Downtown is not just an attraction, it’s Austin’s heart. It’s not just the geographic center of our city and region, but the place uniquely equipped to manifest our city’s identity. Yet downtown is currently a place of major change and transition. While we hope for a future that gives us a downtown with more trees, more sidewalks, and more places to enjoy ourselves, we wonder increasingly if it is becoming less a place for Austinites and more just a place for visitors.
A district in flux
Without demonstrating the severe limitations of my knowledge by describing the history of the City of Austin, suffice it to say that downtown Austin was primarily industrial and commercial for much of the city’s history. Unlike many larger cities, Austin was never a bustling center with brownstones and walk-up apartment buildings where people lived, worked, and carried out their lives. In its transition from small industrial center to mid-sized commercial district, downtown never became a mixed-use area. In fact, zoning for many years actively prevented it from occurring. As the city grew in the later part of the 1900s, predominant national patterns of suburban housing spread around the city while the core remained mostly for offices.
The transition from a commuter work neighborhood to a true downtown has been a bumpy ride and is far from complete. The New Urbanist movement of the late 1980s and 90s led to a slow but steady shift to re-envision downtown Austin as a place where people might not just go to work and go to the bar, but also a place they might live. In planning documents and on paper, downtown will be a thriving, vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood. But in reality, is that where we are heading?
A place for celebrations……and now, hotels
Austin is well known as a city of festivals and a city for fun. Austin now has decades of experience with the ever-expanding South by Southwest Music Festival and an even longer history for fun and debauchery on downtown’s East 6th Street. Outsiders envision a place of endless live music and endless beer. City officials have attempted to build on that success, which no doubt brings money and jobs into Austin. The Austin Convention Center and Bergstrom Airport, among other facilities, were constructed with this as an articulated objective. Continue and build upon Austin’s success and fame as a place for live music, fun, and everything new and fresh.
To accommodate the ever growing number of tourists, savvy developers are creating an unprecedented hotel boom in and around downtown. About 4,000 hotel rooms are currently planned or under construction in downtown Austin, in addition to the thousands of rooms already in existence.
While studies have shown some need for additional hotel space in downtown, there is good reason to be concerned. Nearly all beds being constructed in downtown Austin are either in hotel rooms or high-cost rental apartments, which, due to their cost relative to homeownership, result in high turnover. The consequence of this is very few individuals with a long-term stake in the health of the downtown neighborhood. As the cultural and economic center of the region, downtown should be the one place with an importance to the majority of Austinites and somewhere we can all agree needs our care.
What should downtown Austin be?
Downtown Austin is not a circus, a dump, or an amusement park. It is not a place to drive through or use for nothing more than a workplace. Downtown is our most region’s most important and valuable district and fostering its growth in ways that enhance rather than detract from that is our biggest hurdle and our most important task. What we risk is allowing our downtown to transition not from a workplace to a multi-use, vibrant core, but rather to a playground for tourists and a temporary residence for high-paid young professionals to have fun for a year before moving elsewhere. We risk fostering a place of total transience.
What downtown Austin needs are stakeholders that believe downtown Austin should be a paragon of Austin’s identity and its values; a place where people from all corners of the region have the greatest possibility of chance encounters; a place that forces us to interact with the Other; and the place where citizens point to when they speak with pride about their city. Downtown, like all urban cores, should feature a mix of users at all times of day. Downtown should accommodate the poorest and richest citizens, offering an array of options, workplaces, and housing types. It should feature public spaces where anyone and everyone can be seen at different times.
Unfortunately, there are not many people calling downtown Austin their home. The Census estimates that just 5,543 individuals live in downtown Austin in just 4,375 housing units. Few downtown residents are vested homeowners, particularly in the downtown core. Almost all new residential construction consists of rental units. The only condominiums currently planned or under construction are at the Seaholm site, where units were completely pre-sold in just days. Developers recognize the financial benefits of constructing rental units instead of condominium units, particularly in Austin’s current economic climate, but the social costs of this are going unpaid.
What we need
Downtown Austin has a few critical needs over the coming years. Many of downtown’s additional needs will follow if progress is made in these three areas:
- Public space: Urban history did not bless many Texas cities with public squares and plazas, but these are vital gathering places for citizens and visitors. As Austin densifies, public space becomes increasingly important as well. While amenities like the Hike and Bike Trail provide Austin with some of this, more is needed.
- More (affordable) housing: Usually, downtowns feature older housing that provides close-in residences for lower and middle income individuals and families. Since Austin’s downtown has virtually none of this, all residential units in the downtown are new construction and consequently extremely expensive. This has a major impact on the vitality of the city, since there is a homogeneity that comes with high income households. Downtown needs more condominiums and townhomes at an array of price points. Our affordable housing program should make it a priority to invest in the development of low-income and middle-income units in and near the city center. While this will be more expensive than in cities that have older downtown housing stock, this is such a critical component to the health of our city that it is worth the additional financial investment.
- A downtown circulator: We used to have one, so the idea is hardly new. Downtown desperately needs a circulator. Preferably free of charge, a circulator is essential to encourage workers to actually get out of their offices for lunch, happy hour, and after-work events without jumping in their cars and treating our downtown like some strip mall in Round Rock with no intrinsic value. This is the best and the easiest way to get downtown employees used to walking and using transit, two modes of transportation that are critical for our region’s future.
I have a lot of hope for the future. We are replacing ugly parking lots with mixed-use high-rises, widening downtown sidewalks, planting trees, and building a stunning new central library. However, it is critical as citizens who care about downtown to be mindful of the implications of much of the new construction and do what we can to promote the features and amenities that are critical to making downtown the vibrant, inclusive center that most of us would like it to be.