Is downtown density a good thing?
That’s the big question this month as the Austin City Council reviews proposals that would dramatically change the rules for downtown development.
Over the last decade, the City has freely granted density variances in order to get more people downtown. During this period, downtown has been the one place where density has been encouraged. In fact, it has been a key part of the City’s downtown Austin strategy. 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, 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.
This month, the city council will decide whether or not to add new requirements for projects looking for density variances in downtown Austin. If the new rules pass, developers (and their tenants) will need to pay for parks, music venues, low income housing, child care, elder care, or a similar community offering. These are all good things — but they all cost money. If density is a good thing, these requirements will act as a tax on new projects, making new development less likely and will likely result in reduced downtown density.
Today, downtown property taxes subsidize suburban infrastructure and services. This makes sense — downtown property is expensive and residents are more affluent than the Austin median. But it is also true that downtown living is very efficient from a city service perspective: it takes fewer roads, pipes, wires, police officers, sanitation workers, and other city staffers to support dense downtown development than it does to support an equivalent suburban population. For this reason, it seems that the city should encourage additional density — and not tax it — and use the tax money it generates to support other City needs, including downtown services. Reducing density and discouraging downtown development — we’re not going to see much downtown development in the next few years anyway — is not in the City’s best interest.