Sizing it up (2)

A new vision

Our next trip is to Austin, TX–a city that not long ago was comparable to Birmingham in size, but which recently has exploded with growth. Some quick stats: in 1960, Austin City had 186,000 residents and a metro of 301,000; Birmingham City had 340,000 residents and a metro of 634,000. Austin was 49 square miles, Birmingham 75. Fast forward to 2009, and Austin City has 786,000 souls and a metro of 1,705,000. Birmingham City has 230,000 souls and a metro of 1,212,000. City limits are now 272 square miles for Austin and 152 for Birmingham. In the last several years since I first visited, the skyline has transformed with multiple condo towers, each 30 stories or higher (the 60-story Austonian is pictured above).


Much of the new residential development is focused on the Warehouse District (more an excellent case of branding than a true warehouse district), where city leaders have focused development incentives to increase the resident downtown population to 25,000 by 2015 (it’s about 10,000 right now, and was about 5,000 just a few years ago). As you can see from the photo above, city design guidelines mandate very wide sidewalks, crisp street furniture and well-selected trees, hidden parking garages, and ground floor retail space. Which, despite a few vacancies, appears to be thriving with upper-end furniture stores, clothing boutiques, and the like.

Veggie dog, anyone?

The retail shops and restaurant are consistently high quality in their storefront presentations, graphics, signage, and street furniture (a good example is Jo’s Coffee above). In a complete inverse of Birmingham–where we have woefully little-to-no branding of urban neighborhoods which could allow the public and developers to focus and promote properly–Austin has aggressively branded its sub-neighborhoods downtown. Thus, the 2nd Street District is the retail center of the Warehouse District, with its own website, logos affixed to storefronts, etc.  A view out of one of our favorite shops, Mercury Design, is below; again notice the signage, the bikes, the wide sidewalks, the stylish mannequins across the way. It’s sort of a picture-perfect upscale urban dream made real.

Top notch urbanity

Perhaps in reaction to all the upscale shops and expensive condos (which fetch prices much higher than those in Birmingham), the City is working on new rules which require developers to pay a premium for certain densities and heights; this money goes into a community fund to support affordable housing and parks, in an effort to ensure downtown Austin doesn’t become just a playground for the rich.

Seen below is the mecca to which most downtowns aspire: the full-service supermarket. In Austin, just a 5 minute walk from 2nd Street, it just happens to be the US flagship Whole Foods:

Most downtowns would kill for this

Immensely successful, this market is surrounded by new mixed-use development including restaurants, indie retailers, even a large West Elm store. None of the architecture at this spot is anything to write home about, but the use-mix and walkability are great.

Speaking of architecture, Austin’s brand-new W Hotel and Residences has just opened (it’s worth looking at the website to drool over penthouse floor plans) and it’s one of the better towers in the Warehouse District, designed by Texas firm BOKA Powell:

You know you've made it when the "W" flickers on

I appreciated the lobby lounges, with their combination of exposed concrete, gray tones and bold accent colors, and relaxed modern vibe:

Austin grows up

Interestingly the W houses the popular music show Austin City Limits in a new concert and TV production facility. Which brings us to a common refrain from our friends we saw in Austin: what can be done to preserve “Austin” amidst all the new development, the W hotels, the huge amounts of new people pouring in yearly from other parts of the country? The Keep Austin Weird movement supports local independent businesses, including the music scene (there are over 1700 live music venues in Austin). Downtown certainly feels transitional right now–lots of cheaper indie stores and bars, and smaller scale historic architecture mixed in with the new condo towers, hip chains, and expensive boutiques. With all the explosive growth on track to continue, it will be fascinating to watch this city progress.

Again it seems like an inverse of our own situation: central Birmingham has a much larger historic building stock (including several “real” warehouse districts) but too little well-designed infill, too much mediocre rehab, and too few new people with new ideas moving into town. But we still have lots of “soul” and “urban grit” that promise potential. Austin has the opposite–less historic building stock, but  lots of infill, lots of new people, higher visual and graphic standards, and lots of new retail/restaurants/street activity. The potential is being realized, not hanging there elusively for the future. More on this in the next post.

A slice of the old Austin




7 responses to “Sizing it up (2)

  1. We have branding….we branded the ‘Lakeview ‘ district with those splendid faux Victorian light fixtures (take care you don’t end up with one on 2nd Ave!)
    Great post…

    • Well, yes–it’s time for Lakeview to rebrand. At least they are one of the few places that DID get branded. It’s just all very dated right now. It’s just astonishing to me that after this many years of downtown revitalization, we don’t have a single truly branded central city neighborhood.

  2. Austin is incredible and truly an example of what we could become with unified leadership. A former news director for whom I worked at NBC Huntsville now heads up KVUE Austin. He wouldn’t trade it for the world – and it’s not so much the job, as it is Austin! Also – being the corporate headquarters for Whole Foods – it makes sense the city would feature a flagship Whole Foods downtown amongst the new residents. We can only dream – at this point.

    Additionally, our elected leaders need to lobby the FAA to relax the downtown skyscraper height requirements. Limiting us to 35 stories is ludacris. One’s naked eye can plainly see the jets don’t come anywhere near our current buildings. Relaxing the regulation to 45-50 stories appears more reasonable. Without revised regulation, we’re going to have copycat buildings for years to come.

  3. I think there are several reasons for this:
    1) Too much malaise and corruption at City Hall.
    2) A surrounding population downright hostile to urbanism.
    3) An ultra-conservative corporate culture.
    4) Safe, comfortable posh suburbs within a five minute drive of downtown.
    5) City departments hostile to new uses for old buildings, new businesses and new construction.
    6) Old industrial “brownfields” & slums surrounding downtown.
    7) City department officials completely welded to the 1956-1970 way of doing things.
    8) Car culture rules!
    9) Lingering racism/racial mistrust.
    10) No long-term vision from CEOs or elected officials.

    These are all serious problems, but nothing that can’t be resolved given time. Those of us who love Birmingham realize it’s going to always lag behind other cities, until more of these issues are addressed. Austin sprang from a seed, in part, because so many Americans are looking for a New Beginning- a chance to CREATE something NEW. I’m convinced that is why Hoover is growing in ways Birmingham did in the 1890s-early 1900s: It’s NEW. It’s UNCHARTED TERRITORY. It’s EXCITING. Birmingham’s leadership needs to completely transform the city’s image if they want to be another Austin, Charlotte or Raleigh… or Huntsville. We’re going to have to get rid of some of that urban grit and A LOT of the mid-20th Century “progress” if we want to save the city’s soul. As I see it, the period from 1947-1967 gutted this city, and it’s barely been able to recover since. The 1970s saw a building boom of dubious “urban renewal” strategies, while the 1980s gave us lots of 9-34 story towers with shiny facades but little in the way of public amenities or street activity (i.e. sidewalk life). In short, Birmingham has been on auto-pilot in many regards since about 1931, at least from an urban design standpoint.

    It’s going to take a lot more than Cityville, Blueprint Birmingham and ‘I Believe In Birmingham’ to change the entrenched status quo- but these are great starts. What we need now is for a UAB spinoff or a local hi-tech firm to commit to new downtown digs, a local grocer to get off its duff and commit to a downtown grocery store (doesn’t have to be a supermarket), moving the homeless shelters outside the downtown core and a comprehensive overhaul of traffic patterns, on-street parking, traffic signals, street widths and streetscapes. We’re much further along in these endeavors than our true Rust Belt sister cities, but we need to get more limber in our thinking. Nowhere is it carved in stone that Birmingham shall remain the largest city or even metro region in Alabama.

  4. I liked Austin better in the 60’s and 70’s when it was low rise and authentic… and before it became so very, very self-consciously cool. Birmingham needs to continue to build on its strengths (as, to some degree it has) but with more focus. The last thing we need is more tall buildings. Better to have 10 or 20 the size of One Federal Place, Concord Center or even smaller to fill in blanks. We don’t need ‘point towers’ like you show from Austin but a good urban wall of mid-rise residential facing Railroad Park.

  5. Well, Philip, maybe just one ‘point’ tower… but only about 515 feet max… and south of the train tracks. Our skyline is too “top-heavy” on the northside. There needs to be some balance. And, would somebody PLEASE develop a style for Birmingham? I’m so afraid the next tall tower (2019 anyone?) is going to be trendy or what’s-in-season. I’d like to see the architectural equivalent of Brooks Brothers (classy & timeless) applied to the 30+ story buildings. That’s Birmingham. The smaller, street-centric buildings can be jazzy, funky and fun. I think that’s the direction the local industry should take.

    Personally, I prefer the density of lots of 7-12 story towers, and let all the old pre-WWII towers dominate the skyline.

  6. Actually, classy and timeless is what we have managed in our towers. Nothing too bulky, like the RSA Tower in Montgomery, and nothing trying-too-hard awful like the ‘Batman’ tower in Nashville. Birmingham is a classic city in a valley, and the cluster of towers filled out by all the fabric of old and new buildings makes a satisfying scene. Go up to Vulcan and savor it. Savvy visitors understand. A city in balance with the stirring topography, not overwhelming it. Let’s appeciate that while we work on what else needs to be done.

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