Downtown Austin Building Boom

The downtown Austin skyline will change in 2014 with the completion of The Waller Center project. It will include a 35-45 story apartment tower, a 17-20 story office building, as well as a 64 story hotel/condo high-rise and will be the tallest building in Austin.

Photo By Jack Newton

For the last two decades, Austin, Texas, has been one of the fastest growing cites in the United States. Austin’s MSA population has increased from 1.2 million in 2000, to 1.8 million in 2012. This population boom has been built on Austin's music scene, a growing economy, and an eclectic culture -- embodied in the city's unofficial slogan "Keep Austin Weird." The city has gained one-million residents since 1990, when the downtown area was full of empty offices and high-rises--a situation many other U.S. cities have faced since the economic downturn in 2008. It seems populations have been flocking to Austin to take advantage of the seemingly endless opportunities.

While Austin's population has steadily skyrocketed, the city's infrastructure fell behind: banks simply weren't offering loans to build. One look at downtown Austin, however, and it's obvious that things have changed.

The Changing Austin Skyline

There are an incredible number of projects on the horizon for Austin's Downtown areas. The corner of Red River and Cesar Chavez Sts. will be completely transformed by The Fairmont Austin Hotel and The Waller Center. At its conception, The Fairmont was slated to be Austin's second tallest building, at 50 stories high. However, The Waller Center project, which will be completed in 2014, will beat The Fairmount to the title. The Waller Center will include a 35-45 story apartment tower, a 17-20 story office building, as well as a 64 story hotel/condo high-rise -- which will beat out The Austonian (Second St. and Congress Ave.) as Austin's current tallest building -- and push The Fairmont into third place.

The University of Texas in Austin will complete the new Parkland Memorial Hospital in May of 2015, a $1.3 million project that will dwarf the older Parkland Hospital it will replace. Several other medical facilities are also in the works. With healthcare already a significant part of Austin's leading industries, these new hospitals will require even more college-educated healthcare professionals.

Other projects are in the works that will develop the changing Austin skyline as well. At the southeast corner of Rainey and Driskill St. -- current location of famous music venue Lustre Pearl -- a 327-unit apartment building with a ground floor restaurant will be built. A similar (though not as large) residential tower and the 21-story Skyhouse Austin sprout from the ground at Water St. and Rainey. Plans for building up Republic Square and Congress Ave. are also in the works.

Photo By Paxsimius

What about Austin's Transportation?

Alongside the cranes and skyscrapers rising around Austin, residents will notice construction crews working on roads and bridges in the downtown area. Lawmakers are working on a funding plan to add transportation improvement funds to the budget, with a recent agreement to add $845 million per year. While this is only a fraction of the $4 billion required to keep up with the city's growth, it's a start. Plans for improving Interstate 35 are also in the works, but officials have not yet decided on the details.

While development of Austin's roadways will lag behind the city's overall growth, many alternative transportation options are already ubiquitous in the downtown area. There's the Metro Rail System and Metro Bus, which feature mobile ticketing options available for smart phones -- the first metropolitan transportation system to do so. There is also more bike access in downtown, with hundreds of bike racks for parking, racks on all Capitol Metro buses and MetroRail trains, and extensive bike lanes and paths. And, of course, there are shared car options, like Car2Go and Zipcar. These services allow you to rent a car, usually parked in a designated spot near residential or retail areas, an option which has become quite popular in metropolitan areas like San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Demographics Changing - New Attractions

Today's tallest buildings will be dwarfed by tomorrow's high-rises, but who will thrive in the new Downtown development? Will Austin's music scene disappear as new building projects displace many of Austin's live music venues? The answers may be found in some of the other projects Austin has in the works.

Austin is already in front of the nation's education curve, with 40% of Austin's population having college degrees, compared to 28% in the U.S. overall. New hospitals, office buildings, luxury condo high-rises, swanky hotels, and Apple's new Americas Operations facilities will attract even more educated, young residents, making Austin, even more, a hip and modern place to be.

Most Austin residents can't imagine their city not having an eclectic and ubiquitous live music scene, which has been a main attraction for new Austin residents for decades. It's part of what keeps Austin weird -- a big city that still supports burgeoning, unknown artists. With many new downtown projects displacing live music venues, how can Austin continue to be known as the "Live Music Capitol of the World?"

Austin is one of the best examples of a city that is a growing, living being. To continue to fall behind demand for more residential, retail, conference, and business space at the city's core, is to sentence it to stagnation and slow death. Older, smaller buildings must inevitably make way for larger, more efficient towers and high-rises.

Growing up and growing out are not mutually exclusive, however. While downtown Austin may not be home to as many live music venues, the demand for such venues must be met somehow. Very likely, live music will find a new home in another part of Austin. Smaller live music venues may find a home in areas where skyscrapers are forbidden, like the capitol-view corridor. Alternatively, the music scene may change form. Austin's growing ability to attract large events and festivals, such as South by Southwest (SXSW) and the X Games (which features music artists next to extreme athletes) may lead to a shift to larger venues for the city's music.

What About "Keeping Austin Weird"?

There is no sign that Austin's growth will slow anytime soon, with expectations of an economic growth of 6% and a population growth of 2.8% through 2016 -- which are double and triple the U.S. rates, respectively. Will Austin continue to grow in the foreseeable future? Yes. With so many significant buildings on, or soon to be on, the horizon in downtown Austin -- and no end in sight -- many residents are concerned about upcoming changes in the city's dynamics. While it's probably best to adopt a "wait and see" approach, "Keeping Austin Weird" seems entirely possible.

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