We Were the Urban Pioneers
Our search for the just-right million-dollar condo, in the wilds of Downtown
Pioneer life is tough.
Think of the Puritan settlers, eking out a new life amid impossibly harsh weather and hostile Indians. Think of Lewis and Clark, struggling through their first long, cold winter before meeting up with Sacagawea. Think of Michael Dell in his UT dorm room, trying to make a buck out of electronic gargoyles known as "personal computers."
Yet without the pioneers those who face insuperable odds, cheerless solitude, and public ridicule our lives would be far different. There would be no airplanes, polio vaccines, or Botox. Our history books are filled with their stories tales of woe, of courage, and, ultimately, some victory that makes our lives better, as with the struggles and successes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and the guy who invented Napster.
In the tradition of this history of grand achievement comes a new kind of pioneer to Austin. We're speaking, of course, of the urban pioneers ditching their houses in the 'burbs with the in-ground sprinkler systems, tearing their car notes in half, and leaving behind one of two gas-guzzling SUVs for the lean, mean move Downtown, to the urban core, into the large glass towers of condos and loft apartments springing up across Austin like so many concrete weeds. Among their distinguished ranks is Austin Mayor Will Wynn, who ditched his Tarrytown spread for the modernist Austin City Lofts. Wynn has enthusiastically called for like-minded pioneers to follow his trail through the wilderness of Austin's traditional, established, outlying neighborhoods into the heart of the city. Wynn imagines an urban village swelled by their ranks, with some 25,000 people living Downtown by 2015. Speaking to the Downtown Austin Alliance which Wynn chaired before becoming mayor he declared, "We should want to have more, not fewer, pedestrians pouring out of the buildings onto the sidewalk. In those cases, taller is better."
Just who are these pioneers? In official New Urbanist mythology, they're touted as the brave folks leading a grand reinvigoration of Downtown Austin. But what do they look like? Where do they come from? Do they speak our language? Are they clean? Is their selfless New Urbanist agenda only for those touched by the sun Californian or otherwise or can anyone with the cash join in? Will we like their view of the city's future and will that future ultimately improve Austin's collective well-being or illuminate our urban psyche? Do they trek in the proud footsteps of our forefathers, those among us who've long been proud to call the urban center home the artists, musicians, and slackers or, in reshaping Downtown, will they instead cannibalize it, like a well-coiffed Donner Party?
The only way to answer our questions was to follow in the footsteps of the urban pioneers. So we washed our ink-stained hands, donned the groovy threads of urban hipsters, and set down the path for ourselves. In the interests of marketing frankness, we donned our designer coonskin caps and emerged as "Burton" and "Shanti." Burton, an L.A.-valley-based adult-video producer, and Shanti, no gainful employment but lots of hobbies. Having heard through the digital grapevine about how cool Austin is, we decided our intrepid, unmarried couple would be coming to the capital city for a visit of undetermined length, with a commitment to stay until they'd found that dee-luxe apartment in the sky.
In order to shield the innocent and the not so innocent we should note that in what follows here we change the identity of every condo-marketing and sales representative we came in contact with on the high lonesome plains of the condo plateau.
Our explorations begin.
Spring Has Sprung
With the city recently approving another looming condo project less than a block away, the Spring leasing center at Seventh and Rio Grande will soon shrink into the shadow of another tower. The soon-to-be-quaint Austin skyline wallpapers the entrance hallway, winding its way to the main showroom, where a model of Spring's 400-foot, 36-floor tower sits to the left, a bright glass erection. The to-scale streetscape below is detailed with a tiny Porsche 928 in front of the building, zooming along in place.
Shanti hovered over another model of Spring looming over Downtown landmarks, hiding behind her oversized sunglasses. "What's this?" she asked the sales agent, pointing to the model of Shoal Creek, a wet and clean tree-lined oasis representing Shoal's potential ideation but a far cry from its current state, roughly that of a Lone Star-lined sewage canal along Downtown's western edge. "It's Shoal Creek, the hidden jewel of the city," said Richard. "Does it look like that?" Shanti inquired. Richard began describing the plans for the area, but Shanti interjected, "Will it look like that soon?"
"I don't have a timeline on that," Richard answered.
Hanging on colored slates in the center of the room, between model rooms of a marble-floored bath and a granite-countertopped kitchen, were floor plans A through F. Looking down, you find yourself standing on a compass, emblazoned with the five-S Spring insignia. Following its directional points, each corner of the office is emblazoned with a view of Downtown from that respective direction north, south, east, and west. Enraptured by the view at least the way it looks now, since any reference to the other projects competing for Downtown views are conspicuously absent from either the miniature toothpick version of the Downtown map or the directionally accurate wallpaper staring out past the beautiful hovering floor-plan blueprints, it is easy to become momentarily dislocated, floating away and upward, lost in that dreamy, new condo feeling.
Burton's moleskin notepad comes out to record some prices. Sailing straight past the one-bedrooms anything under 1,000 square feet, really Burton and Shanti deign to consider Plan D, but at 1,039 square feet (for around $500,000), it's just too small. E is a little roomier, 1,616 square feet for $750,000. But for true urban pioneers, F is the way to go: 1,720 square feet, three bedrooms, three baths, and a media room to drown in post-mod Danish-crafted furniture and credit-card debt all for just $800,000.
Of course, that price also covers the "amenities" of which there are plenty. First, there's the pool that will sit on a deck several floors above street level, a common area for all Spring residents to use. There's also a poolside lounge and a private health club. And there are extras that might appeal most to residents living in the smallest Spring units but seem pitched more toward the denizens of the luxurious upper floors. There are the guest suites like hotel rooms that residents can reserve for out-of-town guests ("like in-laws!" Shanti helpfully interjects) and the fifth-floor dining rooms, also available for various resident uses. Indeed, Richard says confidently, the dining rooms are a great convenience when you want to throw a dinner party for 20 or 30 but can't or, perhaps, aren't inclined to accommodate all those guests inside your personal living space.
"You get what you pay for," says Richard, differentiating Spring from its competitors. "It may be a little more, but it's worth it." As we depart dreamland, he gives us an oversized information packet, sheathed in a smart white envelope. Waxing rapturously of nearby amenities (like Whole Foods' "nut-butters blended in-house") and the area's arrhythmic pulse ("The burgeoning Downtown scene crackles with energy yet retains the genteel, almost timeless feel of old Austin"), it goes on to compare Spring's point tower design to the Freedom Tower in New York City the skyscraper going up on the remains of the World Trade Center.
Well, bin Laden and his family were builders after all.
Black and White, Orange and Green
Once upon a time, Spring's Vancouver-style point tower was touted by developer Perry Lorenz as "affordable." In 2005, the Spring partners told reporters they planned to sell the building's 220 units for between $200,000 and $400,000 a feat of which Lorenz seemed especially proud: "For the first time," he told the Austin American-Statesman, "living in downtown Austin will be a real option for teachers, firefighters, young professionals, and middle-income families, not just the very wealthy." But shopping at the Spring sales office, we or, rather, Burton and Shanti discovered that the promise of Spring's affordability has, apparently, been scrapped, a fate blamed largely on the increasing cost of construction materials. The one-bedroom apartments at just less than 700 square feet and without much of a view, a balcony, or room for more than the fine fabrics on our backs will cost at least $235,000, hardly the sort of mortgage one could easily imagine an Austin public-school teacher (let alone an alt-weekly journalist) affording.
Indeed, walking around Downtown, it's hard to tell exactly who would be a good fit for such a space. The demographics of this new Downtown, and its future pioneering inhabitants, aren't readily available. As of the 2000 census, according to stats kept by the Downtown Austin Alliance, there were 1,941 households within the 78701 ZIP code, which covers the Central Business District, with a median age of 36 and median income of $51,628. But those numbers are already out of date. For example, factoring in all the projects completed since 2000 including the Austin City Lofts, the AMLI project on Block 20, and 410 Rio Grande, to name just a few there are now some 3,216 residential units Downtown, inhabited by an estimated 5,859 people, according to stats compiled by the city. Still, we were unable to find out how old these people are, how much money they make, or what kind of racial blend there is among these pioneers infiltrating the urban core. Everyone we asked had ideas about who they believe the pioneers to be, but there seems to be little in the way of concrete evidence.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who are positively giddy about the rapid density development of Austin's urban core, including Kevin Burns, who proudly considers himself a Downtown "trailblazer." He founded and owns UrbanSpace Realtors, which specializes in selling Downtown pioneer lofts and condos. The glass front of the UrbanSpace office is covered with catchphrases designed to appeal to the witty urban hipster: "Live Downtown: Great Taste, Less Sprawl" and "Downtown It's What's for Dinner." According to Burns, Downtown is inhabited by all kinds of folks it's a real melting pot. There are "white, brown, and black" people hell, there are even "orange and green" folks, he says, that's just how damned diverse it is. In sum, Burns says enthusiastically, Downtown's loft dwellers are a diverse and expanding bunch. By his estimation, their ranks break down like this: one-third second home and/or investment buyers; one-third out-of-towners chief among them folks from the two coasts, more Californians, yes, but with a growing contingent of Easterners coming to Austin to live for the first time; one-third established Austinites. And among that last group, says Burns, is an exciting new dynamic. Where once there were predominately young singles, professional couples, retirees, and empty nesters, there are now a growing number of young families. "Go down to Jo's on Second Street, and you'll see all these cute little moms with their strollers," he says. "They're all over the place."
But these coffee-shop demographics aren't that easy to confirm. In search of these orange and green loft-livers, we turned to the marketing materials put together by the project developers. Where cold, hard numbers fade to gray, marketing materials come into bright and colorful focus. The developer's marketing material is the road map for the modern pioneer. These materials share similar features many are oversized rectangles, for example, and several involve Velcro closures. Nearly every one of them incorporates a picture of Sixth Street and/or Congress and a picture of a random guitar player, along with a skyline shot that includes the Capitol dome, shrinking ever smaller within a blossoming landscape of skyscrapers.
And almost all of the materials we saw depicted white people lots and lots of white people. There are white people sitting on benches by Town Lake or walking its trails; there are white people eating at outdoor restaurants and drinking at Downtown nightclubs. In all, the white folk look like they're having a damn fine time in this newly discovered urban wilderness. But talking to Downtown devotees, the ideal of diversity persists, warranted or not: One prominent booster we spoke with was left haughtily speechless when we asked if Caucasians are Downtown's primary condo consumers.
Going in Circles
After Spring, our nerves had steadied. Far from our initial fears of a prim and moneyed experience, where we fretted we'd stick out or be outed as rag-tag posers (something our armor of $400 dresses and designer jeans was meant to guard against), we were never once looked at suspiciously because of our age, appearance, or feigned naivete of the city. If anything, as our trip down the street to the 360 offices revealed, maybe we were overdressed.
On the day after the project's opening gala, 360's sales center on Rio Grande was a bustling hub, an assortment of dressed-down tech geeks, empty nesters, and urban-chic scenesters circulating through the building that once housed Central Homegoods. Primed to a state of hypnotic suggestion, thanks to an enormous water sculpture behind the receptionist, our eyes wandered to the enormous 360 model off to the left. (Like Spring, the 360 building is not yet built.) Circling the 430-unit monster, we learned that unlike Spring's point tower, 360 is a "spire," in line with (and in some cases, nearly a replica of) other buildings by developers Novare Group and Andrews Urban. For more than a decade, Atlanta-based Novare has churned out residential high-rises throughout Southern urban hubs. For the more recently, locally minted Andrews Urban, 360 is its first foray into skyscraping urban density. The condensed oval shape, the office receptionist explained, creates a spire that "harvests" sunlight through the tower, bouncing it off yet again sheaths of glass. It's a "green" building feature, we're told, designed to decrease daytime electric consumption.
Still unnamed but assuredly "vibrant" stores are planned for street level, while atop the nine-story parking garage sits a posh "amenities deck." While hard prices weren't available, we are told a two-bedroom would run from $300,000 to $600,000 at topside, considerably less than the Spring. In all, the message was clear: Get 'em now, while the getting is good. Starting that weekend, a friendly sales associate told us, we could make an appointment, fill out paperwork, and go "straight to contract" no pussyfooting around with a $500 reservation, like over at Spring. And here, too, an untethered giddiness enveloped the entire process as if it were perfectly reasonable and commonplace to contemplate doling out enormous amounts of cash for homes that haven't even been built. As if to assure us, our sales representative pointed out the sales center window to 360's skeleton, going up quickly at Third and Nueces. "You can see the project right there," she said.
"The projects?" Burton blurted, followed by Shanti's shriek: "Projects? There are projects down here?"
"Oh God no, not the projects," the rep laughed nervously. "Our project!"
Needless to say, the idea of publicly subsidized housing Downtown is laughable, and its absence intrinsic to the idea of Downtown now being marketed: a New Urbanist Disneyland imbued with all the "funky" character of the urban core but without the accompanying din or any hint of squalor.
For condos as supposedly holistic as 360, their ad campaign, like many others, is certifiably schizophrenic. First, there's their terrifyingly loud Web site (www.lifesurroundsyou.com), the graphics accompanied by a constant loop of shapeless soft jazz, like an unholy union of Kenny G and Tito Puente. Indeed, in an advertising fever-dream reflective of the thrilling fragmentation and post-mod ennui the urban pioneer is facing, the plastic brochure features a mosaic motif of dozens of little boxes. For 360, each square holds a detail of Downtown's hot cultural capital: nightclubs and theatres, bars and sandwich shops. At night, the streets rustle with red, ungrounded streaks of electricity, booze, and sex; in the day, smiling white faces are cropped in a soft-focus haze, aside glistening runners, rowers on misty waters, toes in the grass, along urban signifiers like concrete, steel, and glass. Juxtaposing the urban edge with ambient nature, the message is unmistakable you can have it all. Indeed, 360's brochure and entire marketing scheme is organized around the elements fire, earth, air, and water. Earth, Wind & Fire would've been way too retro.
Urbanism and Affordability
The Downtown Austin of tomorrow seems destined to feature a lot of this sort of hyperbolic sameness. For example, ruggedly individualistic urban pioneers seem to share amazingly similar tastes in architecture. Although the developers take pains, in person, to describe all the ways their developments are different from one another, the differences aren't exactly striking. Pick up any one of the many brochures available, and this is what you'll see: a corner living room shot (or, in many cases, an artist's rendering) framed by large panel windows, groovy wood floors (and granite countertops), with a backdrop of some striking panoramic cityscape. The shots are a bit misleading since there's no way all of these properties shooting up like a municipal Whack-a-Mole could possibly all wind up with unobstructed views. In many ways, the Downtown development floor plans have much in common with the zero-lot-line subdivisions of a place like Plano. Up in the northern suburban tundra, you've got a choice of, say, three different floor plans and two different shades of brick. In Downtown Austin you've got a choice of green glass or reflective clear glass, cherry wood or bamboo, slate-colored tile or black granite.
There's also a great similarity in prices, which range between the out-of-reach-unless-you-revert-to-the-great-old-ramen-noodle-days-of-yesteryear ($200s) and the you've-got-to-be-kidding-me ($1 million and up, up, up). Indeed, to find anything remotely resembling "affordable" that is, by most objective standards, about 80% of median family income in this new loft craze, you've got to travel east out to the Town Lake Village, for example, off Riverside, near its intersection with Highway 71, where prices start around $124,000 or south, past Ben White on South Congress (call it SoSoSoCo) to the Bel Air, where a larger one-bedroom goes for about $246,000. Although these outlying developments depict themselves at least in their marketing materials within the urban hipster pioneer lifestyle, they are more accurately but much less hiply described as apartment complexes on the edge of town.
There are plenty of folks who completely disagree with that assessment, and their arguments can be seductive. Enter UrbanSpace's Burns, who argues that while Downtown's new residential spaces may seem pricey, they're actually reasonable for many people. What you need to do, he says, is retool your thinking to embrace the "location-centered price adjustment." For example, a couple working and living Downtown could "easily" get by with just one car and that means ripping up that $400-500-per-month car payment, for example, and subtracting the insurance premium and cost of gasoline from your monthly expenses. When you look at things this way by removing those expenses associated with living in some "other" place, away from Downtown, you can begin to see how "a $400,000 place" Downtown really "costs $260,000," says Burns. Mayor Wynn has made the same argument, that by dumping a second car and taking advantage of the existing Downtown infrastructure to reduce energy costs, you see, it really can be quite the affordable place to live (especially if your office is at Second and Lavaca). Plus, says Burns, moving Downtown means avoiding a soul-sucking existence in the burbs, and that, he says, appeals to a lot of clients who have dumped that life and are moving Downtown. (Ironically, however, Burns says that migration has also helped created a "reverse commute," with workers say, techies from companies like Dell leaving the neighborhoods closer to their jobs in favor of a New Urban experience.)
Not everybody agrees. John McIlwain is a senior resident fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, a real estate industry think tank. McIlwain says that while location-centered economics may work for some wealthier people, they have little meaning for a far larger portion of the population. "You have to build in affordability," he says, "because it doesn't happen naturally." In fact, to do that is nearly impossible in a place like Austin, where the "attractiveness" of the market is "so great and costs are so high that prices are out of reach." The same pattern is happening around the country, McIlwain notes, where the vast majority of new dense urban construction is of "places for the top 10-20 percent." (See "What Happened to Affordability?")
'There's a Lot of You Here!'
After an afternoon of invisible residences, it was reassuring to visit the already-constructed 5 Fifty Five condos not that they returned us to ordinary reality. Occupying the fifth through ninth and 27th through 31st floors of the recently built Downtown Hilton, 5 Fifty Five is easily the most expensive of the new projects, with the "condotel" penthouses moving for more than $3 million. But buyers are snapping them up 90% of the 99 units are already sold (boding well for the forthcoming ne plus ultra of posh, the clumsily named Austonian that is, if the market holds). Before the last 10% disappeared, we decided to pay a visit to one of 5FF's "sunset open houses."
Sales rep Jessica met us in the condo lobby; although inside the Hilton, 5FF has its own front desk, concierge, and street exit. In the elevator, she recounted the Downtown entertainment. Sixth Street, she noted astutely, is riddled with "a bunch of 19-year-olds pretending to be 21, throwing up on themselves." The warehouse district, though, caters to a hipper, slightly older crowd "people like us," she said. But is it safe? "Oh, it's totally safe," she said. "I mean, you could walk down an alley two blocks from here, and who knows what could happen?" Burton and Shanti were ready to leave the L.A. lifestyle behind, after hearing so much great stuff about Austin, we told Jessica. "Well, there's a lot of you here!" she gushed with genuine enthusiasm. "Oh no," Shanti exclaimed with faux-indignation. "We moved to get away from them!" "Well, there's not that many, really," Jessica quickly backpedaled.
On the 29th floor, nothing clicked until 2922 1,617 square feet, two bedrooms, two baths, and a decidedly boring view of the Austin Convention Center, at a mere $895,000. Jessica assured us the next unit, facing east, has "much better feng shui." That was 2921: 2,116 square feet, two-two, and a study, for $1,095,000. And, thanks to a continuous stretch of floor-to-ceiling windows, an astonishing view east of I-35 centered on an enormous scrap-metal yard. From the 29th floor, urban squalor sure looks good. Staring at the riot of weathered and rusted colors, Jessica told us, "Oh, they make a ton of money over there. They're not going anywhere. Believe us, we tried!" She then described the freeway's import. "The interstate has historically served as the dividing line between where we are, Downtown, and the Eastside, a poorer area. But they're getting hipper over there!"
We rounded the indistinguishable hotel halls to 2912, a three-bedroom, 3.5-bath, 3,100-square-foot monster. With an L-shaped floor plan on the corner of the building, it gave an incredible panoramic view north, west, and south for $1.85 million. Jessica never questioned us a couple of thirtysomethings in hipster gear about the spiraling price tags, but we didn't blink either. It's not like we looked out of place. In the lobby earlier, and again on the 29th, we saw a slight girl no older than 24 in jeans and a T-shirt, roaming the floors with her dog. If she wasn't out of place, in luxury condominiums atop a new Hilton, then why would we be? Who the hell are these people? Where does their money come from? Wealth was nowhere and everywhere a given. With a mischievous look, Jessica asked, "How much do you think this would run you all back home, in L.A.?"
Leaving the room, we learn that living on top of a hotel will give us access to room service. And that, like the hotel guests, all residents have to do is sign a tab at the restaurant or the bar downstairs to be billed at the end of the month. "A lot of times," Jessica says, "the first month our new residents call up, asking, 'What's this $1,200 bill I just got?"