Austin’s rebuilding boom

Mar 31, 2014
Austin American Statesman

In the past decade — and accelerating in the past few post-recession years — Austin has been in a rebuilding boom that is changing not only the aesthetic and architectural character of the city but the way people live, work, shop and play here


Spurred by the area’s booming economy and rapid population growth — and encouraged by city leaders’ desire to create more dense, urban housing — Austin has added $13.3 billion in new residential, office and retail development to the tax rolls since 2005, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District


Towering new high-rises have sprouted downtown in the past few years after a hiatus during the recession. Elsewhere around town, older buildings have been torn down to make way for new mixed-use developments. The new construction is perhaps most noticeable in and around downtown, where major redevelopment is occurring at the decommissioned Seaholm Power Plant and Green Water Treatment Plant sites, and along South Lamar Boulevard, South First Street, Barton Springs Road and East Riverside Drive, where new high-end apartment complexes are replacing older, moderately priced housing and aging strip centers


As it reshapes the city in ways great and small, the building boom is embraced by some residents as the next chapter in the shaping of Austin, the nation’s fastest-growing large metro area with an estimated 4,000 people a month moving in, according to Census Bureau data. But the building boom is troubling to others, who say the changes — while inevitable — are taking away some of the charm that has made Austin so beloved by long-term residents


The current building boom is changing Austin, say city officials, developers and real estate experts, by ushering in a new breed of development — dense, mixed-use projects that create mini-neighborhoods, with an emphasis on walkability and a sense of community. Many of these projects are being added in and around downtown and in other densely populated parts of the city, which makes it more sustainable because roads, utilities and other infrastructure already are in place


What’s most noteworthy about the current building boom is “not just raw numbers or the magnitude. It’s the change in character of development that’s occurred,” said Charles Heimsath, a local real estate consultant. “That’s the transformative aspect of this new wave. It’s more sustainable. We’re building in areas that already have substantial infrastructure in place, and we’re building much more dense development, which in the long run is more sustainable than sprawl development.”


No longer are developers just planting plain-vanilla apartment and condo communities on the ground. Austin now has high-rises of the tall, sleek Vancouver variety — such as the Spring condominium tower just south of Whole Foods Market downtown. The city also has seen a boom in apartments stacked atop retail, as in the Domain mixed-use project in North Austin and the scores of other residential projects that have cropped up in the past decade that blend shops and restaurants into the mix


As the region’s population continues to swell and the construction boom adds millions of square feet of new development, experts say it’s all the more critical to continue to plan so that the growth doesn’t overwhelm Austin’s ability to keep pace


Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., focused on land use and urban planning issues, said the trend toward more compact development is significant because “America for years was all about cheap land and cheap gas and getting everywhere by car. But the successful city of the future is going to be more compact, have more mixed-use development, be more walkable and have more transportation options.”


Downtown, the new high-rise towers that are changing the skyline are bringing new residents along with more shopping, dining, cultural and entertainment options. Those amenities are enhancing the quality of life for Austinites, city leaders and others say, as well as generating millions of dollars more for the tax base, which helps pay for schools, parks, police, firefighting and other services across the city



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