This is an important week for the future of downtown development. Over the last few years, the City has advocated dense downtown development as an alternative to suburban sprawl, traffic, and high infrastructure costs. On December 17, the Austin City Council is scheduled to vote on proposals to require developers to provide community benefits such as affordable housing, child care services, or cultural spaces.
While the proposal sounds reasonable, it is unclear whether the proposal will result in high density and new services (good) or higher downtown costs and reduced density (bad). The fact is that the proposal has real costs for the developers and the tenants looking fo housing, companies thinking about moving downtown, and retail entrepreneurs looking to open shop downtown. The proposal will inevitably lead to higher downtown costs for future projects.
In making this proposal, the City is treating density as a luxury that needs to be sold. While similar proposals have passed in Seattle, Tampa, San Diego, Portland, Denver, Nashville, Vancouver and Calgary. Some of these are great cities. But it’s hard to compare the forces that have shaped these environments to the specifics of downtown Austin.
The real question is this: Is downtown density a good thing?
Over the last decade, Austin’s policy has advocated strongly for downtown density. And there are many reasons why downtown density makes sense: the environmental impact is minimized, public transportation is easier, sprawl is reduced, and tax revenue is high compared to the services and infrastructure required.
Today, unfortunately, Austin is not a high density city: even the central downtown area is relatively low density compared to the core of other major cities. Of the top 25 cities, Austin is the 20th most dense city. In Texas, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio all have higher levels of density than Austin. If you you think Houston is sprawling, than you probably won’t like Austin in a few decades if current growth rates persist. El Paso is the only large Texas city with a lower level of density than Austin.
While many people question whether downtown development is good or bad, there is no better way to improve population density. A dense urban core is vibrant, ecologically-friendly, and traffic-friendly. It is the best antidote to sprawl. While downtown development won’t stop sprawl in Austin, it is the first step in the right direction. It provides people who want to bike to work or walk to dinner with an alternative that hasn’t previously existed in Austin.
Over the coming couple of decades, Austin will double and triple in size. We have two choices: One is to expand endlessly into the hill country with new sub-divisions and the traffic and environmental impact they bring. The second is to grow downtown smartly with real density. While painful sprawl may be inevitable, every 300 unit downtown project saves 100 acres of land from development while making the city more vibrant. We need downtown parks and services, but we should tax downtown developers and penalize density, especially when we are not willing to do the same with the developers driving suburban sprawl.