As the City of Austin works to hammer out a new and improved version of its increasingly dated Downtown Density Bonus Program, we were blown free of our chairs last week by a memo from the city’s Design Commission recommending, among other things, the complete removal of floor-area ratio (FAR) limits in the downtown area. Under such a change, the height and density of new towers would instead be limited only by a developer’s compliance with the hypothetical new density bonus program’s gatekeeper requirements, which would presumably include increased or otherwise modified elements of the existing program’s requirements like pedestrian-friendly street design, increased sustainability, and on-site affordable housing — alongside payments into the city’s affordable housing trust, the fee schedules of which would most likely be raised and otherwise reallocated.
The Austin Monitor lays out the memo in detail with additional context, but we’re mostly interested in that suggestion of removing FAR limits, along with the notion of taking City Council entirely out of the equation when it comes to the approval of tower projects looking to increase their density. At present, council takes what the Design Commission memo charitably describes as a “discretionary and unpredictable” role in granting additional FAR to downtown projects, an unclear process granting the more development-averse council members ample leeway to delay or cajole changes to projects they might find undesirable — under the Design Commission proposal, the metrics for allowing towers to rise beyond current limits and the subsequent benefits captured from that additional density would be more clearly established.
The other drastic departure from Tovo’s vision is removing FAR caps for all of downtown. While the program lays out generous 25:1 FAR caps in most of downtown, some areas offer much less (15:1, 8:1, even 3:1). The commission’s recommendation would mean towers of any height and density could be built anywhere downtown if they comply with the reworked community benefits scheme.
This recommendation is likely to encounter strong pushback from some Council members – Tovo most of all, who has floated preventing developers from exceeding FAR caps at all and has sided with Rainey residents who complain that their neighborhood can’t handle more housing.
The commission, on the other hand, touted the benefits of high-density housing: “The Design Commission believes that additional density and supply of housing downtown is a community benefit in and of itself due to the need for housing and critical mass to support the viability of public transit.”
We’re not exactly impartial observers of this process, but these recommendations from the Design Commission are some of the most clear-eyed downtown policy endorsements we’ve heard from any arm of the city in a while. We’ve witnessed no compelling arguments in favor of current FAR limits that aren’t also underlined by the subjective aesthetic design preferences of a predominantly property-owning constituency, and if certain council members are truly concerned that the city’s “leaving money on the table” by inadequately extracting benefits from new development, surely allowing those projects to maximize their use of downtown land is just as important as tweaking fee percentages to ensure we capture all the community good we can — particularly in the form of on-site affordable housing, but possibly beneficial as well to a number of city housing agencies that aren’t currently receiving funds from these projects in the current version of the program.
Rather than jumping through hoops at council in a subjective process that could look completely different depending on who’s currently on the dais and might not actually result in significantly different benefits in the end, a new version of the Downtown Density Bonus Program with these changes built in would simply require new towers to provide benefits along a defined scale proportionate to their level of density, a scale that if well-designed would presumably bring in expanded revenue for the city without making that extra density financially infeasible for the developer. That’s a lot of “ifs,” but at this stage of the process we’re still firmly in the realm of hypotheticals — it’s just that these latest hypotheticals are the best we’ve seen in a while.