Does Austin Need A Market For Air Rights?

Does Austin Need A Market For Air Rights?

I’m not talking fresh air.  I’m talking about the  municipal zoning  God given right to build to the heavens.

The recent plan for 3rd & Colorado – a residential tower that I’m excited to see more of, if not disappointed that it isn’t taller – reminded me of a policy discussion that lost steam a few years back focused on preservation of the Warehouse District.  Back in 2009 influencers with a preservationist slant vocalized concern that the charm of the Warehouse District would eventually lead to its demise unless measures were taken to limit height and density in the district.

Proposed Warehouse District (2009)

Proposed Warehouse District (2009)


Back then, one of the recommended approaches to preservation was facilitating the Transference of Development Rights (TDR), aka. “air rights.”  That seemed like a smart way to handle preservation of low-rise historic-ish buildings sitting on highly desired CBD building sites.  Creating a market for air rights in Austin would, in theory, enable property owners to capture the value of their dirt, without having to build on the site, thus able to preserve historic buildings.

Transferring Development Rights (aka "Air Rights") to facilitate preservation and density.

Transferring Development Rights (aka “Air Rights”) to facilitate preservation and density.  Image via nyc.gov


The topic was dropped in 2011 when the Downtown Austin Plan (DAP) was formally adopted featuring a “density bonus” program.   Recently, I’ve been participating in the DAA’s CodeNEXT task force, and we’re discussing policies that would encourage building tall on small CBD sites, notably sites that are mid-block.  With CodeNext happening, this seems like a good time to rekindle the discussion.

Why would a builder want to buy air rights?

  1. additional density
  2. protect views

Why would a property owner want to sell air rights?

  1. property is too small, oddly shaped, or mid-block thus more difficult to develop
  2. capture value without having to redevelop

Why would a city want to permit air rights to be transferred?

  1. additional density
  2. encourage more development on smaller lots
  3. historic preservation

That last question is the one I can’t reconcile completely.  The City of Austin uses the Density Bonus program to subsidize affordable housing.

Would an air rights market, in its simplest form, circumvent those fees-in-lieu [of building affordable housing] from being collected?   [Read more…]

Niran Babalola is in love with cities

Niran Babalola is in love with cities

[Editor’s note: Very special thanks to Terrence Henry for making this interview happen. TL;DR: Niran Babalola’s message challenges Austin “progressivism” by highlighting systemic discrimination through Austin’s land use laws.  The message relates to modern policies and recent votes from City leaders.]

Niran Babalola is in love with cities.

“They’re amazing things,” he says, “where all these people come together in one place.” Babalola, the head of the housing and land use reform group DesegregateATX, is an Austin native who has spent much of his free time in recent years reading everything he can to understand cities better and what makes them work. And he’s found that the way Austin’s does things — whether it’s transportation, land use or housing affordability — tends to ignore the best practices of others and ends up only serving a select few.

“We’ve decided in this city not to govern for the have-nots,” Babalola says, pointing to land use policies that favor expensive single-family homes over denser, more diverse types that serves a wider range of people.

“We are the most economically segregated city in America, the only city with a declining African-American population.”

Over a long conversation (and a few cups of coffee) this summer downtown, Babalola told me the story of how Austin’s promise for all has been betrayed by its protectionism for the privileged few. A condensed version of our conversation follows:

TH: So how did we get to where we are today?

If you ask economists about how economic segregation occurs in cities, they’ll tell you it’s the policies of a city that makes it happen. They’ll point to studies showing how restrictive zoning laws cause economic segregation. The harder you make it to build homes, the more economic segregation you end up getting, especially in a city with a thriving economy like Austin’s. If you limit the number of homes, all you end up doing is pushing people out.

Niran Babalola

Niran Babalola

If you want to include all kinds of people, you have to include their homes. You have to include them in your neighborhood. Otherwise you’ll be pushing them further and further away from all the public investments we’ve made together.

If you look at the laws in effect in Austin’s central neighborhoods, in the vast majority of them, they say you can only build the most expensive type of housing: a single-family home with a big yard. Mixed-income neighborhoods in the core of the city are essentially illegal. But if you look at the statistics about what kinds of homes people live in, it will show you that the vast majority of white families live in single-family homes in Austin, a minority of black and hispanic families live in single-family homes. It’s not just economic segregation, it’s racial segregation. And we’re surprised we have an affordability problem!

[Read more…]

Rue de Rainey Market

Rue de Rainey Market

Check out the Rue de Rainey Market on August 14th, from noon to 7pm.

This is the kick-off event for what is planned to be recurring every other Sunday in the Rainey District.  Rue de Rainey Market will feature an array of local artisans, designers, and merchants.

The marketplace will be hosted at 604 Driskill, which is the parking lot to the across from Bar 96.

~Jude

A Drive Through Austin – June 1996

A Drive Through Austin – June 1996

This is an amazing time capsule of a video.

Twenty years ago this video was shot by Pete Reid and his buddy, Brian.  Pete was a visiting student from Scotland at UT.

The video takes us from UT, down the Drag, along Guadalupe into downtown Austin.  The video quality isn’t great, but it is good enough for some good nostalgia to kick in. From Pete’s Youtube description:

“We drove down the Drag passing the Hole in the Wall, Tower Records, some drag rats, and Miami Subs. Then down Guadalupe passed the Dog and Duck, Liberty Lunch, an empty Austin skyline, and hardly any traffic. “

It starts off with shots of the Drag.  For me the most interesting part is about five minutes in when you can catch glimpses of how downtown Austin has evolved. Notably:

0:44 – Tower Records on the Drag

5:24 – on the left, Guadalupe @ 5th, that parking lot is where Plaza Lofts is now.

5:52 – on the left, Guadalupe @ 2nd, that white building is now where Austin City Hall is located.  The camera pans to the right to show Liberty Lunch.

6:27 – approaching and crossing Cesar Chavez

7:01 – shots of downtown Austin from 1st Street Bridge

Thanks to Pete Reid for sharing this on Youtube, and to Chris James putting it on my radar.

~ Jude

New downtown Austin train station making room for pedestrian plaza

New downtown Austin train station making room for pedestrian plaza

The downtown Austin “Red Line” train station is about to undergo a significant makeover, that will add room for two more trains at the station.  The capacity upgrade is expected to double the people (from >400 to 800) to commute to downtown from north Austin during rush hour.

However, the final design seems to be departure from any of the proposed concepts.

[Read more…]