Downtown Austin charts road to recovery with luxury real estate, Waterloo Greenway and homeless housing
Fourteen months into the pandemic, downtown Austin is still reeling from its impact: pedestrian traffic declined as much as 74%, hotel occupancy rates plummeted, at least 10 music and event venues closed permanently, as many as 25% of downtown storefronts are vacant and an estimated 3,000 jobs have yet to be recovered, according to the Downtown Austin Alliance.
But a new report issued by the local nonprofit on Wednesday maps out a road to recovery, aided by major developments such as the Waterloo Greenway urban park system, Project Connect and the South Central Waterfront, just south of Lady Bird Lake; small and local business reopenings; and a plan to house the city's unsheltered homeless residents, many of whom reside in tents along Cesar Chavez Street.
"It won't happen overnight, but our team is dedicated to working with the community and local government officials and stakeholders to implement this vision that will result in a better downtown experience and a downtown economy that is better able to withstand future catastrophic challenges," President and CEO Dewitt Peart said in a statement.
There are reasons to be optimistic, according to the report. Demand for downtown housing remains strong thanks to rising employment and population numbers, and two new apartment buildings in the Rainey District will add 600 units.
Although many offices remain remote and leasing activity dropped precipitously in 2020, DAA believes demand will rebound. Tech companies such as Google and Facebook, both of which have invested in new office towers downtown, have maintained their intention to return to the office, according to the report. And with the upcoming openings of the Indeed Tower, 300 Colorado and several other office buildings, downtown is set to add more than 1.5 million square feet of Class A, the most luxurious, office space this year, a new annual record.
Downtown businesses have been adversely impacted by a loss of pedestrian traffic and tourism during the pandemic, according to the DAA report. (Emma Freer/Austonia)
In addition to downtown's role as a business center, it is also a leisure destination for tourists and residents alike. DAA's roadmap includes plans to expand arts, cultural and music events in downtown parks and to advocate for financial support for small and local downtown businesses, which have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic.
The report comes on the heels of a recent summit of local elected officials, community leaders and organizations including DAA, who developed a plan to address unsheltered homelessness—and as city residents vote on a proposition to reinstate a ban on camping in certain public spaces. The main goal, which Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey presented to the City Council on Tuesday, is to house 3,000 people in the next three years by incentivizing landlords to provide rental units, developing new permanent supportive housing and adding 200 new case managers and other staff positions.
An encampment has formed along Cesar Chavez Street near Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin and has become a focal point of Save Austin Now, the local political action committee behind Proposition B. (Emma Freer/Austonia)
"So many people love downtown Austin and because it is the economic engine of our region, we need to ensure it remains a destination for job creators, residents, local visitors and tourists," Director of Research and Analysis Jenell Moffett said in a statement. "The fundamental strengths are a strong foundation to build upon."
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Downtown may be mostly recovered from the pandemic but residents are shifting their priorities on what they want out of the city, according to the City Pulse Survey done by design firm Gensler.
After studying 7,500 people in 15 global markets, including our very own Austin, Gensler found that life in COVID has pushed city-dwellers to want more outdoor activities, social spaces and entertainment venues in bustling business districts.
Post-pandemic, the highest-rated downtown activities were shopping, visiting parks and just “hanging out.” The need for more public spaces like parks jumped from sixth on the list to second this year.
Although globally people view downtown as a business district for task-based activities, across the U.S., downtown districts are viewed more as a vehicle for entertainment. This is especially true for Austinites, where people surveyed said they would rather see more entertainment and cultural venues than shopping or public transit downtown.
For Melanie Gartman, a manager at construction software company Levelset who has been living in Austin for most of her life, the needs and wants of the average resident closely align with her own.
Austin clocked in second-most desirable downtown, tied with Charlotte, North Carolina. Like the 78% of Austinites in the survey, Gatman said she thinks Downtown Austin is hanging on to its lovable charm.
“Even now with fewer people out and about it's still very vibrant and lively. I feel like I saw life come back to downtown a lot sooner than I expected it to,” Gartman said. “It's still holding on a bit that Austin vibe and with the high rises coming in, it's scary that we could lose that. I think it's holding on better than I would have expected, especially within the last two years of everything that happened.”
As Austinites eased back into downtown, the first stop Gartman made was to go see music again. Since venues opened back up, Gartman and her loved ones have seen live music at their favorite venues: Moody Amphitheatre, Mohawk, The Parish and Empire Control Room.
Blackillac opened for Gary Clark Jr. at the Moody Amphitheater's first show back in August. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
Entertainment is most important for Gartman’s life in Austin—seeing Gary Clark Jr. in August brought normalcy back into her routine—and said our local downtown is the ideal out of other cities in Texas.
“I've always noticed that between Houston’s downtown and Austin’s, Houston's is so Monday to Friday, eight to five, maybe a post-work happy hour,” Gartman said. “Growing up, downtown (Austin) was always the place to go. It has always been the hub and I think Austin is unique in that way.”
Traffic in downtown areas is way down overall, even though concern over pandemic safety has taken a backseat. Shopping traffic has decreased by 28%, dining out and entertainment attendance dropped by 33% in the post-pandemic sphere.
Even though her office is located downtown, Gartman usually works from home. Her downtown visits tend to be for the purpose of entertainment and she said the lack of parking sometimes becomes problematic.
“I feel like all these high rises are taking over all the parking,” Gartman said. “It used to be for go-to parking, I would just park under I-35. No big deal. But now, that’s kind of scary, especially if you're by yourself. The party parking is a barrier to actually making it down there.”
But with the rise of the hybrid work model, it’s likely that the downtown sphere is going to change all across the U.S. For now, survey participants said they would like to see their downtown reduce traffic, add more green space, improve the cityscape and increase parking capacity as we shape the future of cities.
Akins Early College High School, 10701 S. 1st St., was on lockdown Wednesday morning as district police investigated a report of an "armed subject," Austin ISD Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez tweeted. The district has since deescalated the lockdown to a hold, where students can go to the restroom and be picked up if parents choose to do so.
Students and staff are safe and no shots were fired, according to police. Three students were identified to have caused the lockdown after a witness claimed one of them had a weapon; the three met up in the school restroom. No weapon was found on the three students. However, one of the students had two magazines with ammunition.
The three students were located and will not be returning to school tomorrow. Gonzalez said their punishment with the school or charges have not been identified since the investigation is in the early stages.
Additional officers will be on campus tomorrow. "We take these events seriously and we prepare so that at the end of the day, everyone can go home safe," Gonzalez said.
The Taylor Police Department is investigating an apparent murder-suicide that left four people dead on Tuesday.
Officers responded to a call at around 1 p.m. for a welfare check at 616 Symes St. in Taylor, Texas, where the Taylor Fire Department helped force entry into the home since it was locked, police said. Once inside, officers found four dead bodies. The names of the victims have not been released as police continue to contact relatives, but officers revealed they consisted of a 45-year-old woman, a 20-year-old woman, an 18-year-old man and a 57-year-old man.
Police believe the deaths to be a murder-suicide and are investigating with the help of the Williamson County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Rangers.
Later that day, another murder was reported in Taylor, which police say is unrelated.
Police responded to a shooting at 2100 Whistling Way around 4 p.m. Tuesday. They said a family member found 33-year-old Jonathan Hitch with a gunshot wound to his head. It is being investigated as a suspicious death.