Green Vs. Greenbacks: What about affordable housing?

What city will do with affordable housing funds generated by treatment plant's redevelopment still up in air

Building duplexes is one way to create affordable housing, but where to put them?
Building duplexes is one way to create affordable housing, but where to put them? (Photo by John Anderson)

Will the redevelopment of Green Water Treatment Plant Downtown include an aggressive push by City Council and staff to get affordable housing on-site? Or would the affordable-housing monies generated by the site's redevelopment (40% of new property taxes generated) be better spent on the near Eastside, where the dollar goes much further? That's a hot debate shaping up at council and in the affordable-housing community.

"It seems like council has already made a decision not to put affordable housing at Green, without any public dialogue and discussion about this really important issue," said affordable-housing advocate Heather Way. "This is our last chance to provide affordable or moderately priced housing on city-owned land Downtown. I'm concerned that the city is not going to pursue creative ways to get affordability on-site at Green."

Way also expressed concerns that council might be essentially deciding the issue already, without required public notice; recently council has been discussing Green real estate issues in private executive session. The Texas Open Meetings Act requires public notice and transparency; however, city attorney Thomas Nuckols said a real estate exception allows such a use of executive session. The courts and attorney general have interpreted the exception generously, to preserve a city's ability to negotiate an advantageous deal with the private sector, Nuckols said: "It's like in football, you guard your playbook. You lose your advantage if the other team knows your plays." Executive sessions are taped and later made public.

Affordable-housing advocates are putting together a detailed request of council for Green, Way said. Of council members interviewed, only Jennifer Kim said she strongly believes the affordable housing should be on-site. Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole each said they prefer to use the funding near Down­town on the Eastside, perhaps in the Homestead Preservation District. "But if there is enough revenue stream [from private development at Green] to buy down some of the housing, we're open to that conversation," Martinez said.

At its last session of 2007, City Council approved on first reading the rezoning of the Seaholm site to DMU-CURE (Downtown Mixed-Use, Central Urban Redevelopment). That allows building heights of 120 feet; anticipated variances could grant heights up to 400 feet. Council also approved a resolution to move on rezoning the Green site to DMU-CURE; Austin Energy tracts between Seaholm and Green are likely to follow. Having these increased entitlements in place greatly enhances the land's value to private developers, for mixed-use projects.

"We have to be good stewards of the public interest, by getting as much as possible in negotiations for city-owned land," Cole said. "But we also have to balance that with the public's right to know what we're doing."

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Green Water Treatment Plant, Heather Way, Texas Open Meetings Act, Thomas Nuckols, Jennifer Kim, Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole

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