Maintaining a livable downtown Austin: Living, working and playing
BY CODY LYON
02.28.12 | 02:00 pm
Andrew Westmoreland lives downtown, high in the posh Austonian condo tower. He lived in suburban Austin for over five years before he and his girlfriend decided it was time to look elsewhere.
“We were like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. We kept thinking we were doing something wrong. Neighbors kept their distance from us, likely because we were young and didn’t have children, but we also couldn’t feign interest in neighborhood hot topic issues such as the community pool budget and a war about leaving yard trimmings on the sidewalk,” said Westmoreland, an Oregon native and CEO of an startup called AdRevolution.
He said the two questioned their ability to live a ‘normal’ life. “It turns out we just needed to move downtown,” Westmoreland then admitted.
Now, the couple’s weekend routine is simple: wake up, get some coffee and walk the dogs around Lady Bird Lake. Early in the afternoon they stroll into our favorite haunt (Second Bar + Kitchen) for afternoon cocktails.
“We rarely need to get in our car. Life just feels simpler for us. The strange thing I’ve noticed is our lack of a need to get out to places like the grocery store. We just don’t need the same things we used to so our plate has been cleared of those soul crushing weekend errands, ” said Westmoreland.
Close to 9,500 residents call downtown Austin “home.” But even beyond that key core, within a three mile radius, are another almost 150,000 people and growing.
The desire to live, work and play downtown is measurable. But it remains to be seen exactly how leaders, planners and businesses will come together to sustain true healthy growth towards full downtown density enabling more Austinites to live, work and play downtown.
Unlike other recession-ravaged cities, downtown Austin apartment demand is so great, developers have finally been able to secure financing, break ground and are racing to get new downtown units up and running.
Looking south from an 8th floor boardroom window at the Downtown Austin Alliance’s (DAA) 5th Street headquarters, executive director Charlie Betts points to the buildings he sees.
“Office, office, hotel and some residential.” He says he disagrees about a question that asks if downtown Austin might be becoming a bit ‘resort-like.’
“The market drives the Austin skyline, period,” said Betts noting an almost 80 percent hotel occupancy rate which justified several new multimillion dollar high-rise hotel projects that will bring 3,000 additonal rooms downtown.
He also points out, that unlike other recession-ravaged cities, downtown Austin apartment demand is so great, developers have finally been able to secure financing, break ground and are racing to get new downtown units up and running.
And, he’s quick to point out that the people taking those new apartments will likely pay two or three times what suburban units cost, all for a lifestyle like Austonian resident Westmoreland.
The numbers tell the story. As of December 2011, downtown multifamily rental units were 94.1 percent full according to data from DAA and Capital Market Research. And although the condo ownership market, including the Austonian was not as tight (62.1 percent in December 2011), it was still up (from 55 percent) this past June. The softer market was probably attributable to buyer’s inability to obtain home financing.
Good for downtown business
Regardless, downtown businesses have obviously benefited from the influx of residents and the infusion of more visitors and tourists.
Ted Johnson, lead fitness consultant at the Gold’s Gym downtown, said he’s seen more tourists and residents coming into and joining his gym located just below a new Brook’s Brothers store on Congress and 6thStreet, since he first started over a year ago.
“I spot the tourists more now, all these cameras and wide eyes when I run/jog back home to my place on west 6th, ” Johnson said.
Still, Johnson said the primary clientele for Gold’s comes from the thousands of downtown commuters. There are around 117,000 people who make their way into the downtown area every workday.
For some companies, like the fast-growing Austin-based HomeAway, locating downtown was the result of employee desire for centrality. HomeAway grew from six employees in 2005 to 466 in Austin alone last year. The company’s headquarters is on downtown’s western periphery at Lamar and 5th Street.
“The company owes its achievements to the hard work and dedication of our employees – so I feel strongly about listening to their desires to work in a more central location surrounded by local businesses, public transportation options and the convenient proximity to Town Lake,” said Brian Sharples, founder and CEO of HomeAway.
Sharples said his company surveyed its Austin employees on where they would like to work, and the overwhelming choice was downtown because of the convenience to local businesses and the hike and bike trail.
Meanwhile, closer to the downtown core, sits the office of Big Red Dog Engineering. Company founder Will Schnier III said his team absolutely loves working downtown.
“We’re at the corner of 5th and Congress, within walking distance of over half of our clients and co-consultants, which makes meeting and coordinating projects so much easier,” Schnier said.
He adds, “at lunch time, you can walk up or down Congress Avenue and simply run into handfuls of people you need to talk to about something.”
Schnier might walk down to 2nd Street and while there, he might pop into restaurant La Condesa, where owner Jesse Herman said he sees a healthy center-centric evolution taking place in downtown Austin. “In so many other Midwestern and southern cities, there was an evaporation of the urban core, but here, especially around 2nd Street, there’s been all this building and it’s become a really vibrant area,” Herman said.
Herman, a Manhattan transplant, said the buzz and activity along 2ndStreet has led to increased foot traffic in the restaurant. He says he’s always been drawn to an urban lifestyle of live, work and play in the same area.
Not all downtown residents work downtown.
“For the past 20 years, major corporations have been locating outside of downtown,” said Jude Galligan, publisher at the Downtown Austin Blog and owner at REMAX Downtown Austin.
“There are a lot of the people who live downtown who have to commute to Dell, or Samsung, or Freescale, etc… it’s the reverse commute,” he said.
How we got here
The roots of modern downtown Austin date back to the 1990’s. It was right after the notorious Texas savings and loan meltdown, the oil meltdown and an office space overbuilding frenzy. The City’s stated goal was to create a 24-hour live, work and play community in the heart of the city.
At the behest of city leaders, architectural and planning experts descended on Austin and put together a regional urban design assistance team plan or R/UDAT.
“It’s important to note, that all these buildings out there on the horizon, had been repossessed by the banks” said Betts from that 8th floor DAA board room. He said soon after, New York and California money came in buying up land and property downtown for 50 cents on the dollar. They made a killing.
The plan concentrated on the six blocks around the current city hall and incentivized multifamily, hotel and office developers who filled in what became the 2nd Street district. The city maintained control of ground floor retail and the synergy of the action were the genesis for much of the momentum fueling today’s growth.
The transportation problem
But there are obstacles to balancing out the vision, even as more transformative mixed-use projects, like Seaholm and Green Water come close to breaking ground.
“We’re not dense yet,” said Charlie Betts “we can probably double in size downtown.” He said the only thing keeping downtown from doubling in size, is access, or simply put, a fundamental transportation problem. “The entry ways into downtown are built. They’re done. You can’t double deck them, you can’t widen them, what you’ve got is what you’ve got,” said Betts.
He said the issue of transportation is why groups like Downtown Austin Alliance have been so “interested” in an urban rail system.
“A really good public transit system is absolutely necessary for a healthy growing downtown area, we are dependent on it,” said Betts. “If we have a good transit system, where thousands can come in and work, it would eliminate the need for more roads and parking decks.” said Betts.
But Austin loves its cars. In fact, only 2.7 percent of the city’s residents take public transit according to a recent survey by the United States Census Bureau. For all its progressive airs, Austin ranks 72nd in a survey of 942 large metro areas regarding how many residents use public transit.
Right now that low number could be because of limited choice. What passes for urban rail is a passenger train that utilizes an old freight line. The bus system is at the mercy of congestion, and there are few HOV lanes into downtown. So for now, downtown and its advocates for full density may be at the mercy of residents and political leaders.
“Do I think we’ll ever see a downtown on the scale of a city like Chicago? Not at all and definitely not in the next 15 years,” said Will Schnier at Big Red Dog.
But Schnier also said he doesn’t think that’s what Austin wants to be anyway. “Perhaps a very small Chicago, but ultimately we’ll be Austin first, and in Austin one of our values is to be a truly livable city. Livable includes mixed housing types not just expensive condominium units, work opportunities across various fields and levels of qualifications, open space, multi-modal transportation connections, and the like,” said Schnier.