Growth is many things to Austin-area residents. For some it means opportunity, broader horizons, and wider dreams, but for others it has come to mean the struggle to maintain the city’s identity and quality of life that have been Austin hallmarks. The spirit of Austin is treasured by both longtime residents and newcomers. One key to the preservation of the city’s unique character is the vitality of its neighborhoods.
Even the word neighborhood is loaded with meaning in Austin. Some neighborhood organizations have wielded considerable political clout at City Hall, while others have created unique identities that act as a draw to both visitors and residents. In Austin, as in some of the smaller rural communities that have been absorbed by the city’s growth, maintaining the neighborhood character, the particular sense of place, has been both a challenge and a goal. Many of the area’s neighborhoods have succeeded; others have not. But with growth has come a dynamism that has revitalized some neighborhoods, created new ones, and, at a minimum, kept the quality-of-life issue on the front burner for every Central Texas resident.
The city has been leaping up the population list in record time in recent years. Beyond the city limits, the greater Austin metropolitan area is fast approaching the 2 million resident mark and demographers are predicting the area growth will continue into the second decade of this century.
While downtown maintains some of the flavor of a midsize city, there has been a boom in downtown development that promises to give the heart of the city more of the feel of a busy, urban area. Highrise condo towers and loft developments are changing the downtown vibe and skyline. There is a symbiotic growth between the numerous condo/loft projects and new restaurants, shops, and cafes. Businesses, particularly high-tech companies, are eager to locate downtown, many of the older high-rises and warehouses are being converted to offices and living spaces, and the nightlife and restaurant scenes are even more vibrant.
Growth is leaving its mark on Central Texas in many ways. On the plus side, growth has given the city a more cosmopolitan air. There is a greater diversity of restaurants, and more shops and theaters, and the city’s increasingly multicultural population celebrates ethnic traditions and cultural differences. The largest Hindu temple in North America is not far from one of the area’s most popular country barbecue joints, the Salt Lick.
Growth brings choice and there are numerous choices for homeowners in terms of location and price. But growth also means traffic jams. Rush-hour commutes are now a factor for homebuyers, in addition to access to city services—police, fire, EMS, libraries, even parks.
A word about prices in the Austin-area real estate market: The median price of a home in Austin was $151,000 in June 2005, according to Money magazine, a 29 percent increase in 5 years. By the end of 2010 that had risen to $195,000 and, despite the economic slowdown, family homes continue to hold their value and increase in the coveted areas of the city. That median price is about what a consumer will pay for a small “starter” home in the area, and it likely will be located on the fringes of Austin, perhaps even beyond. A good rule of thumb is the closer to downtown, the higher the price. Older neighborhoods, close to downtown, are now hot, and even a small cottage can cost upward of $350,000. For that same amount of money, a buyer can find a large, 3-bedroom family home in one of the newer neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts. A great way to get a visual picture of Austin real estate prices is to visit the real estate website, www.trulia.com, where urban “heat maps” displaying price in coded colors can be viewed. Because Austin has a significant young population—the highest number of 25 to 34 year olds in similar “creative class” cities—many of the older neighborhoods that once were the Austin suburbs are being revived by young homeowners with a flare for reinventing 50s-style.
Several significant trends in Austin’s growth offer insight into what makes Austin neighborhoods tick. We begin with a look at some of these trends, followed by a geographic tour of some of the city’s neighborhoods.