The Latest in Density Bonuses: New Teeth

In December 2011, City Council passed the Downtown Austin Plan, intended to act as a guide for future Downtown development. Though years of work went into the DAP, unless Council codifies – enacts into city ordinances – the Plan's contents, it remains a toothless framework. In the past year, with Downtown construction progressing at a decent clip, this toothlessness has been a source of increasing frustration for local housing advocates who want an enforceable affordable housing benefit in return for the increased height and density granted through zoning variances. In May, Coun­cil issued a rush order to city staff on the Density Bonus Pro­gram portion of the code, which will establish a "development bonus fee," and standards for on-site affordable housing Downtown. What is the Den­sity Bonus Program? And how does it differ from what is currently in place?

The program will replace CURE (Central Urban Redevelopment) zoning as a means to modify maximum floor-to-area ratio, or maximum height within the Downtown Austin Plan area. This basically means that Downtown developers who want to build more than their current zoning allows will have to participate in the program, with CURE no longer available as an alternative. It will also replace the interim Downtown Density Bonus Program, essentially a voluntary provision of affordable housing or fees-in-lieu, which has never been used since its introduction in 2008.

This week, at their June 27 meeting, Council is considering a streamlined version of the program, created to move the process along as quickly as possible. In addition to "gatekeeper requirements" that ask developers to participate in the "Great Streets" program and meet a certain standard of green building and design, the affordable housing community benefits are also on the table. Here's what is proposed right now:

Project must achieve at least half of its desired bonus area (the area gained by the increased zoning) through affordable housing community benefits. (The remainder can be earned through other benefits like public art or open space.)

Projects can choose to provide on-site housing units (rental units for households earning below 80% Median Family Income, which must remain affordable for 40 years, or owned units for households earning below 120% MFI, which must remain affordable for 99 years), or pay a fee-in-lieu that will go into the city's Housing Trust Fund. (The Planning Commission "strongly encouraged" this money be directed towards permanent supportive housing for the city's poorest residents.)

This fee is based on the bonus square footage, and varies by location: $10 per square foot for the "Waterfront District," which is roughly from Lady Bird Lake to 11th, and from Trinity to Guadalupe streets; $5/sq.ft. for Rainey Street and Lower Shoal Creek; $3/sq.ft. for the rest of Downtown.

As currently proposed, the program would only apply to residential projects, not hotels or office buildings. And staff continues to consider whether it should apply to the Rainey Street district. Though several planning com­missioners, at least, have said they'd like to see the program address deeper levels of affordability in the central city, the streamlined plan passed the PC unanimously, with the understanding that speed is of the essence.

City Council is scheduled to vote on the program today, June 27.

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