The Austin Chronicle

Council Wants More Housing Near Project Connect Stations

Bring on the trains

By Austin Sanders, April 19, 2024, News

Changing Austin’s building rules to allow as much housing as possible near future Project Connect stations is critical to the long-term success of the $5 billion investment in the city’s mass transit system, and it’s vital to getting the project off the ground in the first place.

Large apartment complexes built near future transit stations provide a built-in user base for Project Connect’s first light-rail line, which could open 10 years from now. But “transit-supportive density” can also spur usage of other, non-car types of transportation through “increased bicycle, pedestrian, and transit connectivity,” according to staff analysis.

Raising the money to build those train lines is dependent on support from the federal government – especially as lawsuits from Austin transit opponents continue to threaten Project Connect’s innovative funding source (a local tax approved by voters in 2020 that can be used to pay for Project Connect construction and operation). Increasing housing density around station areas – or, at least showing a commitment to doing so by changing building rules – will greatly increase the odds that Project Connect is awarded matching federal funds needed to build the system.

City Council hopes the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) overlay will incentivize that kind of building. The overlay will be applied around Light Rail Phase 1 (38th Street to Oltorf and Yellow Jacket) and priority extension areas (38th Street to Crestview, Yellow Jacket to the airport); it will prohibit a host of commercial uses that don’t promote transit usage, while encouraging apartment skyscrapers with a new density bonus program.

Developers can build towers as tall as 120 feet (roughly nine stories) if they agree to providing certain amounts of affordable housing. Recognizing that existing multifamily housing within the proposed overlay areas is prime for redevelopment, which could exacerbate displacement by destroying older, less expensive apartments, staff has proposed requirements aimed at preventing that sort of redevelopment. Developers seeking to build new apartments where old ones exist will have to prove repairing the old building will exceed a set cost threshold, establish that rents at the old development were not growing slowly, provide existing tenants with relocation services, and ensure the new development includes affordable units.

Editor' Note Thursday, April 25, 11:13am: This story previously included an outdated rendering of Project Connect. The image has been updated, and the Chronicle regrets the error.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.