [floor-to-area ratio] that they did build, because they were able to get that zoning, if they had not been able to get that zoning?" Leffingwell asked. "I think the true answer is that you don't know." He went on to tell Cad­ena-Mitchell that he was "simply inaccurate" and sent him away from the podium because he was "not willing to listen to anybody." Council members sat in awkward silence. Then the vote was called and Council Mem­ber Laura Morrison pointedly thanked Austin Interfaith for its work on affordable housing issues. Before casting his no vote, Leffing­well said he believed eliminating CURE would discourage density Downtown.

Looking Forward

City Council doesn't meet this week, but its next meeting, on May 23, is already stuffed with 114 agenda items -- thanks in large part to last week's postponements. Barring any additional reshuffling, here are a few things council will consider next week:

The second and third reading of a proposed ordinance to create a new board to govern Austin Energy. The measure has undergone extensive revisions – over the objections of the original sponsors: Leffingwell, Sheryl Cole, and Bill Spelman. (See "Then There's This").

A resolution directing the city manager to collect data on multifamily units participating in the electric utility's multifamily energy efficiency program to determine the program's impact on rental rates.

A hearing and possible vote on amendments to the short-term-rental ordinance.

A hearing and consideration of changes to the Building Code ordinance to address noise mitigation for high-rise residential buildings.

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