Swappin’ Space … For What?

Today’s Statesman has an article about preserving historic landmarks by transferring its “air rights” to another development. In this way, owners of historic properties can help mitigate the pressures of rising land values and density by auctioning off unused zoning (i.e. size and height) to a developer who could then apply it to another project. In the ideal scenario, historic preservation is encouraged while promoting density in desired areas.

“Air rights” and similar Transferable Development Right (TDR) programs have been around for decades in numerous jurisdictions. The idea of leveraging market forces to guide development is appealing but has a spotty track record because, as noted in the Statesman article, TDR programs are tenuous if they are poorly structured. A TDR conference from 1998 concluded that such transfers “only work when they are part of a larger, long-term, land-use plan that has commitment and political will of the community behind it.”

In other words, transferring “air rights” won’t generate much interest unless the transfer allows the buyer to overcome certain development hurdles, such as zoning. And it won’t do anything to help density if the city doesn’t have clearly marked areas where it is able to apply these transfers. Both problems are highlighted by the Spring development. The Spring developers would have no need to buy “air rights,” since City Zoning and Platting is already clearly predisposed to granting a structure three times higher than the zoned height restriction. And yet, there is no clear consensus (beyond tacit deal-making) that the Lamar corridor is where Austin should concentrate its highest density projects.

What you end up with is ad hoc bargaining as described in the Statesman, where a historic home is saved in exchange for higher development in the same area. It’s not much of a stretch to see similar situations essentially becoming the equivalent of density extortion, where threatening one location is leveraged into desired zoning changes in another. Not that such projects are necessarily bad things overall, but it becomes a very messy way to achieve the desired results.

Much of this could be avoided altogether if density were addressed directly through re-zoning rather than patchwork variances and historical horse-trading. Zoning is only one part of the regulatory maze that guides development (see M1EK’s post), but keeping standards that are inconsistent with the goals and behavior of the city only serves to distort the entire process. “Trading spaces” may sound like a fun solution (as if densification were one big TLC project), but it doesn’t mean much when the space is already being given away.

3 Comments so far

  1. M1EK (unregistered) on November 4th, 2005 @ 8:05 pm

    I think that link to me is broked….

    In general, the current situation is that neighborhoods hold density hostage by means of claims to historic significance (which sometimes but not usually are valid).

  2. wae (unregistered) on November 5th, 2005 @ 12:55 am

    Hmmm, the trackback seems to point to a different link than it should. The link is now replaced with a generic reference to your blog.

    I think you’re right that historical relevance is frequently trotted out as a de facto argument against density projects. But perhaps it’s become an automatic defense mechanism based on fear of getting burned by another poorly-planned (i.e. not coordinated with the neighborhood) development?

    It’s something of a brinksmanship scenario where (some) developers seem to automatically try and push outrageous projects while neighborhoods dismiss all projects out of hand. In the end, some development happens, but it’s seldom ideal for either party, or the city at large.

    Can’t we all just get along?

  3. M1EK (unregistered) on November 5th, 2005 @ 8:34 am

    But again, in my experience the center-city neighborhoods around here will call ANY densification “poorly-planned”. “coordinate with the neighborhood”, to these people, means “don’t build anything but single-family houses”. They blather on about affordability, claiming that building more multifamily in and near the neighborhood will push them out. Which always rubbed me the wrong way since the only way I was able to afford to move into OWANA was to buy a condo ($96K in 1997).

    I refer you to the Villas on Guadalupe, whose only sin is that it’s not TALLER. Or to the Whole Foods redevelopment, which has turned 6th/Lamar into somewhere you actually want to go. Both were opposed by the neighborhoods adjacent to them (and both were ones I lived in; first OWANA and now NUNA).

    Finally, the original claim that Lamar is being pushed as the density corridor is not true – there are equally tall buildings being proposed and designed for spots further east – there’s just no opposition there because even OWANA realizes it’s too far away for anybody to listen to them. DANA, the neighborhood association to which the Spring condominiums REALLY belongs, strongly supports the project.

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