2014 in Downtown, in Words and Pictures

2014 was a big year for downtown Austin. Major themes as I see them:

Construction By (Downtown) District

Hotel buildout in “Convention District”

2014 was a huge year for hotels, especially in eastern downtown, near the Convention Center. The Hyatt Place opened. The JW Marriott, Westin, and Hotel Van Zandt almost finished construction. Hotel Zaza, Hotel Indigo / Holiday Inn Express, and Fairmont are in early construction.  The Brazos Hotel and Aloft are both in permitting stages. If and when all of these projects finish, downtown’s hospitality sector will be much, much larger than it was a few years before and firmly centered around the Convention Center.

Seaholm buildout

After years of seeing cranes centered in eastern downtown, the new center of downtown construction has definitely shifted west, with condos, offices, retail, and new streets all under way at Seaholm.  In addition, announcement and construction continued nearby with the 60-tower Independent at 3rd/West and the residential tower at 5th/West.  Between Seaholm and Rainey, the truly built-up portions of downtown are really growing out.

Rainey buildout

Skyhouse (opened), Hotel Van Zandt (almost), Millenium (underway), 70 Rainey St. (in preparation) are some of the important developments in the Rainey Street area. 2015 could be an even bigger year with the Waller Center mega-project on tap.

Office buildout west of Congress

2014 saw the construction of large office projects between Congress and Lamar, including IBC Plaza (opened), Colorado Towers and 311 Bowie (almost), 5th / Colorado (underway), and Shoal Creek Walk (6th/Bowie, by Whole Foods).  In addition, though Whole Foods abandoned plans to take office space in Shoal Creek Walk, their purchase of 524 Lamar ensures that they will continue to be a West downtown anchor for years to come.

Medical School

I have not personally followed the Med School’s creation much, but with Red River being moved and building construction underway, this Northeast corner of downtown is definitely getting a makeover.

Slow Expansion into Northwest

Compared to areas south of 6th Street, Northwest downtown is a relatively sleepy district.  Much of northwest downtown is encumbered by either low-density zoning, capitol view corridors limiting height, or both.  Nevertheless, many interesting projects moved forward in this area last year.  The Seven Apartments (almost) is a shiny new apartment building, as will be the building on 8th/Nueces (underway). Smaller buildings which nevertheless are large for northwest downtown include the new Texas PTA headquarters (almost, 408 W. 11th at Guadalupe),  the new St. David’s headquarters at 13th/San Antonio (underway), the G apartment complexes (along Guadalupe) and the offices next door (almost).  Additionally, the demolition of Dog and Duck promises new residences along Guadalupe.

Transportation

New transit priority lanes for buses

North/South buses in downtown have shifted from running on a mix of streets to clustering on the Guadalupe/Lavaca one-way pair.  They have also consolidated bus stops from 8 or so from 11th to the river down to just 2.  In addition, each one-way street has seen the creation of a transit-priority lane, reserved for buses and turning traffic.

Great Streets

The Great Streets program sets new standards for downtown streets, including wide sidewalks with benches and trees lining the street side.  Some are getting built by the city, some by developers as they construct buildings, with costs reimbursed from parking meter revenues. 2014 has been a fantastic year for Great Streets.  Areas like San Jacinto in front of Vince Young Steakhouse that used to be without a sidewalk at all now have pedestrian bulbouts, while areas like Colorado Street by Frank’s regularly see people spending time in public. Restaurants like Le Cafe Crepe have expanded into the sidewalk space, giving a much more occupied feeling to the entire downtown.

B-Cycle

Although opening in 2013, B-Cycle really cut its teeth in 2014, its first year serving Austin’s downtown festivals, like SXSW and ACL.  It performed unbelievably well.  While our streets utterly failed to scale to meet the surge in demand, B-Cycle scaled incredibly. During festivals, these bikes were ubiquitous. Not during festivals, they’re seen pretty regularly as well; drawing residents, office workers, and tourists alike. I regularly see mixed groups of people riding some B-cycles and some other bicycles, likely guests visiting local residents, or else experienced cyclists riding alongside inexperienced ones.

3rd Street

With the addition of wide sidewalks and dedicated cycle lanes (divided from car lanes by a barrier in most places), this street is bound to get even more friendly to intra-downtown transportation, especially as people begin to live and work in Seaholm and the Independent and need a way to connect with the eastern part of downtown.

Waller Creek Park

The Waller Creek Project promises the best of both worlds for downtown residents: great new parks, paired with possibility for new buildings for people to live and work closeby. 

Questions for 2015

10-1 Council

Downtown has seen some political disagreements on the most recent Council, but there was a broad consensus on many of the most crucial issues: there will be more buildings downtown, and walkability and bikability should play greater roles. For the first time, 9 new councilmembers were represented to elect districts that don’t include downtown.  It remains to be seen to what extent the Council consensus will continue. I’m hopeful that as councilmembers see the immense tax benefits of development downtown, they will know not to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, but I expect at least a few councilmembers to express opposition to some parts of the consensus that would never have been heard on the old Council.

I-35

With development along the edges (Rainey Street, Seaholm, Guadalupe at 17th), there has been a definite effect of the Central Business District spilling outwards, with more and more people wanting to live close to downtown. Some of the same effect can be seen east of downtown.  At 11th St, there are large apartment complexes just east of I-35. At 6th Street, the Corazon mixed-use complex is set to open, and at 4th Street, Capital Metro has chosen a plan to move the MetroRail tracks and develop the grassy dirt patch from I-35 to Plaza Saltillo.  However, the connection between each of these areas and their downtown neighbors–especially in sense of place–is extremely attenuated by the gigantic highway between. As TxDOT considers plans to revamp I-35 downtown, the extent to which it adds to or removes the barriers between downtown and its eastern neighbor could be a big story of 2015.

Convention Center Expansion

Late in 2014, the Austin Monitor reported that city staff was considering expanding the Convention Center, starting by purchasing a neighboring tract. Response from prominent members of the downtown community was less than enthusiastic.  A developing story for 2015.

Exhaustion of Easy Development Sites

Despite the building boom, there are still many undeveloped sites downtown, with placeholder surface parking lots or unused / hardly-used buildings. However, there are difficulties to developing downtown, from the Capitol View Corridors to underzoning (especially north of 11th). I fear that many of the most obvious sites for development have been taken and that new projects will become one notch harder.

In Pictures

I’ve collected some of my 2014 downtown development pictures into one twitter timeline.  I recommend viewing from bottom to top!

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2014 in Downtown, in Words and Pictures

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