Naked City

Beginning of the End of the Battle Over Rainey Street

City Council has finally hit on a zoning plan for the Rainey Street neighborhood, but the whole process seems to have landed with a thud rather than a fiery finale.

Council Member Raul Alvarez certainly did his best to fight the good fight. He gathered developers and homeowners around the table. He talked about neighborhood preservation and design standards and compatibility issues. He created a complicated matrix to reward developers who respect the vision for the neighborhood.

The problem is there's no longer much of a vision left for the Rainey Street neighborhood. This is not Mueller – nurtured by the support of longtime neighbors – or even Seaholm – in which the city has a major land stake. Home-owners are ready to sell. Developers are ready to move in. Much of what made Rainey Rainey is over.

Two themes arose in the Rainey Street debate, both centered on frustration: First, most people who have fought two decades or more for the resolution of Rainey Street are done. They're worn out from the fight and ready to check out. And, from the developers' side, the fear was zoning that would end up choking any chance for real high-density development in an area where land could be selling by the foot.

Listen to developers Robert Knight and Perry Lorenz. If Rainey Street works, it will be a place with some of the highest density in the city, with towering residential high-rise buildings and ground-level pedestrian-oriented office and retail space. Rainey Street is not three-story garden-style apartments and single-family homes on peaceful tree-lined streets. If downtown living still has any kick left in Austin, you can expect Rainey Street to be Big City Gotham.

City Council made fairly quick work of zoning the Rainey Street neighborhood last Thursday night. Alvarez read down the list of alternatives. Council agreed to the small list of "must do's" and the longer list of "should do's." The most stringent requirement was a 5% set-aside for affordable housing in what will likely be high-rise residences. As one long-term observer described it, "Instead of a big master plan, they threw out these ideas and loosely attached incentives to it. They decided to let the market decide."

What was notable for last week's hearing was just who wasn't there. Robert Velasquez represented the neighborhood. A handful of developers were on hand. But those who worked on the Downtown Commission's initial zoning recommendation and those who would have supported the preservation of the historic homes? They weren't there.

And all that concern over the National Register Historic District? All but gone by the time the proposal made its way back to council. Developers are offered incentives to move the historic houses, but nothing requires them to do so. Here, too, the City Council has decided that the market will dictate what happens.

Now the ball is in the developers' court. Fairfield has a property under development. Trammell Crow has property under contract. Knight and Lorenz appear the likeliest candidates for a first pitch on Rainey Street. Now the City Council can sit back and see what kind of heat the developers can pitch.

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development, Rainey Street neighborhood, Raul Alvarez, Robert Knight, Perry Lorenz, Robert Velasquez

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