City Lets West Campus Get Taller (Than Before) In A Trade For More Affordable Housing (Than Before)

Nov 14, 2019

The University of Texas is rising – or rather, buildings on West Campus are now allowed to go higher.

The Austin City Council voted Thursday to increase height limits on buildings and to eliminate the number of parking spots developers are required to create.

Council’s vote amends the so-called University Neighborhood Overlay. Passed in 2004, the plan changed zoning to relax building restrictions for developers that provided affordable housing units. It has been the city's most successful plan like this: By Thursday, it had generated 822 affordable housing units.

“You’d have to be lying to say there’s enough housing in West Campus,” Charlie Henry, vice chair of the West Campus Neighborhood Association, told KUT before the council meeting. Founded last year, the neighborhood association is comprised mostly of students, recent graduates and renters, Henry said.

A majority of council members supported a requirement giving developers that want to build higher two options: either make 20% of units affordable to someone making less than $40,000 a year and pay a fee or make 30% of units affordable. In exchange for building income-restricted apartments, developers would get to go up to an additional 25 or 125 feet taller – depending on where the property is.

One area where buildings would be allowed to go 125 feet taller is what the plan calls Inner West Campus. Council did not support stretching the boundaries of that area, however, as the Planning Commission recommended earlier this year. UT Austin students and recent graduates who showed up to City Hall asked for this more expanded version.

"Ultimately not improving UNO cannot be an option," Allie Runas, chair of the West Campus Neighborhood Association, told council before the vote. "The only question is how dedicated we are to Austin's youngest residents looking for independence and stability in such a formative time of their lives."

Other neighborhood associations, those abutting West Campus, supported the additional height and affordable housing requirements, but not the expanded area of additional height. At times the discussion mirrored that of the land code rewrite, with young renters arguing for even more density and longtime homeowners opting for the less dense option.

"The streets are so clogged with the buildings and the cranes and the shutdown streets," said Linda Guerrero, a former member of the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee.

According to city staff, nine neighborhood groups came together to agree on these changes before it went to the Planning Commission, which voted to expand it. Several members of the student- and recent-graduate-led West Campus Neighborhood Association said they felt left out of that first meeting process and worked with the city commission to define what they wanted.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who represents parts of North Central Austin, called the move by the student group "disturbing," given that changes had been agreed upon earlier.

"The process was changed and subverted," she said. "This is really troubling."

Several students who testified cited the fact that a majority of UT students live off campus (81% according to university data) and the recent loss of affordable student housing options as a reason to encourage more building on campus. In October, council approved a rezoning plan for East Riverside that will result in the demolition of more than 1,300 apartments housing a large portion of students.

“Those people are going to need somewhere to live,” Henry told KUT.

Council members also voted to do away with requirements mandating builders provide a minimum number of parking spots per housing unit. Developers are also now allowed to repurpose unused parking spots.

This story has been updated to reflect the most recent number of affordable housing units produced by the University Neighorhood Overlay since 2016.