Welcome to town!
This week, you'll see stories useful for someone new to Austin in anticipation of Austonia's "How to Austin" event. To attend, sign up here.
Although the pandemic rages on and many of Austin's most iconic attractions—live-music venues, honky tonks and long lines outside of barbecue joints—remain closed, people continue to flock to the city.
Based on 2018-19 population estimates outlined in an October report by the Austin Chamber, the metro is now growing by 168 net new residents each day, mostly thanks to people who relocate here. And there are already indicators that suggest Austin's growth has continued amid COVID-19.
Being new to town is something of a common experience among Austinites, with natives sometimes referred to as "unicorns" due to their rarity. Still, recent arrivals may find the city foreign in unexpected ways. Here are eight things to know while settling in.
1. Where are people moving from?
More than half of new Austin residents come from other parts of Texas, according to the Chamber report. Californians, who are sometimes blamed for Austin's growing pains, made up 8% of migration to the Austin metro between 2014 and 2018, followed by New Yorkers (3.3%), Floridians (3.1%) and Illinoisans (2.3%).
In more recent news, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Austin a magnet for new corporate jobs last month, thanks to its lower costs (and taxes) compared to San Francisco and New York City. Between April and October 2020, for every one person who left Austin for the Bay Area, almost three people moved in the opposite direction, and for every one person who left Austin for New York City, more than two New Yorkers came to Austin.
LinkedIn also reported that Austin gained the most newcomers of any city in the country in 2020, based on an analysis of its 174 million U.S. users.
2. Is it really a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup?
(Charlie L. Harper III)
(Charlie L. Harper III)
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once likened Austin to a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup because of its liberal politics in a red state.
Texas hasn't voted Democrat in a presidential election since 1976. In that time, Travis County—which includes most of the city of Austin—went blue in all but one race, in 2000, when then Texas Gov. George Bush was first elected.
Today, Austin is governed by an 11-person council, with 10 members who are self-described Democrats, and the county is governed by an all-Democrat Commissioners Court. Its elected officials have voted to support paid sick leave, police budget cuts, affordable housing investments and immigrant protections, often facing pushback from state officials and lawmakers.
But Austin is no longer the only blueberry in this unappetizing metaphor. Bexar, Dallas and Harris counties—home to Texas' three largest cities—also vote reliably Democratic, as do as an increasing number of suburban counties.
3. Where does Austin stand in terms of affordability?
Austin housing costs have risen dramatically since the late 1990s as an increasing number of affluent residents moved into urban core neighborhoods, displacing low-income residents, according to a 2018 report by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
This trend has been most pronounced in the city's Eastern Crescent, where historically low housing costs drew in affluent residents. One reason these neighborhoods were relatively affordable is because of segregation codified by the city's 1928 master plan, which limited public services for Black residents to a "negro district" east of I-35.
Austin City Council has made significant investments in recent years in an attempt to address the affordability crisis, including approving a $250 million affordable housing bond, which voters approved in 2018, and earmarking $300 million in anti-displacement funding as part of Project Connect, a $7.1 billion transit plan now in the works.
But housing—and especially affordable housing—remains limited in Austin. Council has spent nearly a decade on a land use code rewrite, which urbanists say could help address the dearth of so-called missing-middle type housing.
4. What is CodeNEXT and why do I keep seeing signs about it?
CodeNEXT refers to an attempt by the city of Austin to rewrite its land use code, which determines how land can be used throughout the city, including what can be built, where it can be built and how much of it can be built. The code was last rewritten in the mid-1980s.
The CodeNEXT process began in 2012 and aimed to streamline local zoning rules and allow for denser and more affordable housing in accordance with population growth. But in 2018 Austin Mayor Steve Adler scrapped the effort, which he wrote had become "divisive and poisoned," and asked the city manager to create a new process.
The second attempt at a rewrite began in 2019 but is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.
But signs declaring "CodeNEXT wrecks Austin" and "CodeNEXT is BACK" remain posted in many yards around town. Multiple community groups organized in opposition to the rewrite, which members claim is exclusive, panders to developers and will destroy neighborhoods. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that single-family zoning stands in the way of a more equitable, sustainable Austin, at best, and is racist and classist, at worst.
5. What are some of the other major policy issues I should know about?
In addition to housing, which ties in the related issues of affordability, gentrification and zoning, the city of Austin is also focused on:
- The pandemic, including an equitable vaccine rollout and preventing evictions
- Police reform, including revamping its training academy amid reports of racism and hazing
- Public transit and traffic congestion
6. How bad is the traffic situation here?
Austin is the 18th most congested city in the country, according to the latest traffic scorecard from analytics company INRIX in 2019, with the average driver spending 69 hours in congestion a year at a cost of $1,021.
Rapid population growth has led to longer commutes and more traffic. But local and state officials say that Project Connect and a forthcoming expansion of I-35 will help address the gridlock.
Austinites overwhelmingly approved a property tax rate increase last November that will help pay for Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion plan to overhaul public transit and bring light rail to town.
The Texas Department of Transportation similarly touts its $7.5 billion I-35 expansion project, which proposes to widen the highway up to 20 lanes between Hwy. 290 and Ben White Boulevard, as a salve for congestion. Critics, however, dispute this claim, arguing that similar expansion projects in other cities have led to induced demand.
7. There were some major Black Lives Matter protests in Austin last summer. Did anything change?
After mass protests against police violence and racial injustice last spring and summer, Austin City Council voted unanimously in August to cut the Austin Police Department budget by around 5%, becoming the first city to do so amid activists' calls to "defund the police." The main impact of this decision was the cancellation of three planned cadet classes at the department's training academy, which has raised concerns in recent years due to its "paramilitary" culture.
Council members also approved moving 32.5% of the department's budget into transitional funds that will allow several of APD's traditional duties to continue while officials work out which to move from under police oversight.
Criminal justice reform activists also called for the resignation of APD Chief Brian Manley, who remains in his position.
8. Why do I keep hearing about homelessness?
As the city becomes increasingly unaffordable, homelessness grows more acute. It has also proven to be a political lightning rod, dividing city residents and incurring criticism from state Republican lawmakers.
The point-in-time count, an annual census conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition each January, found a 45% increase in the city's unsheltered population between 2019 and 2020, which the organization attributed to increased volunteerism and better counting methods.
But many disputed this explanation, blaming it on the City Council's controversial 2019 decision to overturn a ban on public camping.
9. Is it just me or are there a lot of elections here?
It can sometimes feel like there is an election every other month in Texas. Last year, there were five: a March primary to determine who would run in the November general election, May local elections, a July primary runoff for those March races, the November general election and a December runoff.
One reason for this is the runoff elections, which tend to have lower turnout. Texas, like some other former Confederate states, still holds primary and general runoff elections for those races in which no one candidate earns at least 50% of the vote.
The next election is on May 1. City officials are in the process of reviewing two citizen-led petitions. If validated, they will be placed on the upcoming ballot, where Austin voters will determine their fate. One, submitted by the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform, aims to increase voter turnout through a series of charter amendments. The other seeks to reinstate the camping ban.
More information on how to register to vote as a Travis County resident can be found here.
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With soft sand, plenty of beach bars and the best ceviche, there's arguably only one beach worth going to in Texas—South Padre Island.
You might know this beach as a college student's spring break hotspot, but really, it's the Rio Grande Valley's most secret gem. From someone who has been going to "the island" every year since before I could walk, here's a guide to the best SPI has to offer.
First thing's first, don't underestimate how hot South Texas is. Be ready with plenty of sunscreen. If you thought Austin was hot, you're in for a treat as high humidity will make the Valley feel scorching. Luckily, the water offers some reprieve from the sun's rays—still, be sure to bring sunscreen and a hat.
Driving in: From Austin, you can expect almost a six hour drive. Your navigation will take you either around San Antonio (which is a plus for most people) or through San Antonio, funneling to U.S. 77 until you reach Valley grounds in Harlingen.
- From there, it might be smarter to take the toll roads, which border the Port of Brownsville and will save you going through small towns like Los Fresnos that can get backed up with traffic.
- But if you do decide to hightail it through Los Fresnos, be wary of how fast you are going and the speed limit. Cops are especially on the prowl in those areas, catching out of towners unfamiliar with the speed limit changes.
Still, no matter which route you take, you'll go through Port Isabel before crossing the 2-mile bridge to South Padre. During peak times, such as early afternoon, expect to sit in traffic. Better times to travel are in the early morning.
Flying in: For the people that read a six-hour drive with wide eyes, there is a nearby airport in Brownville, a 40-minute drive from SPI, as well as the Valley International Airport in Harlingen, a 1-hour drive away. Be ready to spend $250-$400 a person.
Sights and sounds
Getting to the RGV, you'll be welcomed with palm trees well before you've made it to the beach. And just before crossing the bridge from Port Isabel to South Padre, you'll see a sign that may be blinking, indicating to watch out for pelicans.
As you drive over that bridge, your passengers will want to get their phones out and take the classic video of the the water, boats and parasailers in the bay. It's the best way to let everyone know you're on vacation!
And don't forget to roll down your window to take in the salty smell of the gulf of Mexico.
Resorts: For beach access and the fun amenities that come with that, places like The Pearl, The Palm and The Saphire are where you'll get a resort-style feel.
Affordable: You can still find a Holiday Inn, Ramada and La Quinta along the beach bars.
Airbnb is always an option where you can rent out condos, but you'll want to make sure to book in advance as options may be limited in peak summer.
There are at least 25 access points to the beach, which is on the east edge of the island. Some you can only get to if you're a hotel guest. Here are the most popular ways to reach the sand.
Walking to the beach: Between the bars and hotels, you'll find free access points where you get to just park and walk right onto the beach. You're likely to still find umbrellas and chairs you can rent out.
Beach bar access: Some of the most popular places for beach entry are those that come with a nearby bar. But don't worry, all ages are welcome. You'll want to check these bars' social media pages in the evenings if you're looking for live music.
- Where you're almost certain to not struggle for parking is one of the hottest spots on the beach: Clayton's Beach Bar and Grill. At Clayton's, you're able to get your drink on, get a bite to eat and have access to the beach and volleyball courts.
- A smaller, but just as cool alternative is Wanna Wanna Beach Bar and Grill. With the same amenities as Clayton's, you can't go to Wanna Wanna without trying a turbo, a pina colada with a rum floater—you can get these just about anywhere on the beach, but they just taste better beachside.
Driving on the beach: If you want to try your four-wheel drive on the sand, you can! Access points #5 and #6 allow you to pay a small fee to take your vehicle out there. Click here to see how you might prepare your vehicle for the sand. If you choose to go with this option, you'll want to make sure to pack appropriately as there are no rentals or bars nearby.
If you're trying to make the most of your South Padre getaway, we have you covered with things for the whole family as well as the nightlife scene.
- Watch the fireworks: Catch a fireworks display at the island all summer long. Catch them displayed on the bay in front of Louie's Backyard on Tuesdays and near Clayton Beach Bar on Fridays and Saturdays.
- Beach Park and Isla Grande: The former Schlitterbahn is now a beach park that opened in 2021. The 25-acre waterpark has water slides, a zipline and beach access. (Day passes are $38.99 for children and $10 more for adults)
- Sea Turtle, Inc.: Learn about sea turtles and sea life conservation at the largest state-of-the-art sea turtle hospital. You'll be able to get up close and personal with the turtles! ($4 for children, $10 for adults)
- Gravity Park: For the adrenaline junkies, this park has the tallest reverse bungee in the world ($25), a skycoaster ($25), go-karts ($15-$20), mini-golf ($8-10), a 60-foot ferris wheel ($8), and a climbing wall ($8).
- Sandcastle exhibit: Right next to Gravity Park is a small sandcastle exhibit that is free and about a 5-minute walk to see all the exhibits made entirely from sand by professionals. (Free w/ donations accepted)
- Get in on the water sports: A couple of rental places like Coconut Jacks SPI offer jet skis for rental as well as equipment for parasailing.
- Rent a pontoon boat: Tritoon Charters allows you to rent a pontoon boat for the day perfect for the whole family. The charter offers private snorkeling, shell hunting, up close dolphin and turtle encounters, tubing and sight seeing.
- Party like a local: Escape the beachside and head to the west edge of the island for live music and dancing. Tourists love to flood Louie's Backyard, but there are other bars along the bay worth going to such as Longboard, Laguna Bobs and Tequila Sunset.
You can't leave the island before eating ceviche and fried shrimp. And you can't go wrong by eating at the already mentioned beach bars and bay bars. But here are some other notable places to visit:
- Breakfast: Yummies Bistro and Grapevine Cafe are both places to get your breakfast tacos in the morning.
- Lunch: Cafe on the Beach are good midday options to catch a quick bite without sacrificing quality.
- Dinner: F&B is about as upscale as it gets if you can snag a reservation—Elon Musk has been spotted here. They also offer Sunday brunch.
The pilot of a small plane is now in the hospital after crashing into Lady Bird Lake Thursday afternoon.
The plane, which was being operated by a Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Warden, only had the pilot in it when it crashed just west of I-35 in the lake around 2 p.m. Nearby paddleboarders are seen taking the unidentified pilot to Austin-Travis County EMS in a video.
The pilot was then transported to Dell Seton Medical Center with potentially serious injuries.
UPDATE: #ATCEMSSPARTAN drone video showing the aircraft submerged just below the surface. pic.twitter.com/wexI9MqpQS
— ATCEMS (@ATCEMS) June 16, 2022
Texas Parks and Wildlife said the plane, a 2009 Cessna T206, was on a test flight after routine maintenance when the pilot reported mechanical issues and then crashed.
As of Thursday afternoon, it is not known when the plane will be removed from Lady Bird Lake.
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