There’s a running joke that the best time in Austin was whenever you first moved to the city. I returned to Texas’ capital of weird for the second time during the summer of 2021, having first called it home from 2009–2014 while attending graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. Though it had been less than decade between my two stints in the city, the fabric of central Austin had undeniably shifted during that time. During my bimonthly visits to TxA’s offices on East Chicon Street, I watched as modern mid-rises rolled across the East Side from Interstate 35, all but wiping out the existing residential neighborhoods and leaving the area virtually unrecognizable.
The arrival of high-profile tech companies like Google and Tesla has brought an economic and development boom that has washed away the funk and grit of many of Austin’s iconic neighborhoods. Some will say it should have happened sooner; other will lament the absence of the tattooed vegan cowboys who once frequented the city’s streets. South Congress Avenue’s iconic costume shop Lucy in Disguise will be closing at the end of this year after a 38-year run. Meanwhile, Hermès Paris opened a new brick-and-mortar location in April on a corner just down the street. And while many of the ramshackle structures that have defined Austin’s streets for decades have been replaced by perfectly lovely buildings, many of them designed by architects within our own community, development comes at a cost — a literal cost of skyrocketing rents and property values that are displacing many of Austin’s creatives and communities of color that have helped make the city the desirable destination that it is.
But of all the neighborhoods, the Rainey Street Historical District is my preferred marker of time, its distinct chapters of development closely paralleling my own time in Austin. Lustre Pearl — the beloved craft cocktail bar with eclectic, multicolored interiors and ample outdoor space replete with hula hoops — opened its doors in an old 19th-century home in the neighborhood in 2009, the same year I started graduate school. The bar was the first business to appear within the quiet residential neighborhood. Soon after, food trailers sprouted up in empty parking lots. My friends and I used to stroll down the streets and jokingly ask each other, “Can I buy a taco here or is that someone’s house?” And every now and then the answer was “yes” to both.
Over the four years I attended UT, businesses overtook more and more of the historical homes, many becoming popular restaurants and bars, like the Container Bar and Clive. In 2014, just months after I left Austin, Lustre Pearl closed its doors on Rainey Street — marking the end of an era as it ushered in a new one — and opened them again in a new location on the East Side. (They were quite literally the same doors: The owner had the original structure relocated.) The lot on which Lustre Pearl once stood made way for the neighborhood’s first high-rise, the eight-story Millennium Rainey apartment building, which is quite modest in scale compared to subsequent developments in the neighborhood. In 2021, the final residential house in the neighborhood was cleared for demolition. The home was owned by John Contreras, whose family had occupied it since the 1940s. Though it had fallen into disrepair, the home was listed for $2.65 million and sold for an undisclosed amount, according to an article published in Austonia in 2021.
This past summer, a new mixed-use tower called Waterline, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, broke ground at 98 Red River Street, marking yet another significant milestone for the neighborhood. (Other notable projects by KPF include New York City’s 55 Hudson Yards and One Vanderbilt towers.) At 74 stories and 1,022 feet, the building will become the tallest tower in Texas to date once it is complete in 2026. It is just one of among more than 20 towers that are slated for completion over the next four years.
While it is easy to wax nostalgic about the good old days, just a quick glimpse at a chart of Austin’s population growth over time will show that the city has been booming for some time — really, since its establishment. If anything, the one constant in Austin has been growth itself and the inevitable change that comes with it. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the conditions that have fueled both vacancy and new development in our cities, so perhaps that is why the growing pains feel so particularly acute right now. Our best hope is to advocate for the type of growth that makes space for diverse populations — those integral to the creative culture and character of our cities — and to enjoy a taco at our favorite trailer while we can.
I’ve heard from families who grew up in the Rainey Neighborhood who now have to buy an overpriced cocktail in order to enjoy the home their grandparents once lived in, and they are the lucky ones because every other house has been demolished to make way for luxury high-rises.