The debate surrounding downtown Austin density is postured as affordable housing vs. height. Height being a proxy for density, and if you want more of it you’ll have to pay for it. If you believe in pro-density new-urbanist principles (like I do), then you might see the underlying debate as affordable housing vs. the environment.
If you are shifting your society away from sprawl, then you increasingly need to house people vertically. As long there is available virgin hill country to pave over, that land will be cheaper than downtown Austin land, and there will be economics favoring construction of affordable housing on that land outside of downtown. Until the region can coordinate an urban growth boundary, integration of socio-economic classes will not happen naturally without regulation. The density bonus seems to be that regulation.
Many intelligent people believe that the the bonus is really a tax. “Why should we tax density?” or “This makes development downtown more expensive” are reasonable concerns to anyone that wants to see more vertical development. Sprawl occurs when it is convincingly more affordable to live outside urban core. But, for every person that lives in the urban core, less pavement is needed outside of it. Every person counts. It’s far from a comprehensive solution, but I’m considering a new perspective that the density bonus is a positive for curbing sprawl.
Is it worth allocating affordable housing funds to 1 person in downtown, for the same cost to house 3 people in east Austin, or 7 people south of Ben White? The answer might be yes.