Downtown Density Dreams
Politicos announce city resolution to hire consultants to develop a Downtown Austin Plan
The 30th floor of the Frost Bank Tower is vacant; a chilly, unfinished expanse of concrete, ductwork, and glass. Tons of glass: The floor-to-ceiling windows wrap entirely around the building, providing a glorious view of the city below. It's a patchwork of high-rises, squat historic properties, and parking lots. Lots and lots of parking lots.
It was at this locale on Thursday that politicos including Mayor Will Wynn, Council Member Brewster McCracken, and House Transportation Committee Chair Mike Krusee announced a City Council resolution to hire consultants to develop a Downtown Austin Plan aimed at turning those parking lots, and other underutilized space, into a more people-friendly, mass transit-navigable, and revenue-generating vertical topography. "When this is done, we'll have one of the best downtowns in the country," McCracken said.
The resolution takes as its inspiration Wynn's oft-stated goal of having 25,000 people living downtown within the decade. The idea is that a critical mass of downtown residents will provide a steady market for retail, restaurants, and (especially) mass transit that all of Austin can enjoy. The "density begets density" argument is familiar to anyone who paid attention to the city's other recent densification efforts, such as commercial design standards or the transit-oriented development ordinance, and the plan includes many familiar features rail and dedicated bus lines, updating infrastructure, and dealing with those pesky height restrictions, to name a few. It also adds a couple of new ideas to the bag of tricks, however.
For one thing, the plan will figure out ways to sell off government land to be developed as housing, and how to structure the deal in a way that beats one of the obstacles to affordability: high downtown land prices. According to McCracken, the city could roll some of the sale profits back into the deal to essentially bring down the price, similar to what the city did when it subsidized the Austin Children's Museum move downtown with profits from the sale of Block 21. In announcing the plan, McCracken suggested that the strategy could usher in an era of $150,000 or even $100,000 condos.
Even with the subsidy, that price might not buy much condo. According to real estate broker Kevin Burns of Urban Space, construction costs alone can run about $180 a square foot for multistory, multifamily downtown constructions, which are more complicated and costly to build than exurban tract homes. Downtown, in other words, will never be as affordable as the slapped-up, single-family houses on the outskirts of town. If the subsidy plan works, however, it will open up downtown to a much broader range of the market, especially once you factor in the lifestyle differences that urban density enables less square footage to decorate, climate-control, or, for the truly cutting-edge, living car-free, for example.
The plan's supporters see benefits for not only the new condo market, but the city as a whole. Because low-density suburbs eat up more roads, utility lines, water pipes, and other services between each tax-generating property, they tend to cost more in services than they generate in revenue. The Milago condo project, for example, is a $75 million tax base on an acre of land a single-family neighborhood could easily take 75 acres to generate the same taxes. It is benefits like these that have turned transit and density skeptics into supporters. One was Round Rock Republican Krusee, who, after trips to more densely planned cities around the country, has now hopped gleefully aboard the transit train.
"Round Rock is a great place, but it can never be what downtown Austin can be," said Krusee, who now serves on the board of the Council on New Urbanism. "There's only one downtown, and we need to get it right."
Some, however, remain skeptical. "I'm very skeptical of anything that has to do with rail or downtown because I'm not sure rail has a place in downtown Austin," said County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, explaining that few cities have the density to make rail truly cost-effective. He said he is waiting to pass judgment, however, on a newer kind of rail, such as a cheap, easily installed streetcar technology the consultants working on the plan will consider.
Another prominent group of skeptics is the Austin Neighborhoods Council, many of whose members have an ambivalent relationship with height, which they don't like to see towering over single-family neighborhoods. ANC head Laura Morrison acknowledged the ongoing differences of vision, but said she's enthusiastic about the planning process. "We have a lot of what might appear to be conflicting priorities," Morrison said, but "I'm sure we can work it out."
Other neighborhood activists are less ambivalent, however. Kirsten Bartel, who helped develop a plan for her Northfield neighborhood that actively encourages density, says she's eager for the city to do the same for downtown. "We're all for it," she said. "We're all for [Austin] being denser overall, not just downtown."