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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A big-money bird has been stolen from a northwest Austin pet store.
Kelsey Fernandez, the owner of a $6,000 sulphur and citron-crested cockatoo named Lemon Grab, said the emotional support animal was taken from the Gallery of Pets store, around closing time on Sunday.
"I've struggled with mental illness my entire life, and ever since I got him I've been doing so much better," Fernandez told Austonia.
The $6k cockatoo is young and will starve unless he is fed by hand, Fernandez said.
In a surveillance video, a man appears to have something under his shirt as he and two others exit the business around the same time the store believes that Lemon Grab was stolen.
Fernandez said a report has been filed with the Austin Police Department with an $1,000 reward for his return.
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Introverts and personal space lovers may not want to make the move to Austin anytime soon: The Texas capital saw a bigger increase in one-bedroom rent prices than almost any other U.S. city in April, according to a Rent.com report.
Austin's one-bedroom rent has more than doubled—a 112% increase—from April 2021 to 2022, the report said. Only Oklahoma City saw a higher year-over-year increase with a 133% jump.
Austin also had the fourth-highest increase in two-bedroom rent, with a 50% increase in the past year. The city joined a nationwide trend where rents were up 8.3% year-over-year across the U.S, a trend exacerbated by a 6.2% increase in inflation in the same time period.
But "not everyone is experiencing inflation the same way," Redfin Deputy Chief Economist Taylor Marr said in the report, and a brunt of the load has gone to cities with more move-ins. While over 90% of state rental markets increased in the last year, that jump was seen most in Sun Belt states, including Texas, Arizona and Florida.
Even with breakneck increases in rent, however, Austin's rent prices still haven't cracked the top 10: the city's one-bedroom apartments are the 12th most expensive in the nation with an average price of $2,918. Meanwhile, its two-bedrooms fall behind Texas cities Frisco, Dallas and Plano and come out 34th on the list with a $2,302 average monthly rent.
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