Last year, we examined how Austin has an unlikely lookalike in Boise, Idaho, a fast-growing metro that, like Austin, has earned both praise and ire as thousands flock to the city.
But while Boise and its suburb, Nampa, were named the two best-run cities in America by WalletHub, Austin ranked 85th—below fellow hubs Phoenix and Miami and six fellow Texas cities.
The study, which measures 150 US cities across 38 metrics, compared each metro's quality of city services to its city budget per capita. While Boise ranked third in both categories, Austin's 12th-best quality of services was offset by a city budget that ranked 112th per resident.
Here's a look at how the Sun Belt's former pride and joy fell so far below its tinier "twin":
Booming economies—both cities
Both Boise and Austin ranked in the top 5 for their economies, with Austin taking the cake.
Bolstered by a mass pandemic migration and tech influx, both metros are caught "mid-metamorphosis" as they quickly transform into major cities. While Austin suburbs Georgetown and Leander both saw the fastest growth of any metros from July 2020-2021 with double-digit growth, three Boise suburbs—Meridian (5.2%), Caldwell (5.2%) and Nampa (5.0%) rounded out the top 10.
Tech giants like Tesla and Oracle, alongside other developments in tech and business, helped Austin produce one of the fastest-growing economies in 2021. And with employers like Albertson's, Hewlett-Packard and Micron Technology, Boise's unemployment rate sat at 2.4% in April—well below the national average of 3.6%.
City budget, safety—Boise
Austin's city budget for 2022 was around $1.2 billion. (Hensel Phelps)
Boise's City Hall offers 42% of its budget to general funds. (Boise City Council/Facebook)
With a $661.8 million budget and a projected population of just over 235,000, Boise has the third-best city budget per capita.
As the city experiences rapid change, city leaders said their budget priority was community-oriented, including "housing, transportation, environment, and more," and that 42% of the budget went to general funds.
And while Austin had a $4.5 billion budget this year, the city had to stretch that among its nearly 1 million residents. 1.2 billion—or 26%—of the budget was placed in general allocation, with two-thirds of that slotted toward public safety.
Austin remains one of Texas' safest cities, according to Police Chief Joseph Chacon, but pales in comparison to Boise. While Austin ranked 71st in safety, Boise clocked in at eighth. Boise's crime rate per 1,000 citizens was 35.5 in 2020, a 2.4% decrease from the year prior, while Austin's was 40.98 in the same time period.
Austin has become known as a "brain drain" in part thanks to the University of Texas. (University of Texas at Austin/Facebook)
Boise's biggest university is Boise State University. (Boise State University/Facebook)
Aside from its top economy ranking, Austin also shone in its high school graduation rate, which clocked in at 1st in the US. Known as a "brain drain" city, Austin's college-town status and wealth of job opportunities have created one of the most educated populations in the U.S.
Three of the top 25 public high schools in Texas are located in Austin, and the city's education system ranked 16th. And while four of the top 10 high schools in Idaho are located in Boise, the city's overall education earned just 41st place.
Both cities are known as fitness and health havens thanks to robust outdoor amenities and health-conscious residents. But Austin still edged out its Idahoan lookalike, ranking 7th overall to Boise's 10th.
Affordability and infrastructure issues—both cities
Housing has become a scarce commodity in Austin.
Both Boise and Austin are experiencing affordability issues thanks to an overpriced housing market. (Boise New Construction/Facebook)
Still, the effects of high-speed growth have done some major damage to both formerly sleepy cities.
Both cities pose higher than average incomes relative to their state. But thanks to a rapidly diminishing number of available homes for both new and old residents, both Boise and Austin ranked as the top two most overvalued housing markets in the country, according to a Florida Atlantic study.
With more and more residents priced out of homeownership and burdened with a higher cost of living, both Boise and Austin ranked below the top 30 in the financial stability index.
Both cities have seen even more development in neighboring suburbs—like Boise's Nampa, which was named the US's best-run city for the sixth year in a row—while its inner-city infrastructure often struggles to keep up with the times. While Boise's infrastructure and pollution ranked 32nd overall (Nampa ranked 77th), Austin's car-centric infrastructure ranked 45th.
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Austin’s friendly and magnetic personality shines through in the architecture that’s been a long time in the making.
It’s not the high rises of Manhattan or the blend of Victorian and modern architecture seen in San Francisco, but we have a mix of charming, sleek and tall. Of course, being the tallest in any region is one of the main bragging rights, so we rounded up a list of some of the buildings with impressive heights over the years.
As coming towers make their entry to downtown, the Domain and other booming areas, here’s a look back at where it all began.
Texas State Capitol, 1888
If any state capitol was going to be bigger than the nation’s, Texas was going to be it. The capitol stands about 14 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Taking just a little more than six years to build, it eventually reached 302.64 feet from the south front ground level to the tip of the star of the Goddess of Liberty. The building has such a captivating view that the state and city have worked to preserve it by limiting the height of other buildings in a corridor.
Design didn’t come locally: a nationwide competition led to Detroit-based architect Elijah Myers’ design, which incorporated the look at the nation’s capitol, the Michigan state capitol and the Denver, Colorado courthouse.
Scarbrough and Littlefield, early 1900s
\u201c#ThrowbackThursday: In 1931, the Scarbrough Building opened its doors at the corner of Congress Avenue & Sixth Street. With 8 stories, it was Austin's first skyscraper (it looks tiny now!). It was also the first retail store west of the Mississippi with air conditioning! \n#AE125\u201d— Austin Energy (@Austin Energy) 1583436304
These buildings, which came to Austin through two Confederate veterans, drew attention in another part of downtown through their impact on the early business center.
In 1910, the Scarbrough building was completed and stood at what was once an impressive feat: eight stories. Emerson Monroe Scarbrough, owner of E.M. Scarbrough & Sons department store, brought the skyscraper to the southwest corner of Sixth and Congress. Bartering was still a common practice then but Scarbrough changed things up by setting prices and extending credit, reporting by the Austin American-Statesman notes.
While this was happening, president of the American National Bank George Littlefield broke ground on a building. In 1912, it was completed with a roof garden for parties. Littlefield later enclosed the garden to create a ninth story—just one story taller than Scarbrough’s.
In 2012, the buildings marked their 100-year anniversaries with a public celebration attended by the mayor and members of both families.
Imagine an office building without air-conditioning. That’s what people had before Norwood stepped onto the scene as the first office with AC and the first “motoramp” for parking. With its castle-like build on West 7th Street, Norwood Tower set the stage for office buildings downtown with rooftop gardens and a penthouse. Its owners also have deep roots in Austin as members of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s family.
With its neo-gothic architecture, Norwood drew attention as the tallest commercial structure and its bashes. In 1939, a party for Austin High graduates was held and one attendee, Liz Carpenter, talked about the experience in the 14-story structure. “It was thrilling and at that point frightening to be up so high,” Carpenter said.
The University of Texas at Austin Tower, 1937
Sonic fast food workers and librarians at UT had a thing or two in common. The main building and its 27-floor tower were originally intended as the campus central library where librarians stationed on every other floor roller skated to requested books. They’d then pass the books along to students down below through a small freight elevator.
Known for its orange glow to mark victories and special occasions, the 307-foot UT tower was the tallest building in Austin for many years.
Ernest O. Thompson State Office Building, 1940s
This 136-foot building was formerly known as the Austin Daily Tribune Building since the headquarters of a newspaper was once housed there.
The site at 920 Colorado joined the national register of historic places years ago and was renamed in honor of the former Texas Railroad Commissioner.
Westgate Tower, 1966
This 26-story high rise stirred some controversy when it was in the works. Some weren’t keen on having a building so high near to the capitol at 1122 Colorado St. Even then Gov. Price Daniel noted his opposition to it in an address to the legislature.
Earlier this year, it applied to become a city historic landmark given that politicians like Lyndon B. Johnson and former Lt. Governor David Dewhurst made appearances there. Plus, the 24th floor was the location of the headliners club.
Chase Bank Tower, mid-1970s
(Chase Tower ATX)
Twenty-one stories of golden mirror beauty. That’s how this tower described itself in an advertisement published in the Statesman in 1973. Aside from height, the building played up strengths like its 750 parking spaces and personal banking center.
This $17 million building enjoyed a year as the tallest building until the Austin National Bank Tower came out to be 14 feet taller.
One Eleven Congress, 1980s
Over 391 feet, this building formerly known as One Congress Plaza has now fallen on the list of tallest Austin buildings. But when it came onto the scene in the late 80s, it was one of the most notable during the tower boom of the time.
Today it features a food hall with eateries like Little Wu and Taco Pegaso. It also includes a conference center that can accommodate up to 75 people in a standard classroom setting and a fitness center to work out in.
Frost Bank Tower, 2004
A pyramidal crown topping off 33 stories, Frost came onto Congress Avenue standing at 515 feet and quickly got a reputation as the “owl building” given its bird-like appearance with eyes in the bank’s logo.
But as KVUE and others have confirmed, none of the architects have a connection to Rice University, so the eyes aren’t a jab at UT. It’s not connected to the Illuminati either—if you were wondering.
360 Condominiums, 2008
Breaking the Frost tower’s streak of 515 feet, this residential skyscraper went 47 feet higher. 360 is a reference to its numbered address on Nueces, and its 430 units are the envy of many. With a concierge and ground floor retail, it’s also in a prime location by the pedestrian bridge leading to Town Lake and 2nd Street stores.But its time as the tallest didn’t last long. The Austonian arrived in 2010 with 56 floors that took over 360’s reign. Residents there enjoy amenities like a spa room, a library, a wine cellar, a theater and more.
The Independent, 2019
The "jenga tower," or the Independent, stands at 685 feet tall and houses 58 stories. The year of its opening, the 363 condo units there reportedly ranged in price from $400,000 to $5 million.It proudly touts itself as the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi, but it has other offerings like an outdoor lounge, a heated pool, a coffee bar and more.
Into the future
That brings us to now where we’re seeing some Scarbrough-Littlefield type of drama play out. The 66-floor tower known as Sixth and Guadalupe is set to house Meta. But it’s going up against another contender for the tallest building, a mixed-use project at 98 Red River St., which could end up being the tallest building in Texas.
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Austin is in dire need of new apartments, as a report shows the city will need more than 100,000 additional apartment units by 2035 to keep up with demand.
Commissioned by the National Apartment Association and the National Multifamily Housing Council, the study found that Austin had the highest apartment demand across the nation using projected percentage growth and absolute new renters from 2021-2035.
Texas dominated the need for rental housing, with Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston following closely behind in slots two and three, respectively. The study said percentage growth tends to favor smaller metros while absolute growth favors larger metros.
While the study showed Austin was most starved for new units, it ranked fifth for the absolute number of units needed by 2035: 117,107, or a little over 9,000 units per year. Meanwhile, DFW needs 269,906 and Houston needs 209,084, both higher than totals in any other metro on the list.
In terms of percentage growth needed, Austin ranked second for percent growth needed at 2.6%, DFW slipped behind at 2% and 1.9% for Houston per year.
All combined, Texas ranks sixth for needed housing, requiring 653,285 new units and an increase of 1.6% per year.
According to a report from the Austin Business Journal, 60 projects were delivered locally in 2021, adding 15,198 new units across Travis, Hays, Williamson, Caldwell and Bastrop counties. There are 50,000 units currently under construction in Austin, though 45,000 are awaiting permits, which can be a lengthy, year-plus long process right now.
Additionally, the industry is grappling with regulatory changes and supply shortages that are slowing the process.
As of July, 47 apartment complexes are under construction, making up 13,270 units according to Apartmentdata.com, and another 128 communities representing 42,257 units are proposed.