New buildings in West Campus to double in height, add more affordable housing

A map of Austin, TX.

New housing units in West Campus could soon rival the UT Tower and the State Capitol in terms of height, as long as developers add more affordable housing.

Allie Runas, electrical and computer engineering senior, is a member of the The Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee.

The Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee unanimously approved a plan to nearly double the allowed building height in inner West Campus Tuesday night. If developers reserve 10% of their housing units to anyone making less than 50% of the median family income in Austin, they can build up to 300 feet in inner West Campus. These housing units would be rented at approximately $603 per bedroom.

The University Neighborhood Overlay, which went into effect in 2004, is a development plan giving West Campus developers incentives to provide affordable housing. Currently, the plan allows developers to build higher if they reserve 10% of their units for “low-income” tenants making less than 60% of the median family income in Austin.

CANPAC’s amendments to the plan add another layer of affordability for tenants. The amendments would require 10% of their units to be reserved to people making less than 60% of the median family income and an additional 10% of units for people making less than 50%.

Developers usually must provide a certain amount of parking for every unit in inner West Campus, but the plan would eliminate this requirement entirely. Runas said the parking requirement currently reduces the amount of units developers tend to build.

Mike McHone, who helped write the University Neighborhood Overlay in 2004, said the plan will encourage developers to move away from parking and reduce the amount of automobile traffic in West Campus.

Other areas of West Campus defined by the plan, including Guadalupe Street and outer West Campus, will also see increases in allowed building height if the developers opt to provide more affordable housing.

Runas said some neighborhoods bordering the plan are worried about higher buildings encroaching on their property.

“I think that some of the neighborhoods get really scared of height getting close to them,” Runas said. “But … if we’re thinking about this as a 15-year solution, I think we should be building the plan that we want in 15 years and not the plan that just needs to correct for what’s happened.”

Runas said the University’s record-setting freshmen enrollment numbers as well as the recent luxury developments in East Riverside — which might dissuade students looking for affordable housing — are indications that demand for housing in West Campus will continue to increase.

“I don’t see UT not growing,” Runas said. “People are going to have to go somewhere, and we’re one of the few neighborhoods that has a working affordability program.”

The plan to amend the University Neighborhood Overlay must still be approved by City Council. Advisory committee member Mary Ingle said before the plan reaches City Council, it will go through several other city commissions.

“This could take months,” Ingle said. “Sometimes it takes years. We’re hoping it goes fast.”

Runas said she thinks there are many bright students who cannot afford to come to UT because of living expenses, so affordable housing is important.

“If building higher means giving the opportunity for more students to come to school, I think that’s a great thing,” Runas said.

Originally published May 7, 2019 in The Daily Texan

By Jackson Barton

Photo by Emma Overholt

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