Austin
1:49 pm
Mon February 13, 2012

Downtown Austin's Density Plan Scrutinized

Is density an urban benefit, in and of itself? Or does density’s costs outweigh its inherit benefits?

Argument over growth is nothing new in local politics, but once redevelopment of downtown Austin took off over a decade ago, the debate gained a new wrinkle: Are developers erecting tall buildings downtown doing the city a favor by curtailing sprawl? Or should the city share in the financial benefits developers reap from building past traditional height limits?

Those issues get a thorough vetting in the Atlantic Cities blog today, which delves into the controversy surrounding the Downtown Austin Plan, and one of its most hotly debated components: a Density Bonus Program.

The Cities blog speaks with Jim Robertson, co-manager of the city’s downtown plan, and describes the issues at work:

The central business district has no height limit but a floor area ratio of 8:1, meaning that a building that takes up an entire parcel of land could rise eight floors, while one that sits on just half of that land could rise 16. The city council has the power to grant developers exceptions, but the process is not exactly ideal. 

“In some ways, a deal is being made,” Robertson says. A developer wants to, say, double the FAR [floor area ratio], and the city wants maybe a new park. “Then there’s some negotiating and hemming and hawing.”

Of course, none of this is very transparent, or predictable. In the new downtown Austin plan, the city decided it didn’t want to dramatically alter the zoning code, even as it aims for greater density. But it has essentially formalized those ad-hoc negotiations, creating a system by which developers can earn “bonus density” on top of the current restrictions in exchange for specific community benefits. Developers must either include some affordable housing or contribute to an affordable housing fund. In addition, they can choose from several other options to gain more height that include creating publicly accessible open space, child or elder care or cultural venues.

City Council passed the Downtown Austin Plan late last year amid a flurry of amendments, many related to the density program. A more holistic look at the planning for the entire city, the Imagine Austin Tomorrow Plan, is being further vetted before coming to council for tentative approval later this year.