Visiting Seattle

Visiting Seattle

gum wall, up close

Jude and I like to travel in December, and we recently took our annual winter trip.  This year’s trip began in Seattle, WA. Neither of us had ever been to Seattle before, and were pleasantly surprised at the cultural similarities that the two cities have, while also, in my opinion, having very different “feeling” downtown areas.  Naturally, we began comparing the two downtowns, and while Austin is doing a lot of things right within the urban-core to make it one of the most desirable places in the country to live, downtown Seattle is also doing a lot of things right, and is anchored by beautiful natural scenery. Our City leadership can look to Seattle in terms of continuing to optimize Austin’s potential, notably their [troubled] effort to tear down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a hideous highway separating the city from the bay.

 

Seattle-skyline

But, before I begin really comparing, I think it would be a good idea to start with some historical facts / population stats for both cities:

Population of downtown area:
Austin: around 10,000 (Downtown Austin Alliance), close to 1% of Austin’s total population
Seattle: around 60,000, close to 10% of Seattle’s total population (Downtown Seattle Association)

Public  / Communal Transportation:
Austin: CapMetro Buses, Red Line Commuter Rail, Taxis, BikeShare, Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, ZipCar
Seattle: Metro Buses, Ferry, Seattle Center Monorail, Seattle Streetcar, Link Light Rail, Taxi, Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, ZipCar

Public Market:
Austin: Sunday Farmer’s market in Republic Square park
Seattle: Pike Place Public Market, a permanent installment open 7 days a week

Size of downtown area:
Austin: 9 districts, approximately 1.5 square miles overall (.005 of total size of Austin)
Seattle: 12 distinct neighborhoods, approximately 4 square miles overall (.03 of total size of Austin)

Population Growth:
Austin and Seattle are the two fastest growing cities in the nation.

Notable Corporate HQs:
Austin: Whole Foods, HomeAway, GSD&M
Seattle: Amazon.com, Tableau, Starbucks

starbucks-logo-seattle

The original and, ahem, more anatomically correct Starbucks logo that you see much more prevalently in Seattle

The most interesting of these statistics, to me, is that the relative size and population of downtown Seattle to the overall city is a much higher percentage than with Austin.  One way of interpreting that fact is to say that downtown is a bigger part of the total Seattle experience, and I have a feeling policy and funding follow suit (which brings more dollars and more vibrancy back into their downtown to flow out to the rest of their city).  However, I would say that most people in Austin realize that downtown IS the city’s cultural center and a must see / do.   I think all Austinites can continue to keep that perspective top of mind while encouraging continued growth in our urban core – realizing that a vibrant and engaging downtown brings benefit to the entire city.

However, despite their difference in scope – downtown Seattle and downtown Austin do have similarities. For instance, where downtown Seattle has graceful Gulls, whose calls evoke the sounds of the calming sea that traces the edges of Seattle’s downtown,…downtown Austin has Grackles.  (Okay, so Seattle wins that one.) Where downtown Seattle has insane hills that are the stuff of sleigh-riders dreams, downtown Austin has a gentle southeastern slope that makes outdoor activities a dream. Downtown Seattle has the Needle, downtown Austin has … the Austonian.  Downtown Seattle has a crazy Gum Wall, downtown Austin (well, close to downtown) has a graffiti wall (Hope Outdoor Gallery).

The examples above are a little in jest – but I will say that the culture of downtown Seattle did, in fact, feel pretty similar to downtown Austin.  For one, the city is very dog friendly.  Dogs were everywhere.  Additionally, many of the restaurants and night-life spots in downtown Seattle could have just as well been in Austin.

The natural surroundings, however, could not have been more different.  There were mountains viewable from downtown Seattle, as well as an active ocean port.  The weather is very rainy and generally much colder than in Austin. Likely, because of the weather (and maybe the hills), I did not see NEARLY as many folks jogging or bicycling around downtown Seattle, where in Austin, that’s the definite norm. One thing that REALLY struck me is that downtown Seattle and downtown Austin are very close to the same age, both “founded” in the mid-1800s. Downtown Seattle had a broader historic feel, but Austin is simply effervescent with youth and new growth.

The public transportation was robust and almost effortless (at least to us) in Seattle.  Also, downtown Seattle had more shopping – department stores and mom and pop shops happily co-exist in downtown Seattle.

Nordstrom Rack right next to the Monorail

Nordstrom Rack right next to the Monorail

Additionally, and this is a very timely issue for Austin, but busking in Seattle certainly felt MUCH more professional than what I see in downtown Austin…here’s one of the many talented street performers sprinkled around downtown Seattle. It’s important to note that Seattle has some very lax regulations on busking, however. In Austin, I think it should be monitored and systemized more than it is, and stakeholders like DANA agree (the City is currently obtaining more stakeholder feedback before re-presenting their proposal on busking regulations).

Now, it may sound like I just think Seattle is the greatest thing since sliced bread and why don’t I just marry Seattle because I love it so much….but, it’s not like that.  I LOVE downtown Austin, I really do. I believe we are a relatively “new” downtown (in the modern sense) and an incredibly fast growing one, at that. And the opportunities that brings for those of us in on the ground floor of this burgeoning downtown are incredible. And it only benefits us to look to more established downtown centers across the country and take what we can from those that have done it before.  City leaders and policy influencers are already doing this, of course – but it never hurts to keep it top of mind.

And, I think it’s important to note that more isn’t ALWAYS better.  For instance, the amount of vagrancy in downtown Seattle was frankly overwhelming.  Austin certainly has vagrancy issues as well, but, at least, anecdotally, Seattle felt FAR worse. And, there’s controversy as to whether Seattle is really doing their best to solve the problem in a sustainable way.

From searching a few online sources, Seattle’s cost of living seems quite a bit higher than Austin’s.  Most online source quotes that housing is at least 25% higher in Seattle than in Austin. This figure does not compare the downtown areas specifically, but I would think there is some disparity there.

In the last 90 days, downtown Austin’s median sold pricing is observed to be $490 per foot.  Semi-reliable online sources quote a recent median sales price for downtown Seattle the last 90 days at around $475 per foot.  So, if this is accurate, it may be that downtown Austin, is in fact, the more expensive housing market, at least at this specific point in time.  One reason for that may be the relatively lower inventory.

I think looking to Seattle can really help those that are shaping the new downtown Austin – especially in terms of public transportation, the city’s relationship with its natural surroundings (the Waller Creek redevelopment and Shoal Creek Conservancy efforts certainly are on the right track), and the SCOPE of downtown in relation to the size of the overall city: encourage vertical development in the urban-core, in order to preserve the beauty of our hill-country.

One thing is clear, Austin is a fabulous place to live – and it’s sunny.  Seattle can keep all that cloudy gloom for itself.





Downtown Austin Streets Are Safer With Uber & Lyft

Downtown Austin Streets Are Safer With Uber & Lyft

uber

Update: 10/16/2014: The TNC Ordinance passed Council with a 6-1 Vote.  Council member Chris Riley’s press release HERE.

We celebrated Amber’s birthday this past weekend with friends and family hanging out with us at the Shore condos, and later crawling Rainey Street.  Everyone had a great time… and plenty to drink.

As we wrapped up the evening I observed 6-7 people use Uber to get themselves home safely.

I was struck by how effortless ride sharing is, and that it effectively keeps a percentage of drunk drivers off the streets of Austin.  Remarkable.

I think back to just last year, when getting a cab was a non-trivial event.  I’ve always been frustrated with taxis in Austin.  They are notoriously difficult to locate, arrive late, or didn’t arrive at all.  The result is that people would make the poor decision to just drive themselves after having a night on the town.

In cities where ride sharing is embraced, I fully expect to see data showing a drop in the number of DWIs.

Austin leadership should pay attention, and we’ll be watching as this topic goes before Austin City Council on the 25th.

-Jude

 





Downtown Austin Goes For The Goal – and the Gold!

Downtown Austin Goes For The Goal – and the Gold!

An Amazing New Vision for Downtown Austin

If you haven’t yet read this week’s edition of The Austin Chronicle – and seen the amazing front page photo/rendering – please check it out at once here! Stupendous reporting by Senior News Editor, Michael King, of breaking news regarding a multi-billion dollar plan to build a Major League Soccer (MLS) stadium in the middle of Lady Bird Lake, coupled with the new Light Rail line running straight through the center of the stadium as the train crosses the river.

[Read more…]





Big Changes Coming to Guadalupe & Lavaca

Big Changes Coming to Guadalupe & Lavaca

MetroRapid

There’s so much chatter about transportation projects that have varying degrees of reality, it’s hard to keep track sometimes.

One of those projects is coming online in the very near future and going to have big impacts on the downtown transportation grid.

Starting next year, the right most travel lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca will become the Transit Priority Lanes for the MetroRapid busses. Vehicles in these lanes will be restricted to transit vehicles and cars making right turns.

Notably, in addition to the new MetroRapid busses, all the bus transit will be diverted to those streets from Congress Avenue, which will pay dividends for drivers on Congress and also significantly improve the pedestrian environment – the latter that I predict will catalyze more sidewalk and pocket park cafes along Congress.

[Read more…]





Downtown Austin Parking Requirements May Be Eliminated…

Downtown Austin Parking Requirements May Be Eliminated…

austin-parking-garages-suck

…by the City of Austin.

Still, today’s market demands parking, and lenders will continue to require their businesses to deliver a minimum number of parking spaces.

It would be a symbolic and legal step forward though because minimum parking requirements have many negative effects, including:

  • Generate greater automobile usage and reduce use of transit and walking.
  • Increase building construction costs and make units less affordable.
  • Negatively affect the aesthetics of the built environment.
  • Perpetuate the inefficient use of available parking. (Currently many parking spaces in garages downtown sit empty throughout the day and night.)

“The city of Austin currently requires businesses to provide a certain number of parking spaces proportionate to the size of the business’s building. Multiple city commissions have expressed support for changing this requirement.

Colin Pope, editor of the Austin Business Journal, said that eliminating the requirement would be more of a symbolic move because developers would still provide parking to keep tenants happy.” – YNN





B-Cycle Chosen For Austin Bike Share Program

B-Cycle Chosen For Austin Bike Share Program

austin-b-cycle

The Downtown Austin Blog has confirmed that B-cycle is the bike company of choice for the new Austin Bike Share program.

DAB reported last week that three companies had submitted proposals to supply Austin Bike Share equipment. We don’t know who yet else applied, but there is some small comfort in knowing that the people in San Antonio seem quite pleased with B-cycle, where they are growing from 30 stations to 45 stations. (Check out their San Antonio rates and coverage here.) B-cycle implementation has been successful in 15 other major cities, including Denver, San Antonio, and Houston and the city aims to have the bike share program operable by late spring 2013.

Here’s Here are some more details on what to expect in Austin:

[Read more…]





Austin Bike Share Enters the Homestretch

Austin Bike Share Enters the Homestretch

b-cycle-denver

It’s been almost two and a half years since I started advocating for Austin Bike Share in the state capital.  It became the highest rated of any SpeakUpAustin initiative, ever.  Because of incredible grassroots support, generous financial support by several local businesses, and hard work by City staff, Austin Bike Share is finally happening for Austin.

Austin City Council this week is expected to approve an important step in the process, which will allow the city to form a partnership with nonprofit Bike Share of Austin to operate the bike share program.

The City and Bike Share of Austin are aiming to have the bike share program up and running by spring 2013. A separate contract with a bike share vendor for the purchase of bicycles, kiosks, and the bike share system network is scheduled to come to City Council for approval at the next scheduled council meeting, which would be Jan. 31.

It has long been rumored around town that Austin is going to pick B Cyclethe same bike share operator as San Antonio, to supply the bike share system for Austin.  San Antonio’s system is a phenomenal success and expanding.

According to the City, the bike share will bring about 40 bike share kiosks, with as many as 400 bikes, to Central Austin area.  That’s a good start.

jude-bike-shareIt was around 2009, when traveling in Montreal, that I was first introduced to a robust bike share system. That system was called BIXI, but it was the same bike design used in Minneapolis.  The system works impressively well.  You can become a member, or pay-as-you-go. The three-geared bikes are comfortable and well maintained.

That Austin’s Bike Share initiative seems to be heading for the final stretch is superb news, and I’d like to thank all of our City Council members and all the folks at the city who are working to make this happen.

We can expect a draft map of the locations within the next couple of months.

I’ve learned that City staff’s process of identifying possible sites for bike share kiosks is based on several criteria:

  • Proximity of bike infrastructure such as bike lanes or cycle tracks
  • High employment density
  • Nearby parks, recreation facilities, tourist attractions, or other destination
  • Favorable topography
  • Public transit services

Get it out there.

For the sake of getting bike share off the ground, I really hope the City doesn’t let perfection get in the way of progress.  I, myself, would be in favor of a phased launch and the City says, “we are putting half the stations in these spots. Deal with it.  However, we would like to hear from the public about where we get the other stations set up at.”

That would get Austin Bike Share rolling, with kiosks being put into the ground, instead of letting all the zealots debate the minutia and delaying having something the public can actually use.

-Jude





The Highest And Best Use of Congress Ave Retail Store Frontage Is Not CapMetro

The Highest And Best Use of Congress Ave Retail Store Frontage Is Not CapMetro

capmetro-austin-congress-ave

One of the things that always seemed curious to me is how and why Capital Metro (@CapMetroATX) occupied prime square footage on a heavily trafficked part of Congress Avenue, next to Annie’s. For many years, Cap Metro occupied the first and third floor of this three-story building.

Well its lease expires this coming April, and it seems the landlord is raising the rent. As a result, Capital Metro is moving into 209 W 9th Street (southwest corner of Colorado and 9th), which is owned by Harry Whittington.  There, the transit agency is signing a 5-year $3.3 million lease on 18,800 square feet.  This will allow the consolidation of two call centers – one currently housed at the 323 Congress Ave.

For years, the good energy of clear windows (“fenestration” for my fellow wonks) and ambience of Annie’s seemed to kind of get sucked way by the dark, looming, uninviting storefront of Capital Metro next door.

So what’s next for 323 Congress?

The entire building is 21,900 square feet, and  features open floor layouts, ample lighting and excellent visibility to Congress Ave.  According to this undated flyer from Weitzman, it appears to be listed for sale “between $2.5 million and $7.3 million.”  Or, it could be for lease $24-36/ft/yr by Cielo Realty Partners, as it’s shown on Loopnet.

I’ll be surprised if this languishes too long.  Office vacancies downtown have recently fallen below 12%, according to this Dec. 11 Austin Tenant Advisors press release, which compares well to other major cities such as Atlanta which reports a 24% vacancy rate. Average lease rates for all classes are averaging around $30/square in the downtown area while landlords of Class A office properties are quoting $38/square foot, or higher.

This, in part, is being driven by a number of web/computing-based companies setting up shop downtown, which is about as a good of a thing as a city could ever hope would happen to its downtown office space.  We can expect a higher and better use of our ground level retail, however.

FYI urban transit commuter: The transit store, where folks pick up passes, pocket maps and the lost & found, is also moving to the new location on 9th Street.