Austin at Large: What the Market Will Bear
From the creeks to the streets, Austin gets clear on what it wants
In another sign that old sociopolitical boundaries are vanishing, our old friends at Stratus Properties announced that the next round of 350 or so homes at Barton Creek are going to be smaller than the modern mansions that typify Austin's western fringe. "We just don't see market demand for some of the larger homes that have been traditional Barton Creek homes," Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong told the Statesman.
The new digs, closer to the 2,500-square-foot industry average than the palaces of yore, are being marketed to younger buyers, who are more interested in having access to the Barton Creek Greenbelt (which the subdivision currently doesn't; Armstrong's hoping to make a connection near Lost Creek) than in a big community pool or the signature golf course. But it's not just for kids! Armstrong also told the daily, "We also believe there's a pretty substantial market for an older crowd that maybe wants to sell their big home in Barton Creek but stay in the area and no longer needs 6,000 square feet."
So, almost 30 years after opposition to this very development galvanized the Austin counterculture and set the frame for the intervening political decades, it turns out that the Save Our Springs and Save Barton Creek folks won the future; the protected community's environmental assets are now valuable, and the wealthy master-planned golf course enclave is obsolete. That's why the opposition of many of those same folks to a similar evolution in central city neighborhoods – toward community-building, shared public spaces, and the views of younger people long overlooked in civic decision-making – seems so depressingly ironic.
Who Knows Where the Wind Blows
This is where I normally get called a neoliberal shill for pointing out that the market is guiding this shift, both in the hills and in the city center. As to the latter, the urban infill projects that District 7 and District 9 neighbors shriek about are "unaffordable" because there are so few of them, because our politics and our laws are a heavy drag on producing this kind of housing at scale, and because Austin is a nice place that held on to urban-core neighborhoods whose analogues in other cities – even "peer" Sunbelt cities – collapsed over generations of flight and blight. That's also the market at work, and in-town housing supply will likely never meet demand for reasons that are not particularly shameful.
That's why it's important to have a combination of intelligent rules, tasty carrots, and fearsome sticks for densifying the urban core and incentivizing housing subsidies to help people who should be living central to do so. The outer bands of opposition to those incipient post-CodeNEXT policies are already making rough weather, but we know which direction the prevailing winds are blowing.
We can see that in the largely untrammeled path ahead for the massive proposed redevelopment of the Statesman headquarters, and the steady march of the Ballpark/Presidium/Riverside deal toward what will almost certainly be Council approval, no matter how many Defend-Our-Hoodzers pretend to riot in the streets. Projects born of painful public agonies and years of consensus-building that were supposed to shape the new Austin – Mueller, the Triangle, Saltillo – are now being dwarfed by developments that seem to just shoot up out of the ground like rain lilies, watered by market demand.
Preparing for Deceleration
But what about those mansions in the hills? It's still more delightful than despicable to think and read about aging boomers who can't unload their dream homes, whether here or around the nation, but this is going to be a real public policy problem someday, isn't it? Who makes up the future resale market for 6,000-square-foot piles of Spanish-style grandeur at Barton Creek? What are we going to do with the vacant homes and the land under them?
Even as our suburban communities (both within the city of Austin and beyond) see higher concentrations of poverty and needs for services, their most valuable assets are very clearly on the wrong track. It's like the challenge faced by the mayors of decelerating Rust Belt cities (including Mayor Pete's South Bend) to save those hollowed-out urban-core neighborhoods – except it's also totally politically and culturally different.
Which is why this confluence of stories and trends is so interesting to watch. We see what's happening in terms of market forces, and we see how our public policy tools grapple with and try to steer those forces, but sometimes we forget that we, the people, make up both "the market" and "the public." What happens in our city is not the inevitable consequence of powers we cannot control. Ultimately, it does, can, and should reflect what we really want and care about.