TDH: 8/31/11

No CURE for disagreement over Downtown zoning?

The then under-construction, CURE-zoned Spring condos
The then under-construction, CURE-zoned Spring condos (Photo courtesy Flickr user Tim Patterson [CC])

We’re still unpacking the news from last week’s City Council meeting, and one notable bit concerned what council didn’t do: take any action on the Downtown Plan, which was punted to October 6. The biggest concern lies in the CURE/Density Bonus dichotomy, which city staff shed a little light on recently.

When the DT Plan came to council Aug. 18, Kathie Tovo went on the warpath against the unexpected continuation of CURE, or Central Urban Redevelopment, zoning. Utilized by developers Downtown to attain additional height and density, it’s completely eclipsed the city’s interim Density Bonus Program (DBP) zoning, which similarly allows additional density, but in exchange for definable benefits (either on-site affordable housing, or a fee-in-lieu of it). To date, it’s never been used when CURE zoning is also available.

“If you are asking developers who are seeking increased entitlements to provide some community benefits, but also allowing them the opportunity to come here and ask for those same entitlements with no community benefits, it's pretty clear what option they are going to select, almost 100% of the time,” Tovo said. She offered that she “saw what was in the Downtown Austin Plan as a kind of compromise. There were some people who thought fees-in-lieu should be higher … I think we've all acknowledged there's a housing crisis in this city and we need to provide more housing opportunities. … One of the tools we have available is a density bonus program and I think we should take a strong stand out and I think we can do that and still encourage development. … I appreciate the information, but … this is a real serious area of concern for me.” Other council members, like Bill Spelman were concerned by the CURE change, but saw value in its use as as a “safety valve” for exceptional projects that, for whatever reason, wouldn’t tidily fit within the DBP framework.

A city memo from Jim Robertson and Michael Knox, co-project managers of the DT Plan, provides a little more context:

After much consideration, we concluded that the most prudent approach for putting in place a Downtown Density Bonus Program would be to retain CURE in an amended form. The retention of CURE could be considered as an “interim” step towards what might ultimately be a Density Bonus Program that consists exclusively of the administrative process – without CURE.

We would like to stress that our proposal is not to retain CURE as it is currently structured and used. Instead, we propose to forward code amendments alongside the code amendments that would put in place the administrative Downtown Density Bonus Program that would reshape CURE when it is used to seek additional height and/or density within Downtown so as to provide a “framework” for the evaluation of CURE applications. This would be in contrast to the current CURE process, which is generally unstructured and ad hoc, and lacks clear criteria for evaluation of a CURE request. The applicant would be required to demonstrate what portions of the DBP it could comply with and to demonstrate why it could not comply with the entire DBP. These CURE code amendments would create a more structured and predictable CURE process, a major goal of the recommended Density Bonus Program.

Both the code amendments that would create the Downtown Density Bonus Program and the amendment to CURE would be developed and vetted through a process that would include inter-departmental review and comment, public review and input, board and commission review (including Planning Commission approval), and Council review and approval. The City Council would have the ultimate say over whether – and in what form – these changes were made.

You can read the whole memo here. [PDF]

It will be illuminating to see what happens when the DT Plan returns to council in October, and whether council thinks CURE is a resource they should keep in their toolbox – or if it needs to be taken out to the shed.

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