[This is a follow up to yesterday’s post. Two of downtown Austin’s most active and respected stakeholders, Roger Cauvin and Michael McGill, have divergent opinions on what they would like to see happen in the Warehouse District. They have graciously agreed to allow their opinions be published here.]
From Michael McGill:
“Why would someone who is pro-density, like myself, and someone who is typically leery of ‘save the x’ campaigns, come out strongly in favor of saving the warehouse district? The short answer is: This is sound urban planning.
I certainly have my quibbles with the current density bonus plan, but with regards to the proposal for a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) mechanism in the Warehouse District, ROMA has definitely earned their keep. It is an excellent and balanced approach to preservation that allows flexibility of use and no loss of net density in downtown. This is a welcome opportunity to advocate for something rather than against it…and if council approves this current plan it should help avoid the high-drama community vs. developer fights in the future by providing a predictable framework for community benefits as a path to increased density allowances.
It’s been argued (perhaps reflexively) that the warehouse district plan is a change in property rights and it’s true that it is…but the entire density bonus plan is a change. In general, that change leans heavily towards increased entitlements and simplified requirements. Moreover, there is no loss in property value for those owners since any property that agrees to initiate conservation is eligible for a 25:1 FAR (floor to area ratio) upzoning that they can then sell. This is on top of local property tax abatement and federal income tax credits. Those landowners will be just fine. Since many owners in the district also have significant other holdings downtown, they can transfer the allowances to themselves for a buck if they so choose and they certainly end up better off than their current 8:1 FAR entitlement. It should also be noted that because of the fractured ownership of lots in the district, even with no action by council it would be incredibly hard to assemble property large enough to make these heights/densities a reality anyway. It’s more hypothetical / conceptual to talk about 8:1 FAR or more buildings on these sites. Recent downtown projects haven’t fully utilized their entitlements as it is and the last three warehouse buildings to come down have all become surface parking lots, which is the likely near-term alternative if this plan is not approved.
Now that we’ve discussed the equitable method of how we can preserve the district and other dim alternatives, let’s talk about why we should preserve it. Trade-offs are difficult topics, and even if high density is unlikely on its own in this area, it should be noted that density has great value in that it provides the means to achieve a more affordable, sustainable and livable community (and a ROI and tax base increase). It’s part of why I choose to live downtown, but it’s also important to remember that those are the ends and density is the means. As with any means, it has its limits when it comes in conflict with the net impact to those ends. Adding density, say, at the expense of The Trail at Lady Bird Lake is where the net loss of value, both in economic and livability terms, makes no sense. The park, in that case, is worth more than any building that can be put on it. The loss of it, Sixth Street, and, I would contend, the Warehouse District, would be a net loss to this city. Downtown would be less livable for residents, less desirable for relocation by businesses and less attractive for tourism by visitors.
This cluster of adaptively re-used historic structures we know today as the Warehouse District is the most vibrant entertainment district in the city and it will not remain intact, but rather fall victim to its own success, without active planning and involvement. The century-old industrial past, as well as the red-light history of the area when it was still known as ‘Guytown’ has a unique and authentic value that helps make this an attractive, creative class city. Great cities, including many that Austin repeatedly cites as models, have preserved their warehouse districts and have benefitted accordingly. These include the last five intercity visits by the Chamber of Commerce: Vancouver, San Diego, Denver, Portland, and Seattle, not to mention far larger cities like New York that have successfully managed the balance between density and character of place. I appreciate Austin’s history, but I support this measure more out of a belief in Austin’s future as a great city.”
[update: Michael suggests readers take a few minutes to visit www.savethewarehousedistrict.com.]