Last week while in Austin (see post) I added an extra day to tour some of the city and understand what all the hype was about. Staying downtown at the Driskill I found myself underwhelmed with downtown… looked a lot like most second tier cities from the 1980’s – big blocks, wide streets, large footplate soulless buildings. Aside from a beautiful axial gesture of Congress Street terminating on the State Capital, there wasn’t a lot to write about. The much vaunted Sixth Street certainly had a lot better grain and texture, but with its plethora of tourist bars, dirty sidewalks and cheap restaurants it reminded me more of Bourbon Street than a unique High Street showcasing local talent.
But then I got out to the edges and that’s where it got interesting. Rainey Street was where we started and there I saw some great experimental urbanism, not unlike what was witnessed at Proxy SF and Hayes Valley (see post). Small residential cottages had been adaptively updated into bars, restaurants and offices. Even when nothing was happening, there was ‘block party’ energy about the place, as you could peer into outdoor seating venues in the front and back yard of traditionally residential lots.
From there we wandered down to SOCO. This was a classic arterial strip where small adaptive use of undistinguished 60’s and 70’s properties was germinating change for the neighborhood.
Clearly the winner was Bunkhouse Group’s Hotel San Jose. A classic motor court which had been repositioned and augmented with a center core of additional suites was brilliant in planning and design. Upon entering the ‘parking-lot-become-treed-courtyard’ you immediately left the noise and tedium of the adjoining arterial behind. While I didn’t get to meet Liz Lambert as part of the program I assembled, I definitely think she is onto something great with her work, and so do many others in town.
Looking for lunch, we ventured over to Franklin BBQ, touted as the best BBQ in town. What a scene! We arrived at 11:15 hoping we might get a seat around noon. As we stepped into the block-long line, we were approached by wait staff who informed us we were beyond the point ‘where we can guarantee food’. Basically if you want to eat at noon, you need to get in line at 9. It too was like a block party (is there a theme here Austin?), and the hosts made it even more so as they walked the line with a cooler of cold canned beer for $3. We waited about an hour chatting with people in line and then left, without BBQ but with a great experience in chance encounters and spontaneous community. Exiting the neighborhood, we walked through Austin’s east side which less than a decade ago was a war zone. With the pioneering work of Constructive Ventures we saw a complete transformation that, like so many other cities, was creating great, human scaled, compact and vibrant neighborhoods on its edges.
Our BBQ jones unsatisfied, we headed out Barton Springs road for Tex-Mex. Settling on an old standby of Chuy’s, we did get a great meal, and along the way saw another arterial strip in the midst of transformation. Everywhere you could see vestiges of a former escape route from the city converting to interesting infill and adaptive use properties, including new apartments and condos – all executed with an exuberant freshness and hill country contemporary parti.
So is Austin hip? Yes. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Is it redefining edgy? Yes, if the definition means the fun stuff and real vitality is occurring around the core, and not at the center.