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Austin's high-rise cliff-dwellers say density is not a problem, and they're staying put—coronavirus be damned
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Elevator wars. Cramped life on a balcony. Darkened bars and restaurants. No deliveries to your condo. Generational differences over latex gloves, disposable wipes and social distancing. Ready to kill for a beer on a restaurant patio. Yes, those who live in Austin downtown's high-rises are stressed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet the downtowners believe this time will pass and are optimistic about the future of the heart of our boomtown. For one thing, downtown's density—when closely examined—seems less of a threat than elsewhere because it is highly affluent and not all that dense.
If the urban dwellers yearn for the old days, it's not for their previous lives in the suburbs, but a distant time—only six weeks ago—before Austin shut down.
Ours is a city revered for its outdoors life, entertainment and food scene. Tens of thousands are drawn to our streets and trails every week. Now our sidewalks are silent as we cautiously creep our way back to what used to be.
Twelve years ago, Forrest Preece and Linda Ball, who had lived in a comfortable, 3,000-square-foot house with a lush and sprawling backyard overlooking Shoal Creek, moved to 360 Condos at 360 Nueces Street. They were in search of a simpler, more convenient life.
Until the city's shelter-in-place expires, they are largely self-isolated in their 1200-square-foot apartment and small balcony.
"Well, I didn't have any regrets until now," says Preece, a retired advertising agency owner who is 73. "Before this, if we wanted vegetation, we'd walk three blocks south and be on the hike-and-bike trail. We are scared to be over there now. There's not a whole lot of respect for social distancing going on."
Austonia checked in with a dozen people—residents, downtown leaders and an urban thinker—to gauge how living in a high-rise during a pandemic differs from the lives of other Austin residents. For the most part, the people who live high in glass and steel say there's no material difference between the pressures of the pandemic on urban and suburban life. They take great pride in downtown Austin, are committed to sticking out the virus and know things will get better.
Coronavirus has been clearly identified with population density and poverty. The nation's hotspots are New York City, with a population density of 26,000 per square mile; Detroit, 4,900; Chicago, 12,000; and New Orleans, 2,300. All have significant pockets of poverty, and those places are where COVID-19 stalks the streets.
Is downtown Austin dense? According to the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), an estimated 15,500 people live within the 1.67 square miles bounded by Martin Luther King Blvd. on the north, Lady Bird Lake on the South, Lamar Blvd. on the west and I-35 on the east. That would give downtown a density of 9,300 per square mile.
But that's only part of the picture. It's not clear how many of Austin's downtown residents are part-time. But from discussions with real estate agents and others, it appears that a significant number treat our city as their second home. So that eases density.
Also, downtown residents are wealthy. Their median household income is $110,303, compared with the median of $67,462 for Austin as a whole, according to the DAA.
They say the wealthy control their own destiny, and it seems they also control their own density. Plaza Lofts at 5th and Guadalupe, where Nina and Frank Seely live, has 55 units. Nina Seely says only about 35 people are in the building at any one time.
The Seelys moved from The Ridge at Barton Creek in 2018. Plaza Lofts is two blocks away from 360 Condos, so close that Nina can wave from her balcony to her friend Forrest Preece on his.
Seely sells to wealthy buyers who prefer confidentiality. Often, they are seeking a second home downtown. She says few of her clients even mention the virus and density. "If they do ask me about that, I say you're going to have to live your life as you want to. Living in a condensed area downtown, people are behaving themselves."
Emily Zipp and Andrew Fischer, both 29, share Fischer's unit at 360 condos. For them, the pandemic arrived with a few bearable annoyances. The pool, lounge chairs and grills on the recreational deck were closed by building managers, and Zipp misses cooling off in the pool after a day's work or gathering with friends on the weekend.
"Elevators are a very hot-button subject," says Zipp, a 2013 graduate of St. Edward's University who is an account executive for Sprout Social, a Chicago-based social media software management company.
"We only have four, one is for freight, and it seems like one is always broken down. If you're trying to go out between 5 and 7 p.m., the waits can be as long as 10 minutes." The pandemic heightens elevator chagrin: "If someone is in it, I won't get in. I'll wait for the next."
Not all agree that the denizens of downtown are so well-behaved. One older person complained about young people and the homeless not wearing masks or keeping their distance on the streets, trails and parks. He asked not to be named to avoid being called out by homeless advocates.
Zipp says she carries a mask with her when she's out for a run, or when she is in the public spaces of her condo building. If she approaches someone in a hallway, she puts on the mask. She doesn't engage in 360 Condo's online chat room. Arguments prevail between those who agree with the condo's restrictive policies, such as requiring food delivery pick-ups to be in the lobby, and those who see them as over the top. Zipp agrees with the policies, though she misses the pool.
Rikki Jump, 29, head of author strategy at Scribe Media, rents a one-bedroom unit at The Catherine, a luxury high-rise apartment building at 214 Barton Springs Road. She is across Lady Bird Lake and less than a mile from her friend Zipp. In 2013 Jump moved to Austin from Springfield, Mo., where she received a bachelor's degree in professional and technical writing at Missouri State University.
"I already went over the precautions they're taking" at The Catherine, she said. All common areas have been closed and only two people are allowed in an elevator at any one time. Jump adds, "but overall the vibe has been pretty tense and eerie. No regrets about living downtown! I'm obsessed with it and don't see myself making a change for a long time."
"I do not love working from home," says Jump. "It makes me feel very lethargic and sluggish." She's getting in walks with her dog on the hike-and-bike trail. "I would kill to be enjoying a beer on a restaurant patio with my friends. I'm single, so that's been pretty lonely."
Among the part-time dwellers of downtown Austin are David Powell and Vicki Weber, whose main home is in Tallahassee, Fla. David is a 1973 graduate of the University of Texas-Austin and a former editor of the Daily Texan. He now sits on the dean's advisory board of the Moody College of Communication.
David and Vicki moved into their condo on the 20th floor of 360 in 2008. Vicki, 67, is a retired lawyer. David, 69, is of counsel to the law firm where they both worked, and says he is mostly retired. These days, they come to Austin less frequently than they once did, but stay longer—usually for a week.
When the coronavirus struck, they put off a scheduled March visit and carefully watch developments from afar.
"It will be very interesting to see what happens post-pandemic," says David. "Given the economics, and possibly some potential social changes, I will be interested to see whether Austin continues to boom. Maybe it will; maybe it won't. It's becoming harder and harder to see it going back to where it was."
A few blocks away at Northshore Apartments, Judy and Doug Moss, who both are 72 years old, are moving out to spend more time at their home on Lake LBJ in Granite Shoals, 55 miles to the northwest. Moving in from Barton Creek two and one-half years ago, the Northshore rental was an experiment in downtown living—and it worked well.
"We were on the 21st floor overlooking Auditorium Shores. It was fun to be out on the balcony with a glass of wine and enjoying Austin," says Doug, a land developer. "We have had all the fun we can stand. We're glad we did it."
However the couple found themselves spending more and more time at the lake. They are considering buying an Austin condo to keep a foothold in town. "We might buy a condo," says Judy, a retired real estate broker. "We're kind of thinking we might. We are not going to react at this time with the COVID-19."
The residents' confident views were validated by Steven Pedigo, a professor of practice and director of the Urban Lab at UT's LBJ School.
"Yes, density can play a role," he said in an interview. "But as you can see in New York the reality is the type of density. There is a more affluent density vs. poor density. Hit the hardest have been the areas of less-affluent density, where you have large families in one space, and frontline workers who may not have had protection from COVID-19."
Reports from New York, which accounts for a third of coronavirus deaths, confirms that the most severely impacted neighborhoods were in the Bronx and poor sections of Brooklyn and Queens.
Pedigo, who advises cities on growth strategies, says Austin shouldn't "pivot" in its longstanding policies of encouraging density. People are attracted to Austin by its amenities, and those things should be enhanced with investments in transportation, parks, sidewalks, public infrastructure and active mobility. Those outlays will improve life for all, he says, including those in less-affluent, high-density areas.
"At some point we'll get over the pandemic," says Pedigo. "When we get to 3 million people in 10 years, if you haven't invested in transportation, you'll have a stuck economy."
How does he see Austin's future post-pandemic? "I'm pretty optimistic."
The people we interviewed agreed. They uniformly were optimistic, with most believing that Austin's reputation and appeal is so strong that the pandemic will only cause temporary economic dislocation.
Editor's note: Vicki Weber's last name was changed from the original to reflect her maiden name.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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The 2020(1?) Olympics have induced plenty of late nights and early mornings for millions of Americans as they watch the world's best leap, flip and dive through the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Over two dozen athletes with Austin ties and many more from Texas are making headlines for their contributions to the Games, including 17-year-old gold medal swimmer Lydia Jacoby and legendary softball pitcher Cat Osterman.
So far, Austin athletes have racked up a gold and two silvers for Team USA. Some have more history-making opportunities ahead of them in the Games; others are soon headed home early with no medal but an Olympic title nonetheless. Team USA is in third place overall and has accumulated 40 medals, the second-most behind China, at this year's Games.
We're one week into the Games. Here's a quick look at the biggest headlines in this year's controversial competition and how athletes with Austin ties stacked up.
The Olympics' strangest Games to date? A quick rundown
This year's Games have been an outlier for several reasons. Many athletes have been impacted by COVID, with some saying that the Olympics maybe shouldn't have happened at all.
Millions of fans are getting an insider's view of the Olympics thanks to TikTok. U.S. women's rugby sevens star Ilona Maher helped viewership of her sport spike after her witty videos, including a clip where the team attempts to break the Olympic Village's cardboard beds.
The once-delayed Games have also seen upsets like no other, with many U.S.-dominated sports being championed by the most unlikely of teams.
In gymnastics, Texas native and world-renowned gymnast Simone Biles stepped out of the team competition left the team final and the individual all-around due to what is known as the "twisties," a sort of mind-and-body disconnect that could result in life-threatening injuries. Biles isn't sure if she'll compete in individual events next week, but her team is still doing well without their leader: the U.S. won silver as a team and Suni Lee was the individual gold medal winner.
A condom was used to repair the canoe of world-renowned Australian canoeist Jessica Fox. Meanwhile, a crash put Rio gold medalist Connor Fields in the hospital after a dangerous crash involving six riders on the BMX track.
Things got awkward in a post-swimming press conference when Team USA silver medalist Ryan Murphy and British bronze medalist Luke Greenbank said that the Games are "probably not clean," alluding to Russia's state-sponsored doping campaign that forced them to switch names to the Russian Olympic Committee. ROC competitor Evgeny Rylov was the gold medalist in the event.
Austin athletes have taken a gold and two silvers so far in the Games, with two swimming medals and a silver softball title.
Upcoming UT freshman Lydia Jacoby earned her first gold medal as a 17-year-old in the women's 100m. The Alaska native is the first of her state to win a swimming gold medal, and she completed the feat despite not having an Olympic-size swimming pool to train with.
Longhorn Erica Sullivan made it to the podium as well with a silver medal in the women's 1500m freestyle, finishing just behind U.S. star Katie Ledecky.
Legendary UT alum Cat Osterman's decorated Olympic run is up. The 38-year-old lefthanded pitcher left her final Olympics with a bittersweet silver medal after home team Japan secured the gold in the women's softball final. The loss was the first time the two had seen each other since Japan first took the gold from Team USA in 2008, the last time softball had been in the Olympics. Osterman's next move is off the pitcher's mound; the current assistant coach at Texas State University hopes to work for a nonprofit in Austin after she officially retires on September 27.
Those who went home
While every Olympian wants to go home with that precious metal, even making it to the world's biggest competition is a feat on its own. Here are the Austin athletes who didn't quite make it to the podium:
- Longhorn swimmer Townley Haas was 5th in the semifinals of the men's 200m freestyle and did not advance.
- Despite being medal favorites, Longhorn Gia Doonan and her women's eights crew just missed the mark with a fourth place finish in Tokyo after many members recovered from COVID.
- Austinite Alison Gibson and partner Krysta Parmer finished eighth in the women's 3m synchronized diving competition.
- Haas and fellow UT alum Drew Kibler helped Team USA to a fourth-place finish in the men's 4x200m swimming freestyle.
- Caspar Corbeau, a Longhorn swimming for the Netherlands, finished 7th in his opening heat for the men's 100m and 200m swimming freestyle.
- Remedy Rule, a Longhorn swimming for the Philippines, finished eighth in the semifinal for the women's 200m butterfly.
- Anna Elendt, a UT swimmer competing for Team Germany, finished 7th in the semifinals of the women's 100m freestyle and was sixth in the prelims as part of the 4x100 medley relay.
What's to come
Sugar Land native and standout Simone Manuel helped Team USA to set a single-day record for medals won on Sunday with a bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay. Fellow Team USA star Caeleb Dressel established his dominance with a first-place finish in the men's 100-meter freestyle on Thursday and set an Olympic record in the prelims of the 100m butterfly after helping the men's 4x100m freestyle earlier in the week.
Coming up, former Longhorn Joseph Schooling, who beat Michael Phelps in the Rio Olympics, will compete in the men's 100m butterfly final alongside Dressel on Saturday.
Hailey Hernandez, a Texan diver who is coming to UT in the fall, was the youngest competitor to advance to the semifinal round of the women's 3m springboard competition early Saturday morning.
Track and field
UT alum Teahna Daniels has advanced to the women's 100m semifinals alongside teammates Javianne Oliver and Jenna Prandini after a heat-winning time of 11.04 seconds. Daniels and crew will look to establish themselves as the world's fastest women in the semifinals at 6:15 a.m. followed by the finals at 8:50 a.m.
The women's 100m trio were some of the first to hit the track on Thursday. Team USA DQ'd in the 4x400m mixed race on Thursday, squandering veteran Alyson Felix's quest for another medal. Ethiopia and Uganda are the only current medal-winners for the sport, but UT alum Melissa Gonzalez will look to change that on Saturday morning as she competes in the women's 400m hurdles. Fellow Longhorn Pedra Seymour will begin her fight to beat her 6th place finish in Rio as she runs in the prelims for the women's 100m hurdles for Team Bahamas on Saturday, while men's long jumper Steffin McCarter will look to qualify in the men's long jump competition that afternoon.
The world's fastest men will begin competition Saturday morning as well, with Team USA's Trayvon Bromell as the favorite to get the gold.
Other UT track stars including world-record shot putter Ryan Crouser (Thursday), Team Jamaica 4x400m runner Stacey-Ann Williams (Thursday), and long jumper Tara Davis (Sunday) will hit the track next week.
Win or go home AND WE’RE NOT GOING HOME YET 😤 pic.twitter.com/qdK7Aa7c4s— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) July 30, 2021
Team USA advanced to the semifinals in penalty kicks in an adrenaline-pumping match early Friday morning. Next, they'll play Canada in the semifinals to compete for that top spot and avenge their loss in Rio as they fight for the finals. On Team Canada's Olympic team is UT midfielder Julia Grosso, who has helped her team to a win and three draws thus far.
Kevin Durant and team have had a rocky start to the Olympics, leaving many to wonder if their No. 1 status is in jeopardy. The team suffered their first Olympic loss since 2004 in a 83-76 upset against France. They bounced back with an easy win against Iran, though the win was expected against a team with no NBA players in their roster. Next up is the Czech Republic, a team with two NBA talents that the U.S. is expecting to smother at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
The USA Women's basketball team picks up their first W 🚨— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 27, 2021
USA takes down Nigeria, 81-72
A'ja Wilson (Olympic debut): 19 PTS | 13 REB pic.twitter.com/cRwnEgAzhn
The U.S. women's basketball team, including UT alum Ariel Atkins, have shakily continued their world dominance in Tokyo. The team is 2-0 in Group B after an 81-72 defeat over Nigeria and 86-69 victory over Japan. Atkins celebrated her birthday on the same day as the Japan defeat.
Next up, the team will look to increase their winning margins as they take on France at 12:40 a.m. on Monday.
Longhorn middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu and the Team USA volleyball team are fighting hard for their first gold medal in 57 years. The team has already swept defending gold medalists China and was undefeated in group play with wins over Argentina and Turkey as they head to the quarterfinals starting Wednesday, They'll look to defeat the ROC and Italy in their final group rounds along the way.
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