Not long ago, downtown Austin held little appeal for prospective residents. Now the area is bustling with diverse opportunities to live, work, and play, according to The Statesman:
Developer Perry Lorenz recalls how it wasn’t so long ago as recently as the mid- to late 1990s that very few people were living downtown “and of those that were, about 20 percent of them lived at the county jail,” he said.
Aside from clubs clustered along a couple blocks in the entertainment district and a few restaurants scattered here and there, not much was open after dark.
The addition of almost 20 residential high-rises in the past decade has helped change all that, adding nearly 4,800 apartments and condos downtown — and construction is expected to begin on several more multifamily projects in the next few months.
Those additional residents are helping to attract more shopping and dining options to the area. In addition to bolstering the city’s tax base and providing environmental benefits, downtown’s growth also has helped attract technology companies — a ripple effect that pays dividends for the area’s economy, experts say.
City leaders, developers and downtown residents say the central business district has matured, surviving its gawky teenage years and making the transition into young adulthood. “Downtown is really firing on virtually every cylinder — residential, retail, entertainment, employment,” said former Mayor Will Wynn, a downtown resident and a supporter of the city having a dense urban core. “It may look and feel clumsy and cumbersome at times, but it’s working. We’ve passed the tipping point.”
Alan Holt, director of sales and marketing for the Four Seasons Residences, agrees.
“There’s just an abundance of enthusiasm about downtown Austin, nationally,” Holt said. “It’s on everyone’s radar. ... Find another downtown in the country that has as much going on as Austin.”
Having a robust downtown is important on several fronts, including that it fosters a healthy tax base that supports a high quality of life, said Molly Alexander, associate director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, a coalition of downtown business and property owners.
“You’d have to build a suburban area 12 times the size of downtown to get the same amount of return” in property tax revenue, Alexander said.
There are other economic pluses to a lively downtown.
Austin is one of the cities considered to be creating a so-called economy of the future, one that attracts well-educated, creative, entrepreneurial risk takers who start, or work in, businesses that create “well-paying jobs for the future,” said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow for housing with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education think tank.
“Businesses want to be accessible to their labor pool, and moving or staying downtown is an emerging trend among those employers who are hiring workers from the creative class,” said Charles Heimsath, a local real estate consultant.
Who lives downtown?
During his tenure as mayor from 2003 to 2009, Wynn advocated for a denser downtown, with a goal of having 25,000 residents there by 2015.
Currently, less than half that number — about 9,800 people — live downtown, most of them in those newly added apartments and condos. The majority of projects have opened within the past five years, Wynn said.
“By any way you can possibly measure it objectively, people should be demanding far more live, work and play in the urban core,” Wynn said. “With high-density mixed-use urban development, water use, electricity use and vehicle miles traveled per capita all plummet.”
In 2008, the Downtown Austin Alliance hired Heimsath to survey condo dwellers. The results dispelled some myths, including that most downtown residents were young; that many downtown residents work in the central business district; and that many condo buyers were investors from outside of Austin.
Heimsath said then that he was surprised by the broad age range of buyers. At that time, 27 percent were 30 or younger; 35 percent were 30 to 44; 26 percent were 45 to 60; and 12 percent were 60 or older. Although there hasn’t been a follow-up survey, Heimsath said downtown residents generally fall into four categories:
■ Young professionals who work downtown
■ Couples, with at least one member working downtown
■ Empty-nest couples who moved from another Austin neighborhood
■ Retired couples who split their time between downtown and a ranch
“Downtown appeals to a very wide demographic,” Heimsath said. However, he notes that “young people are more likely to rent due to their income levels, more mobile lifestyle and a pervasive skepticism regarding the wisdom of homeownership.”