A resolution on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting of the Austin City Council could significantly alter the development restrictions currently imposed on properties in the Capitol Dominance Overlay District surrounding the vicinity of the Texas State Capitol by allowing these sites to participate in the city’s Downtown Density Bonus Program, which would permit additional height and density to new buildings in exchange for affordable housing funds and other community benefits.
First of all, what’s the Capitol Dominance Overlay? Unlike Austin’s more well-known Capitol View Corridors — which were codified by both the city and state in the 1980s and radiate out from the Capitol dome protecting certain vantage points of the building from being blocked by new construction — the CDO is an imaginary plane extending out at a slight upward angle in all directions for a quarter-mile around the Capitol, representing the maximum allowed height of any building underneath. The purpose, as implied by the name, is to “protect the visual and symbolic significance of the State Capitol by keeping buildings in close proximity of the Capitol from dominating the structure,” according to the language of the city code.
But unlike the more relevant protections of Capitol View Corridors, which provide a unique character to the central city by offering perspectives of the Capitol’s stunning architecture regardless of how tall and dense downtown grows around it, the indiscriminate limitations on height imposed by the CDO make far less sense in the modern Austin, locking the region immediately surrounding the Capitol into its 1980s-vintage patterns of bad land use by protecting surface parking lots, parking garages, and other low-density buildings. The overlay stands in direct opposition to the goals of vibrant urban transformations in this area including the Texas Capitol Complex and Project Connect, particularly by limiting the ability to build transit-adjacent housing.
Allowing properties inside the overlay district that are not in the path of city and state view corridors to participate in the Downtown Density Bonus Program represents a relatively small amendment to city code that doesn’t harm existing protected views of the Capitol — but this change, previously included in the rewritten land development code the city was recently barred from adopting, would provide an expansion of this region’s ability to capture value from new development, both in the form of additional tax revenue from larger buildings and the housing benefits of the density bonus.
For instance, take a look at the twin design studies above and below — a residential tower project planned at the southwest corner of 14th and Lavaca Streets by local developers Pearlstone Partners near the edge of the existing overlay would gain 150 feet in height if allowed to participate in the density bonus program, increasing its unit count by 72 for a total yield of 234 residences and providing approximately $1 million in affordable housing funds. That’s money (and housing) the city is currently leaving on the table under the constraints of the overlay.
Sponsored by Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison along with her co-sponsors CM Ellis, CM Renteria, and CM Vela, the potential resolution ought to inspire a lively conversation at tomorrow’s meeting — as with seemingly any effort to break free from the 1980s land development code currently holding an invisible knife to Austin’s back, some might find these changes controversial.