Council Recap: Hey, Remember That Thing We Asked You to Do?
City Council revisits resilience hubs and Rainey Street density
The two topics that occupied most of City Council's time at its April 8 meeting provide a superficial study in contrasts – more than 1,000 Downtown apartments reaching ever closer to the sky on Rainey Street, and resilience hubs in Austin's neighborhoods to give residents a place to go when their literal survival is at stake. But both of these complex conversations share a common character; they were reprises of past debates on the dais, where Council had already made policy decisions and handed the ball off to staff, and then something ... else happened.
In regards to the resilience hubs, Council Member Alison Alter came with the receipts. As first proposed, the resolution by CM Kathie Tovo included in its "whereas" clauses a reference to Council's August 2019 declaration of a climate emergency. Alter amended that to add, "and that resolution called for the creation of community resilience hubs to serve as 'shelters, evacuation centers, and disaster response hubs during climate emergencies.'" Winter Storm Uri in February was just such an event, which prompted Tovo's office – and particularly her longtime aide Shannon Halley, who has worked on the city's sustainability and resilience strategies for a decade, at both City Hall and Austin Water – to ramp up efforts to turn the concept into reality, pronto. Lots of effort from city departments, neighborhood and community aid groups, sustainability experts here and nationwide, and city partner agencies like AISD and Austin Community College has gone into scoping what effective resilience hubs, pre-positioned at trusted and shared community spaces like schools and libraries, need to be able to do for Austinites when they have nowhere else to go.
On balance, everybody was satisfied with the direction given to City Manager Spencer Cronk, including Cronk, who in reference to his team's after-action analysis of the storm said, "We can and must do better in the future. This lays out a blueprint of one of those areas, and I really thank you for this engaged discussion." That was the least he could do after being called out by Alter, the author of the 2019 emergency declaration, who also asked Cronk to report back by May 7 on how her measure had been implemented and whether it could have made a difference during February's crisis. Though she said she was withholding judgment, Alter noted, "If we make plans and we don't implement them, we will not be more resilient."
That first week in May will also likely feature a revision of the Downtown Density Bonus Program and the parallel Rainey Street program, also high on Tovo and Alter's to-do list. The April 8 meeting featured three separate tower projects planned for Rainey, ranging from 41 to 51 stories and from 284 to 446 units. Buildings this big require city approval of their high floor-to-area ratios (FAR, the basic unit of "density" in current code), even with the generous entitlements by-right of Downtown zoning. Conceptually, the bonus programs are intended to deliver community benefits, usually affordable housing and sometimes public space, in exchange for the extra density. On Rainey, the bonus package typically includes both some on-site affordable units as well as contributions to the city Housing Trust Fund; that's the case for all three of these projects.
Here's where it gets crazy: The Downtown bonus fees were set back in 2013 and haven't been updated since. The city intended to rewrite all its bonus programs and the fees associated with them as part of the Land Development Code revision that's been pursued this entire time and still is not near completion, while the market is moving on an entirely different timeframe. A draft revised fee schedule was prepared by outside consultants based on assumptions both about LDC revision and the Downtown real estate market, which has been greatly impacted by the pandemic.
In 2013, the Downtown bonus was set up to be approved administratively; staff can authorize double the FAR on Rainey Street for projects that deliver the desired benefits. Back then, it felt a bit farfetched that Austin dirt would be so valuable as to make going to Council for even higher FARs worthwhile; now, the three Rainey towers – seeking up to twice the FAR allowed by the administrative bonus – don't have to ante up an enhanced set of community benefits that likewise reach to the sky, although they have voluntarily sweetened their bonus packages. (Also, new non-residential Downtown buildings, including hotels and tech offices, aren't asked to ante up anything for housing or open space.) Meanwhile, people who already live in apartments on Rainey are freaking out at the unceasing plans to build more towers in their midst, even though – as Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and CM Greg Casar both pointed out – the district's transformation into a high-rise residential neighborhood is by design and was supported by most of the homeowners in the predominantly Latinx single-family neighborhood that Rainey once was.
Tovo, Alter and their allies have been trying to resolve all this for a while, as has the Planning Commission, which sent its own recommendations to Council a couple of years ago. The degree to which the Housing and Planning department has not been focused on this was made uncomfortably evident when Alter questioned the accuracy of the numbers provided to Council about what could be built, and what benefits required, at the different levels of FAR involved. This led to a daylong delay, with Alter's office taking the lead on number-crunching with staff. "It is really clear to me that the minimum program requirements are fully inadequate," Alter said before the vote. "But the applicants followed the rules and are providing community benefits beyond the requirements, so I am going to reluctantly support these cases." Tovo and CM Ann Kitchen did not do the same; the whole issue, without these specific projects at stake, will be back in a few weeks.