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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Both Prop A advocates Save Austin Now and opponents political action committee Equity PAC raised over $1 million in funding between Sept. 24 and Oct. 23 ahead of Austin's Nov. 2 election, but their efforts haven't yet been reflected in the polls.
Prop A is the most contentious ballot item this election, if passed the measure would require a minimum police staffing of just over two officers per 1,000 residents. Also on the ballot is a parkland-focused Prop B; and eight state constitutional amendments. Despite constant coverage by city and community leaders and near record-breaking funds from both sides of the Prop A debacle, under 7% of voters have gone to the polls with less than a week left of early voting.
Save Austin Now, a self-proclaimed bipartisan group that saw its first major victory when it passed an ordinance to reinstate the homeless camping ban in May, raised $1,013,896.86 in the one-month period, bringing their grand total to around $1.7 million according to Jack Craver's Austin Politics Newsletter. It's the second time the political action committee has raised over $1 million—SAN nearly broke the record for money raised in a city election after racking up $1.9 million for the camping ban in May.
According to SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County GOP, most funding came from private businesses and influential community members, including:
- Private equity investor Philip Canfield, who gave two donations totaling $125,000
- The cryptically-named America 2076— $100,000
- Venture capitalist firm Gigafund's managing directors Luke Nosek and Stephen Oskoui contributed $50,000 apiece
- Venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, real estate developer Dick Anderson and car dealer Roger Beasley—$50,000 each
- Buc-ee's owner Donald Wasek, mystery donor "L., D.K", and Julia Wilkinson of charitable group Still Water Foundation each gave $25,000
- George Soros group Open Society Policy Center—$500,000
- Washington, D.C.-based liberal social justice charity Fairness Project—$200,000
- Left-wing "dark money" fund Sixteen Thirty—$100,000
- Oklahoma oil mogul Charles Schusterman's Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies—$100,000
- Several unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Texas Federation of Teachers, Southwest Laborer's District Council, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, ACLU of Texas and Austin labor union branch Austin AFL-CIO also contributed to the group.
Those big bucks have been put to use, with both groups pumping out commercials, billboards, ads and social media efforts to sway voters to either side. According to Craver, SAN has spent all but $2,777 as of Oct. 23, gaining the backing of Austin City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and former Austin mayors Lee Leffingwell, Lee Cooke and Ron Mullen in the process. Those who endorse the campaign cite a need for better policing amid a nationwide uptick in violence, especially as Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon announced that APD would no longer respond to "non-emergency" calls due to an understaffed force.
Some of their advertising has been called out as misleading, including misleading tweets about the possible support of Austinite Matthew McConaughey and insinuating that Austin Democrats are voting for the bill in text ads.
— Save Austin Now | Prop A For A Safe Austin (@SaveAustinNow) October 21, 2021
The Equity PAC still had $455,000 remaining as of Oct. 23 as they relied more on supporters Mayor Steve Adler, Council member Greg Casar, 80 community organizations and even some comments from Chacon, who says the measure is "based on older methodologies," to get the word out.
Most who oppose the bill say that Prop A, which could cost between $271.5 and nearly $600 million over five years according to estimates reported by city staff, would take away funds from other essential city departments. But they're still doing plenty of advertising outreach themselves—and Prop A supporters dispute that multi-million dollar price tag and say city council members are ignoring the increase in crime after cutting police funds last year amid Black Lives Matter protests.
Despite the hot topic, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told CBS Austin the city may fall behind their already-low goal of 18%-19% of eligible voters reaching the polls.
"It's a slow, low turnout. We're not seeing very good numbers at all," DeBeauvoir said.
Early voting ends Friday, while Election Day comes Tuesday, Nov. 2. For a guide to voting on the election, click here.
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As Halloween makes us second guess if that cold spot was a ghost or simply the cool front, keep your guard up because there are supposed haunted grounds in the city.
Austin is largely free of widespread hauntings but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its fair share of phantoms if you know where to look. Here are some of Austin's most haunted burial grounds.
Originally called the city cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery is Austin's oldest burial ground and has been standing since the 1850s. Though record-keeping isn't as robust from its early days, with over 40 acres of land and more than 25,000 people buried, Oakwood Cemetery is said to be the permanent home to some well-known Texans: U.S. Marshall and Texas Ranger John Barclay Armstrong who passed in 1913, Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson who passed on in 1883, radio personality John Henry Faulk who was buried in 1990.
Oakwood Cemetery is also known for its fair share of hauntings—note that not all who lie there are resting in marked graves and some of the early marked graves, like 1897's "Little Brother" gravestone, are haunting in and of themselves.
So, why should you stay away from Oakwood Cemetery at night? You might run into the ghost of the first of the Servant Girl Annihilator's victims, 17-year-old Eula Phillips, who was murdered by her then-husband with an axe. Philips is said to wander the grounds lamenting her violent death with tears. Dickinson, who died at the age of 68, may also appear to you and is said to be the most visual of specters that roam the grounds.
Oakwood Cemetery is known for graverobbing—rumor has it that university professors used to steal bodies from unmarked graves to use as cadavers for their students—so you might encounter the souls who are still roaming the cemetery, looking for their bodies.
Shoal Creek Indian Massacre Site
The historical marker is located at 24th Street at Shoal Creek. (austinghosts.com)
Shoal Creek, like nearly all of the United States, can be traced back thousands of years to 9,000 B.C. with Native American arrowheads. Settlers would camp along the mouth of the creek, including famous residents like the second president of the Republic of Texas Mirabeau Lamar, where it is said they engaged in a turf war with the Native Americans who resided right nearby. Those who weren't killed by Comanche warriors were killed by cholera and were buried along the creek. It is said that a mass grave, filled with victims of yellow fever, cholera and unexplained violence, lies beneath the creek.
Of the hauntings most commonly seen at Shoal Creek, watch out for cold spots in the middle of summer, vanishing orbs of light called "Marfa Lights," vanishing apparitions, unexplainable noises at night, sudden sickness and nightmares after visiting.
The Austin State Hospital
The Austin State Hospital is still operating. (Texas Historical Commission National Register Collection and the Portal to Texas History)
When the Austin State Hospital took in its first patients in 1861, it was meant to be a beacon of hope for the mentally ill to recover from the stressors of everyday life. On any given day, the hospital would treat and allegedly sometimes experiment on anywhere from 200-4,000 patients and after an unfortunate death, bodies that were not claimed were buried in the cemetery out back behind the hospital. When the cemetery inevitably filled up, bodies were exhumed and transferred to a burial ground just over two miles away. Though they say all the bodies were transferred, legend tells that some have been left on the still-operating hospital's grounds just six feet below.
The Austin State School and State School Farm Colony
The Austin State School is now closed, many of its 68 buildings abandoned. (Andreanna Moya Photography/CC)
These two gender-segregated facilities were originally intended for mentally-troubled juvenile offenders, many of whom never left the grounds. On the school's 436 acres, 1,800 students were housed across 68 buildings and the campus also held farmland, a swimming pool and a cemetery. Children who were not claimed were buried on-site, where about 3,000 students are buried. The school was sued in the 1960s after changing its name to the Travis State School for inadequate living conditions and closed in the late 90s. Many buildings have been taken over by charter schools but some remain empty to this day.
Tucker Cemetery's unique sight is its dozens of hand-written tombstones. (kissingtoast/CC)
Just outside the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Tucker Cemetery doesn't have many stories of haunts to its name other than anecdotes of car locks popping open on their own. However, what makes this cemetery freaky is its collection of tiny, hand-scrawled tombstones.
Keep Austin spoOoOoOoky!
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Coming off of the heels of the biggest Formula 1 race to date, Circuit of the Americas now has plans to create luxury "car condos" for racecar enthusiasts right by the track.
Located on the racetrack's storied "Turn 11," COTA will create around 178 car condos on a 22-acre plot in a partnership with real estate firm Lincoln Property Company. Presale reservations for the units began Wednesday, and the project hopes to break ground by late spring of 2022.
The 340,000 square foot space will include a 7,000-square foot amenity center with a pool, a clubhouse, a conference center, outdoor barbecue grills and more.
The luxurious car condos will be located alongside COTA's famed Turn 11. (Lincoln Property Company)
Customers can trick out their space, which can range from 1,300 square feet to 6,000+, however they'd like. In other projects, Lincoln Property's JR Gideon has seen car condo owners add in mechanic shops, basketball hoops, bars, music studios and more.
"They're really for storing luxury cars just as much as hosting," Gideon said. "You can do pretty much anything in there besides live."
Think of the ultimate man cave, though that word's not quite appropriate—according to Gideon, some female clients have also booked reservations for the project.
"I think predominately, our demographic is going to be men, yes, but we've already had a few ladies reserve units, which is awesome," Gideon said.
Along with having a trackside space, Gideon said that owning a condo has other perks, including 20% off COTA events. Most importantly, however, these car enthusiasts want to see their cars on the track, something the team is already planning for.
"If you're going to have your nice cars at the track, you want to know if you're going to be able to get them on there," Gideon said. "Right now I'm planning for two full track weekends for owners to be able to get their cars out on the track."
Marketing for the project has just begun, and almost every client so far has been from Texas and/or the Austin area. But Gideon and team expect plenty of interest from national customers as well as some international buyers as the only F1 racetrack in the States with trackside car condos.
There could be a hitch in the plan, however. COTA's 10-year contract for F1 expired last weekend, and no new deal has been finalized yet. But COTA chair Bobby Epstein feels confident in renewing a contract, especially after the sports' biggest weekend to date. Gideon and Lincoln's Seth Johnston aren't involved in contract talks but say that plenty of attractions exist at COTA outside of the U.S. Grand Prix.
And with newfound American interest in F1—Gideon, like many others, partially credits Netflix's "Drive To Survive" series—the crew is confident that there will be more projects like this to come in the future.
"With (Drive To Survive) coming out in the last couple of years and so many people watching the past race, I think there's certainly a lot of momentum around Circuit of the Americas and this project as well as other future developments at COTA," Gideon said.
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