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.





Handful of This Week’s Downtown Austin Events (and one on the East Side)

Handful of This Week’s Downtown Austin Events (and one on the East Side)

"Flow" installation, Design Workshop

DANA Urban Core Happy Hour
Sunday, November 16, 2014 – 2pm-4pm
Hotel Ella

RSVP Required.

hotel-ella

DANA members and guests are invited to enjoy the hospitality of the recently revamped Hotel Ella.

On the menu:

  • Truffle Risotto Cakes
    Crab Cakes with Lemon Aioli
    Chorizo stuffed bacon wrapped dates with piquillo pepper sauce
    Antipasta Buffet Bar with imported cheese, house cured meats, preserved local fruits, and peppered flatbread with assorted crackers

+ complimentary beer, wine, and cocktails!

Creek Show, Light Night
Thursday, November 13, 2014 – Sunset ’til Late
Waller Creek (between 5th street and 7th street)

Event website.

"Flow" installation, Design Workshop

“Flow” installation, Design Workshop

As the sun sets on Waller Creek, five site-specific light installations will be revealed. These installations, all created by Austin-based architects and landscape architects, will illuminate Waller Creek in new and exciting ways. See the designs, hear local music and learn more about the future of Waller Creek.

East Austin Studio Tour
2 Weekends: November 15-16, November 22-23 – 11am-6pm
Various locations

Event website.

hallie

Big Medium presents the 13th East Austin Studio Tour! EAST is a free, annual, self-guided art event occurring over two weekends in November, providing the public with an opportunity to meet the makers: the local artists and artisans who leave a lasting imprint on Austin’s vibrant, dynamic culture. Tour-goers are invited to discover new artistic talent, see working studios, learn about artists’ tools, techniques, and inspirations, and explore unique exhibition spaces and local businesses.

One of the artists we love to support, Hallie Rae Ward, will be showcasing her work at Createscape Coworking.  Check it out!





Austin Fairmont Hotel To Break Ground November 3rd

Austin Fairmont Hotel To Break Ground November 3rd

Fairmont_Rendering_Oct2014_final

Some people, myself included, were beginning to think downtown Austin’s Fairmont Hotel was becoming development vaporware.  Back in March there was proof-of-life when they began fencing off the site.

Today, according to a press release sent to DAB, the Fairmont Austin, the first hotel providing direct access to the Austin Convention Center, is announcing that it has secured financing and will break ground on November 3, 2014.

Colony Capital has stepped in with project financing for the $370 million luxury hotel, which is expected to open June 3, 2017.

The site, located at the northeast corner of Cesar Chavez & Red River is a 1.74-acre parcel situated along the bank of Waller Creek. The hotel will be notable for having a direct connection to the Austin Convention Center, via an arial promenade being designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners (the firm selected by the Waller Creek Conservancy to develop a master plan for the Waller Creek district).

The finished building will no doubt add to downtown Austin’s skyline. At 595 feet tall, it will be second tallest structure in downtown Austin – the tallest being the 56 story, 680-foot Austonian.

Summary of what we know about the Fairmont Hotel…

  • Number of rooms = 1,066
  • Number of stories = 37
  • Square Feet = 1.4 million
  • Building Height = 595 feet
  • Delivery = June 2017

-Jude

Fairmont_Rendering_Oct2014_final

Fairmont Hotel, Red River @ Cesar Chavez, southwest POV





Why It’s Bull****: The Waller Creek Tunnel Inlet Is Too Tall

Why It’s Bull****: The Waller Creek Tunnel Inlet Is Too Tall

waller-creek-tunnel-height

Had the weekend to catch up on some old news, and this issue of the Waller Creek Tunnel inlet being too tall smelled foolish from the first I heard about it.

Kudos to the Statesman’s Sarah Coppola for the revealing a potential $45mm fix to reduce the height of the Waller Creek Tunnel Inlet would be wasted money since the Texas State Library and Archives Commission is already blocking the view.

Say what?! That’s right. “Fixing” the inlet structure to be fully compliant with the CVC will not regain any view! An existing government building is blocking the view already.

The Waller Creek Tunnel Inlet is under construction in Waterloo Park. This is the business end of the tunnel construction which was on target for completion in mid-2015.

It was almost two years when the tunnel’s under ground dig was passing beneath the Sabine.

I remain optimistic that elected officials at the local and state level will apply reason, rather than force the taxpayers to pay to bring the inlet into CVC “compliance.”





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…]





Downtown Austin Round Up: Fairmont, Waller, Trinity, Oh my

Downtown Austin Round Up: Fairmont, Waller, Trinity, Oh my

downtown-austin-news-roundup

Have you experienced the phenomena that BIG things seem to happen when you’re on vacation?  This past week, while we attempted to cruise, there were multiple status report updates about three tall projects in downtown Austin.

99 Trinity Tower Announces $100mm, 39 Story Apartment Highrise

99trinityaustinapartmentBack in November, DAB broke the news about Trinity Tower.  Located just east of the Four Seasons Residences, and north of Lakeside apartments.  This will become a very dense intersection.  We have big expectations that this highrise will fill the perceptive gap between the Rainey Street neighborhood and the rest of downtown Austin.  We’re thrilled that they are aiming high with a 39 story tower, which would be the tallest apartment building in Austin.  Demolition of the warehouse should commence soon.  (Statesman)

Waller Park Place Closes On Land

waller_center_austin_Rainey_perspectiveThe Sutton Company closed on their deal to buy Perry Lorenz’s incredible 3-acre assemblage along Waller Creek.  What Sutton is proposing is nothing short of the largest private development in the history of downtown Austin.  Three towers in the Rainey Street district, including significant Waller Creek enhancements, stretching from Cesar Chavez to Davis Street.  (Statesman)

Fairmont Selects Builder

fairmont-austin

fairmont-birdseye (1)

This was significant because half of the people I talk with have begun to think this project is vapor-ware.  The project was planned to break  ground a while back.  The Fairmont website is showing delivery in “2016+”, and the sign pictured above says “Opening Fall 2017″.  We hope this is a reliable signal that the project will break ground soon. (Statesman)

-Jude

 





Plans Evolve For Rainey Street’s Waller Center

Plans Evolve For Rainey Street’s Waller Center

waller_center_austin_Rainey_full

Here are the latest revisions to the 3 acre Waller Center plan – an ambitious project that stretches along the east bank of Waller Creek, from E Cesar Chavez to Davis Street.

The updated renderings (below) give a more comprehensive vision for the massing of three distinct towers, and how they could be best be oriented.  According to the ABJ‘s interview with development firm, The Sutton Company, their target is to submit plans to the City of Austin for approval by late November

waller_center_austin_Rainey_site_sat

Here’s what we know about the goals of the project:

  • Tower A is a 21 story office building
  • Tower B is a 46 story residential tower
  • Tower C is a 38 story mixed use Tower
  • Target FAR is 10:1
  • 26,000 ft retail (possibly grocery store)

Checkout the images below.

[Read more…]





This Is The Biggest Transformation Facing Downtown Austin

This Is The Biggest Transformation Facing Downtown Austin

Downtown-Austin-UT-Medical-District-Master-Plan3

You can clearly see from any of Austin’s view corridors the myriad cranes in downtown Austin, transforming the skyline.  But, the biggest transformation facing downtown Austin is not the redevelopment of Seaholm, nor Green Water.

I’m thinking of the Dell Medical School and UT’s Medical District Plan. This plan developed within two years, seemingly from thin air, and is awesome in the “shock and awe” sense of the word.

We’ve seen “Master Plans” come, go, sit on the shelves of City Hall, but the UT Medical District is more or less guaranteed to happen in the next couple of years, at least the first phase.  The UT system, the No. 3 richest system in the nation, will carry the brunt of development for Phase 1 of the master plan. I’d wager they aren’t dependent on lenders, credit markets, etc. when they (literally) have $1 billion of gold in the bank. That gold, by the way, represents just five percent of UT’s nearly $20 billion portfolio.

Officially, UT plans to open the medical school in the fall of 2016, while the planned opening of the hospital is January 2017.  

Now, look at the Medical District plan as a catalyst for development near the adjacent capitol complex and Waller Creek.  Things get really exciting.

I’m going to blog a few posts about this connectivity, in my best attempt to tie in the three plans and why they all are creating a nexus for something special to happen.

Let’s start by talking about what is in the works at UT in Phase 1.

UT Phase 1 plans

Phase 1 will be built while the existing Brackenridge hospital and Erwin Center continue to operate. Phase 1 will be jointly developed by UT and Seton/Central Health.

Parts of the first phase that will be developed by UT are:

  • A 75,000-square-foot academic/administrative building to serve as the medical school.
  • A 240,000-square-foot research building and vivarium. (If you’re wondering, “vivarium” is a fancy way of saying “animal research facility.”)
  • A 200,000-square-foot medical office building to provide space for specialty clinics, medical offices, hospital support, and clinical research.
  • A 1,000-space parking structure to serve the office building.
  • Meanwhile, Seton and Central Health will develop a new 480,000-square-foot hospital.

Downtown-Austin-UT-Medical-District-Master-Plan2

 

To facilitate development, the existing Penick-Allison Tennis Center will need to be relocated (sigh), as will the Centennial Park memorial features.

Additionally, Red River will be realigned between 16th and 15th street. If the glacially slow and problematic redevelopment of Brazos Street and other downtown streets is any indicator, that is the most likely part to delay UT’s plans.  Assuming the university twists arms at City Hall to put that on the fast track, there is still no telling what sort of headaches and potential delays that lay in wait under the street.

You might say: “This is basically UT and not downtown.”

I’d counter that 2/3 of this plan exists within the boundaries of Downtown Austin, adjacent to the capitol complex and Waller Creek.  The Medical District will spur more development for services and living options supporting Austin’s burgeoning medical industry.

Optimistically, I think this is “too big to fail.”  Exciting stuff, to be sure, and phase 1 is just the start.

Downtown-Austin-UT-Medical-District-Master-Plan1





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