Downtown Austin condo residents tell their tales of biking, walking and pushing the stroller to where they want to be – with no intention of going very far.
From: The Good Life
(In Chicago Manual of Style)
Can domestic peace be found in a seven-hundred-square-foot condo?
Here is a look at what’s downtown Austin and what is to be downtown in the way of housing. Then, you decide whether the good life can be had on the thirtieth floor of something. Hint: There’s a lot more to downtown living than the kitchen nook.
Take Marc Perlman, with his condo of seven hundred ninety two square feet.
How does he live in his Avenue Lofts home with its bookshelves, bed and not much else? “Carefully,” he says.
His greatest possessions come in the way of a thousand compact discs. The rest is simple – like the twenty-five-inch television and the stacked washer-dryer that probably shouldn’t break down. If it did, there’s a question about whether the repair guy could get in the appliance closet to take care of the situation.
But Perlman loves his loft. More than loves it.
A twenty-eight-year-old software developer, he loves the fact that he can see his home two blocks south and one block east from his workplace, Blue Fish Development Group. He loves that he can walk outside the door to Sixth Street bars and not worry about designated drivers or cabs. And he really loves that the unit he bought in 2004 for a hundred eighty seven thousand dollars is now worth as much as two hundred sixty thousand dollars.
Downsides? Where is a guy to find toilet paper that isn’t organic?
“If you need toilet paper, and you move downtown, your options are pretty limited,” he says.
Grocery stores. That’s a feature that keeps coming up in conversations with downtown developers. And with good reason.
“You cannot underestimate the value of having a Whole Foods store just two blocks from your hotel/condo,” says Kent Collins, one of the Seaholm Power Plant developers, a massive project going up just north of Cesar Chavez and east of Lamar.
“Whole Foods Market is a scene,” says Spring developer Perry Lorenz. “It is an amazing, amazing phenomenon. It has all those eating stations. It’s a subtle thing, but I think it plays into (buyers’ interest) . . . It’s kind of the European experience.”
Also, a stunningly successful gourmet food store is finding its way into the hearts of downtown developers.
Craig Staley and partner George Scariano opened a thousand-square-foot gourmet market on September 1. Two months later, the owners of Royal Blue Grocery at 247 West Third Street started talking about expanding. By December, they were looking at plans to have four or five downtown stores in the next ten years, with an anchor at Seaholm that would be three thousand five hundred to four thousand five hundred square feet. At last count, Staley says they have met as many as twelve developers about expansion possibilities.
Not bad for a guy who lives in Highland Park with two kids, three dogs, a cat (the cat holds his own) and the wife.
Staley says he knew Royal Blue would be a hit downtown. What surprised him was some of the feedback from customers. The store recalls the feel of their childhood neighborhood corner store for some of the customers, he says.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a Whole Foods or even a mini-Whole Foods,” he says.
Their first week open, a lady came downstairs and gave the owners a list of 30 items. Stock these things, and you’ve got a customer, she says. So they did.
Then there was the guy who came down during the football game to pick up some brew or chips. He told the store workers he’d be back in a bit.
“We said: ‘Hey, we’re that guy’s refrigerator’. That’s kind of a funny way of looking at what we do, but that’s what we do.”
Janet Gilles, fifty-nine, loves downtown living so much, she downsized from one downtown condo to another. About a year ago, she moved into her nine-hundred-fifty-square-foot unit at the Penthouse Condominiums, coming from a Villas on Town Lake unit that was more than three hundred square feet bigger. And less space doesn’t matter to her.
She’s always out and about, she says, biking everywhere, whether feeding the geese at Town Lake or trekking it to The University of Texas or the Texas Capitol.
“I don’t really miss the room. Now all I have is really good stuff,” she says of downsizing.
The empty nester and the young professional are the favorite targets for Austin developers. Why?
Lorenz says the developers aren’t pursuing the empty nesters and young professionals – those groups are making the calls.
“Those are the people who want them. I know it in my bones,” says Lorenz. “Family people want the more suburban experience. But once your children grow, you don’t want a three-thousand-five-hundred-square-foot house with a sprinkler system and an alarm system.”
And, “The young professionals aren’t asking about schools and ball clubs,” he says.
But Realtor Kevin Burns says downtown Austin can be a home for families as well. He and his wife share a Milago condo with their toddler and baby. Downtown has stroller destinations for the girls, complete with a walk through the park. The Burnses even do their shopping at Whole Foods by stroller, Dad says.
Burns is one of about five thousand eight hundred residents living between I-35 to Lamar and Martin Luther King south to Town Lake, according to the city. The city’s figures are based on a formula of one-point-seven people per unit. If all the condo and apartment projects the city is tracking come to pass in the next ten years or so, there will be eighteen thousand residents in downtown and near downtown, which is reasonably close to Mayor Will Wynn’s goal of twenty-five thousand by 2015.
Near downtown includes projects like Aqua Terra at 210 Barton Springs Road, which will have nineteen stories with a hundred seventy three units, all ranging from three hundred thousand to one-point-three-million dollars. And there are the projects on the east side, like Sixth & Brushy, which will have twenty-four condominium units starting at a hundred ninety thousand dollars.
Wynn’s vision raises three questions: Can twenty-five thousand people fit in the traditional downtown borders; will the projects actually come to pass; and will the people keep moving downtown?
“Stack ’em deep, sell ’em cheap”
Wynn’s vision is achievable, says Michael Knox, downtown principal planner for Austin’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services. “Some projects are virtually sold out before they’ve started construction,” Knox says.
“In the next fifteen years we will have another million people; if we can capture a couple percent of those people downtown, then, sure, we can (get twenty-five thousand).”
But parking, zoning rules, multiple owners of a property – these are all obstacles for the proponents of a downtown with twenty-five thousand residents, says Robert Knight, partner with Knight Real Estate Corporation and on the Downtown Commission.
“The easy ones will be plucked first, then they’ll come back and get the hard ones – maybe,” says Knight, referring to developers’ pursuit of property on which to build.
The uncomplicated properties – for example, when there is one owner and the existing building is not a landmark – are filling up fast, he says.
But one roadblock can be moved. While the city’s zoning rules require an eight-to-one floor-to-area ratio, they can be waived, says Knox. “Some are asking for a thirty-to-one floor-to-area ratio.” For example, says Lorenz, his project was approved for a twelve-to-one ratio.
A floor-to-area ratio dictates how much total square footage a building can have, based on the total site area. For example, a building on a ten-thousand-square-foot site, with an eight-to-one ratio, could have no more than eighty thousand square feet total.
“Stack ’em deep, sell ’em cheap,” says Wynn. Height, he says, will help make the condos more affordable, and achieve his goal.
Paul Seals lives just north of the seventeen hundred block of Sixth Street, and he is co-chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association. On Francis Street, he says, it’s so quiet that children can play three-on-three at the street-side basketball hoop in front of his house.
The group has come out in support of high-rise projects that are within the zoning requirements of the city. But as projects get closer to Lamar and Shoal Creek, the group expects to see a natural progression toward quiet neighborhood living. That’s why they opposed Spring at 918 West Third Street, which will rise 400 feet up.
Lorenz contends Spring will be less obtrusive than other high-rise buildings because it will have a relatively small floor plate of eight thousand square feet, allowing the sun and wind through.
But, Seals says, there is an abundance of space for twenty-five thousand downtown residents without encroaching on the area his association focuses on.
“I’m on 300 West Sixth Street on the twentieth floor,” he says from his law offices. “I’m looking to the west, and all you see is underutilized space,” he says.
In the search for more affordable land, says Laura Morrison, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, developments are traveling southward. For example, the controversial 300 Riverside project, by CSW Capital Partners, is looking to go up south of Town Lake on the waterfront.
Morrison says her association expects developments to give back to the community with features such as parkland and affordable housing.
There are other obstacles, says Kent Collins, and those include the Capitol view corridors. Collins chairs the Downtown Austin Alliance and is a partner in the Seaholm Power Plant. The corridors are the state- and city-required lines of vision between certain landmarks and the state Capitol. Buildings in this corridor are limited in height so the Capitol can be seen.
Wynn would like the city to rethink some of the corridors. If you can see the Capitol for one-point-eight seconds from Interstate 35, he says, is that really worth the tradeoff of a half billion dollars in property tax base? In 2007, the city’s Downtown Commission will be evaluating the benefits of the corridors against dollars that could be made by the elimination of some.
Parking is another challenge. It would take ten blocks of nine-story parking garages to meet the demands of all those residents, according to Knight. And: “It’s not just the people. It’s the auto shops; it’s the dry cleaners; it’s the movies . . . all of that stuff comes with them.”
In his East Second Street office’s conference room, Knight displays a map of downtown Austin, created by the Downtown Commission to show the difficulties facing the mayor’s goal. It is dotted with red blocks that show it’s unlikely those areas can be redeveloped. Even the green areas – the land of opportunity for developers – are suspect, says Knight. For example, the homes in Judge’s Hill west of West Avenue and north of Fifteenth Street are unlikely to be redeveloped, according to Knight.
Collins says one way to address the region’s building challenges is to expand the definition of downtown to include two blocks south of Town Lake, making the goal a more easily attainable number.
“Twenty-five thousand is a great goal. I just think a lot of that development is going to happen around the perimeter of the downtown area,” Collins says.
Wynn says he is basing his numbers on the area from Lamar east to I-35 and Twelfth Street south to Barton Springs Road.
Wynn predicts Austin will have the nation’s most vibrant downtown core as plans for eighteen-foot sidewalks, multi-level parking and mixed use are achieved. With a background in architecture and development, he says that he based the number of twenty-five thousand in part on what has happened downtown so far.
Knight says there is a lot to draw the young singles and couples and the empty nesters. “Sure, it’s expensive to live downtown,” he says. “It’s also expensive to live in Elgin,” because of the cost and time of a commute.
“It’s all about gas prices and time. When you spend forty-five minutes in the morning and forty-five minutes in the afternoon (driving), that’s a lot of time,” says Lorenz.
If people are willing to give up the big lawn and the big house, if they can get used to having one car, says Knight, then the vision is feasible.
“If we’re going to be an urban area,” he says, “we’ve got to get used to not having the suburban living.”
In December, The Good Life tracked down thirty-seven condo projects on developers’ wish lists of present and future. At varying stages of development, these projects include ambitious projects like Seaholm, which is an overhaul of a nineteen-fifties-era power plant.
The original building’s hidden treasures will be retained – including beveled glass, a sixty-five-foot-high ceiling in the “turbine hall” and red backlighting on the original sign, says co-developer Danny Roth. Even the stacks outside the building will be kept, rising above the plaza that the complex will frame.
Pricing hasn’t been finalized, but developers know that the complex will include at least sixty-six thousand square feet of office space, a one-hundred-sixty-room hotel and at least sixty-two condominiums. Building on the complex will begin in mid-2007, taking about two and a half years.
All the projects tell similar tales of expansive plazas or room for restaurants and hidden parking. But can the market bear these ambitious plans?
It’s no secret that some developers are sweating bullets about the rising cost of building materials. And those cost increases will drive up the cost of the projects, which will drive up the cost of the units. Lorenz says his Spring project has seen a thirty percent increase in construction costs in the last year and a half.
There’s a scarcity of sheet metal, right now, says Lorenz. In fact, those costs are higher in Austin than in Dallas or Houston, he says. Also, the specialized concrete construction needed in high-rise work is at a premium right now.
“It’s not tough times,” he says. “Construction companies can pick their prices.”
“We’re going to be a luxury project; it’s going to be hard for us to compromise on quality,” says David Mahn of his planned Congress Avenue Condos project at 200 Congress. “Other projects in the lower price range are really getting hit because they can’t go too high. People will only pay so much for any housing project.
“It’s a big challenge, and I’m sure that lots of developers are going to rethink their projects.”
Wynn says building should occur now, to avoid even higher prices in the future.
“We thought for the first time we were going to get some really affordable stuff,” says Lorenz. But he thinks the buyers will keep coming; they’ll just pay more money.
Kevin Burns of urbanspace thinks the market will bear the increase in costs. He cites the example of Vancouver. The move downtown in the late nineteen-eighties called for condos at three hundred dollars per square foot in Canadian dollars. After some economic peaks and valleys, square footage today stands at nine hundred Canadian dollars, or seven hundred ninety two American dollars.
Locally, Burns says, there has been a steady increase in value for downtown condos, stronger than the balance of the marketplace as a whole, as is evidenced by downtown resident Marc Perlman’s increase of up to seventy thousand dollars in value for his condo.
Beau Armstrong, CEO for Stratus Properties Inc., thinks some of the planned projects will not come to pass for a variety of reasons, including cost constraints. Stratus is developing Block 21, which has the working name of W Hotel and Residences, in the Second Street District.
But Armstrong says twenty-five thousand is a realistic goal. A big reason why he predicts the move downtown is going to happen is that Austin’s core already thrives.
“There has been a promotion of downtown growth in the last decades that has been backed up by tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure investment,” says Armstrong. “Now you’re starting to see the fruition,” of that labor.
Armstrong ticks off rapid-fire the advantages of downtown: It’s safe and has parks, a textured cultural system, the Capitol complex, a new library and UT.
“Austin has a very livable downtown,” he says. “We have by a wide margin the most livable downtown in the South.”
Barry Smith, principal at Uptown Condos Inc., says that the fantastically successful presales of planned projects show that the demand is out there.
If there were a dip in the Austin economy, says Smith, who specializes in downtown condos, “We’d just have to weather that storm until things turn around.
“Austin has such a strong economy, people want to live here, and the high-tech industry is a little more cautious,” since the dot-com bust in 2001. “We may see a dip, but it won’t be as severe,” he says.
Formica tops may be the answer
So, developers say, it may just be a matter of toning down the amenities of the smaller condos, like, “God forbid, Formica,” one says, to bring the downtown figure close to Wynn’s goal.
“The crowds who are the infinite fish in the sea, are the ones who make sixty thousand to ninety thousand dollars combined. If we can crack that code, we’re going to have a lot of people down there,” says Lorenz.
Charles Heimsath, president of Austin’s Capitol Market Research, says: “It has a lot to do with price; the higher the price, the less the demand. If all the condos were a million plus, then that would be a problem, but they’re not.”
The City Council has gotten involved. Created in the summer of 2006, the city’s Affordable Housing Incentive Task Force is looking for ways to establish uniformity in developments’ incentives to provide cheaper downtown housing. Many cities already have a policy in place, says Belinda Roberts, policy aide for Council Member Jennifer Kim. “We’re a little behind the ball, to put it in laymen’s terms,” she jokes. The task force, which is due to finish its report by mid-February, is looking at such ideas as the city granting increased density in exchange for some level of affordability.
Lorenz is known for staying focused on appealing to buyers in an affordable way. Spring units will be small, but efficient, he says, with two bedrooms, a study, no halls and nine-foot ceilings. “It’s amazing what you can do with six, seven hundred square feet,” he says. Prices will start in the low two-hundred-thousand dollar range.
Actually, says Wynn, just being downtown knocks off costs considerably. A downtown resident himself, he says the electric bill for his twenty-five-hundred-square-foot condo at Austin City Lofts was one hundred thirty-eight dollars in August. That’s a savings of three hundred dollars a month in electricity, he estimates. Then there is the nonexistent water bill because there is no lawn.
Also, he says, a car for the average Austinite runs about seventy eight hundred dollars a year. If the partner in a working couple works downtown, the couple could get by on one car. Those savings are all dollars that could go toward a mortgage instead. He says all totaled, the savings could allow a couple to increase their mortgage by a hundred fifty thousand dollars.
“Which would you rather invest in? A car or your home?” he asks.
Seaholm’s Roth cites cities that are or have made the move downtown – Portland, Seattle, Atlanta are just some examples.
“It’s a trend (nationally),” Roth says. “And I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface yet.”
Tagline: Laura Mohammad finds blissful domesticity in Northwest Austin with her husband, two boys, dog, cat and lawnmower.