Downtown living goal hits a snag
This is from the Austin Business Journal – July 14, 2006
When the City of Austin hires a consultant to create a new plan for the future of downtown later this summer, at least one group wants that plan to address some hard questions on residential development.
Mayor Will Wynn’s goal of having 25,000 residents in downtown by 2015 has spurred much conversation among locals and speculation among developers. There are roughly 5,000 people living downtown now and new high-rise residential projects already under way are expected to double current capacity over the next two years.
But a report prepared by a committee of the city’s Downtown Commission shows that with current restrictions in place, there isn’t enough property in the core to support 20,000 new dwellers. That has city planners and developers discussing a variety of options, including expanding downtown’s boundaries and removing some of the current restrictions on downtown development.
The report being put together by the Downtown Development Committee maps out the traditional boundaries of downtown and the Central Business District, or CBD, highlighting the blocks and parcels that are unused or underused as well as those that have already been developed and are unlikely to see change.
“A lot of people have the impression that there is plenty of room to build out,” says Chris Riley, a member of the Downtown Commission. “The committee’s work is calling that impression into question and saying there are actually very few sites that are available downtown.”
A number of factors currently regulate development downtown such as maximum density levels and the Capitol view corridors, which consist of linear paths leading to the Capitol building along which building height is restricted.
At current downtown density allowances, a maximum of 1,000 residents can reside on one city block. While variances are granted by the city on a case-by-case basis, the report goes by the rules. And by the rules, an additional 20,000 residents would need roughly 20 city blocks–space that the committee says just isn’t there.
“What we’ve been preaching for years is that there is not a lot of supply of developable real estate downtown,” says developer Robert Knight, chairman of the Downtown Development Committee.
Downtown’s triangle of most-intense development is bordered on the south by Town Lake and to the east and west by Capitol view corridors. The triangle takes up roughly 70 blocks, and most of those are full, Knight says.
There are options that would increase potential development, Knight says. The city could expand the boundaries of downtown, allowing for denser development on the periphery. It could also increase the minimum density ratio, allowing for more residents on each city block. Yet another option would be to withdraw a number of the Capitol view corridors. But, he says, each of those decisions is likely to spark controversy and a new downtown plan should take a hard look at all the angles.
Michael Knox, principal downtown planner for the city, says as downtown development moves forward, there may be hard choices in terms of concessions.
But Knox says the mayor’s 25,000 resident figure was more of a challenge to the city than an actual goal, and in the end, it may not be realistic. Finding balance with commercial uses is key, he says.
“As we go through this downtown plan, one of the goals I have in mind is finding the right mix of retail, office and residential,” he says. “Maybe 25,000 is the right goal. I don’t know yet.”
It’s clear that demand is high for units. One need only look at projects like The Shore, a 22-story residential tower that recently broke ground with 80 percent of its units already committed. And more than a dozen other projects are already in the works. But with so little space left, demand may end up forcing development into adjoining areas, perhaps along Shoal Creek on the west side or along Waller Creek to the east.
“That’s going to cause a lot of friction when you start talking to these abutting neighborhoods,” he says.
The only large area downtown available for short-term redevelopment, according to the committee’s CBD map, is the small neighborhood on the southeastern edge near Interstate 35 known as Rainey Street.
Knight says he personally thinks that adding 20,000 residents is feasible. But, he agrees that it will require concessions and won’t be easy.
“What we’ve got set up is a real policy debate,” he says, “and the whole message that we’re trying to send the [city] council is get ready, because you’re going to be in the middle of all this.”