Beside the Point: Planning What's Affordable

Council tweaks mammoth Downtown plan

Sitting in for City Hall Hustle (currently enjoying his no doubt idyllic honeymoon) is roughly like trying to do so for Arnett Cobb. It can be done, one supposes, but the results are unlikely to sound the same. Nevertheless, we'll try to maintain the city politics bandstand here for a couple of weeks until the return of Hustling reinforcements.

The most prominent business at the Nov. 3 City Council meeting was (as last week's Hustle anticipated) the long-awaited and much delayed Downtown Austin Plan. After several hours of discussion, council tweaked the plan a bit and adopted it – but on first reading only, meaning nothing's set in stone, and they'll still be rehashing it for at least another week or two.

Weighing in at nearly 200 pages, the DAP didn't actually gain the floor until just before the evening's music and proclamations – long enough for speakers to begin pointing out what's wrong with it. While nearly all the public speakers (and some council members) gave a nod to the overall direction, there were plenty of suggestions for improvement. A couple of these were narrowly tailored – the "panhandle" neighborhood (just east of Judges Hill) wants to be reclassified from largely residential to mostly commercial, and property owners in the core Warehouse District complained that their particular height limitations under the plan (45 feet) are unwarranted and inequitable. Judging from council's responses, those elements seem likely to be adjusted.

But the most prominent objections to the plan had to do with the potential for affordable housing Downtown and how best to encourage it. In short, the ongoing debate over the future of CURE (Central Urban Redevelopment) zoning, and whether to eliminate it ... remains ongoing. Speakers complained that applying for CURE has functioned as a de facto loophole for developers seeking additional height, who might otherwise enter into the Downtown Density Bonus Program (to underwrite affordable housing and other community benefits), to earn the entitlements they want for their properties.

A council majority appears ready to make adjustments to CURE, if not necessarily to eliminate it altogether. Initial plan amendments included a "three-bedroom bonus" (i.e., on the theory that three bedrooms invite family residents); a potential fee for "open space" (over and above affordability payments) to foster Downtown parks; a tightening of affordability bonus rules and extending them to commercial properties; a substitution of historical facade preservation and related rules for height limitations in the Warehouse District (that one squeaked through 4-3); and a direction to find ways to encourage mixed-use on Sixth Street (don't hold your besotted breath). There were a couple more, but all were passed on first reading only (along with the DAP itself) – not only because council still wants more discussion, but because staff now has to figure out exactly what amendments were actually passed on the dais, how to embody them in ordinance lingo – and whether they'll pass legal muster.

"No hurry," joked the mayor as he moved to close the meeting at 9:30pm. "Whenever you're ready."

Meanwhile ...

There was other Thurs­day business, including an annual briefing from Austin Energy, during which AE General Man­ag­er Larry Weis reported one piece of good news from this summer's heat wave: the utility made about $30 million more than anticipated this fiscal year. Unfortunately, that means the city's biggest cash cow for General Fund transfer payments will still be $6.5 million in the hole. (Pray for another heat wave?)... A parade of dignitaries (Bruce Todd, Gus Garcia, Luci Baines Johnson, etc.) supported renaming the Town Lake Trail in honor of Ann and Roy Butler; the eventual motion passed, 5-2 (Laura Morri­son and Kathie Tovo chastely dissenting over waiving the "public process")... And prior to the meeting, Morrison and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole (flanked by representatives of Austinites for Geographic Representation) announced that AGR and council are united in preferring a November 2012 charter revision election (rather than May) to fight it out over whose single-member district plan (the city's or AGR's) will be most soundly rejected this time by Austin voters.

This week (Thursday, Nov. 10, the last meeting until Dec. 8) we'll perhaps learn more about the DAP (do your homework), contemplate a briefing on the Resource Recov­ery Management Master Plan (i.e., what used to be "Solid Waste Services"), and undoubtedly hear another thing or two about the evils of fluoridation.

Don't forget to floss.

The Hustle returns in a couple of weeks; in the meantime, send hate mail to or troll your denunciations @PointAustin.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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City Council, Downtown Austin Plan, affordable housing, CURE zoning

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