Balancing Act

We’ve all heard the whisperings.

“This city is becoming too big.”

Those disappointed conversations about another hotel replacing a food trailer park, reminding us that Austin is no longer the place it once was, are reaching a fevered pitch. And in some capacity, it’s true. Austin is changing – a necessary reaction to our rapid population growth.

Thanks to regular appearances on Top 10 lists, Austin has become a destination for those seeking new opportunity and lower costs of living.Joshua Baer In fact, we’re welcoming over 110 new personalities and perspectives into the city each day.

Which raises the question: Is it possible to embrace change without losing the Austin we all know and love?

A growing contingent of Austinites believe this isn’t only possible, but a necessity through which the city will flourish. Local entrepreneur Joshua Baer is one of those optimists.

“As a community, we need to continue to evangelize Austin and encourage great entrepreneurs to move here.”
– Joshua Baer, Executive Director, Capital Factory

Baer’s startup accelerator, Capital Factory, encourages entrepreneurs to bring their companies to Austin, and for the last two years he’s orchestrated the Move Your Startup To Austin competition, which relocates one lucky winner to the area.

“As a community, we need to continue to evangelize Austin and encourage great entrepreneurs to move here,” Baer says.

Of the thousands of newcomers each month, Baer says, “the types we seem to be attracting are the creative class, and educated, smart entrepreneurial people.” It’s those people, Baer believes, who are going to help preserve the great parts of the city’s personality and culture and positively shape the new Austin.

One such innovator is Chuck Gordon, a tech entrepreneur who moved his company, SpareFoot, from Los Angeles to Austin in 2009. The city’s core personality and culture made it the perfect environment to grow his startup, and an opportunity to join Capital Factory sealed the deal.

For him, Austin’s growth has been both a blessing and a curse.

“The talent pool in Austin continues to grow, and that helps startups like ours a lot,” Gordon said. “On the flip side, traffic is getting worse. That affects the commutes of SpareFoot employees and employees of companies throughout the region, and affects our ability to just get around and do day-to-day activities.”

Austin’s traffic problem is no secret – our metro has been credited with having the 4th worst traffic congestion nationwide – and it only worsens as our city expands.

“We all know the numbers around how many people come to Austin every day, but what many don’t know is that those 110 people bring 70 cars,” says John Julitz, Communications Specialist for Capital Metro. “That added congestion isn’t good for the environment or Austinites’ quality of life, and at CapMetro we recognize that.”

“Those 110 people bring 70 cars… that added congestion isn’t good for the environment or Austinites’ quality of life, and at CapMetro we recognize that.”
– John Lulitz,Communications Specialist, Capital Metro

Through a recently awarded federal grant, CapMetro received nearly $27M to devote to significant transportation infrastructure improvements. They joined forces with the City of Austin, Lonestar Rail and CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) to create Project Connect, a vision for Central Texas’ high capacity transit system that includes commuter rail, bus rapid transit, urban rail, and highway transport.
“Nothing can be a grand fix to Austin’s congestion problem, but with Project Connect we’re hoping to give the residents in and around Austin options,” Julitz says.
See our Transport Issue feature on the proposed transit improvements including Project Connect.

Though it may be the most obvious consequence of a growing population, traffic is far from the only concern. Many longtime residents worry that the influx of people will cause Austin’s character – that perfectly unique mix of small town charm and big city culture – to disappear.

Jill Goodman and Paul DiGiuseppe with The City of Austin, though, hope to keep the city’s personality alive and well through ImagineAustin, the city’s newest comprehensive community plan, launched in 2012. This plan provides a big-picture roadmap for shaping the Austin of the 21st century.

ImagineAustin is using eight priority programs decided upon by city residents to guide the plan’s implementation, which will happen in incremental steps. These eight programs address key areas of concern in the city, including transportation, alignment of city code, workforce development, sustainable water, green infrastructure, household affordability, and building a healthy Austin.

Of particular note in the ImagineAustin Comprehensive Plan are several housing policies that protect low-income families. Acknowledging that the percentage of all single-family homes considered affordable has declined from 42 percent to 28 percent in the past 10 years, ImagineAustin initiatives call for renovating existing homes to reduce utility and maintenance costs, as well as increasing the availability of low-income homes through private partnerships and non-profits.

The percentage of all single-family homes considered affordable has declined from 42% to 28% in the past 10 years.

The Family Business Loan Program, which offers low interest loans to existing small businesses ready to expand and create local jobs, is another recent example of how the city is working to grow Austin’s economy. So far, 31 new full-time jobs have been created in East Austin through the program.

“We spent a lot of time asking people what the essence of Austin was, and trying to capture what the public wanted to see Austin look like in 30 years. The ImagineAustin plan does incorporate all those elements – our creativity, the environment, and who we want to be as people,” says Goodman.

Despite talk of a “changing Austin,” Goodman remains excited about the future of our city.

“The talent, the enthusiasm, and the willingness to innovate – I’m not worried about Austin, personally,” she says.

From her perspective, one of the most positive things about the city is the residents’ desire to help their neighbors succeed – a passion that’s palpable. It’s one of the many reasons people still reference Austin as a town, despite nearing the one million mark in population.

Carol Thompson

Through ImagineAustin, city planners are trying to tackle this growth head-on and encouraging Austinites to improve our city from the inside out, molding our home to preserve the existing personality and embrace the new one.

“A lot of people will say this is the city’s plan, but it’s not. We use it to help everyone. There is a big role for everyone to play,” DiGiuseppe says.

Nearly 18,000 residents were consulted in the creation of the plan, with the hope that Austinites will feel a sense of ownership over ImagineAustin and make change happen in the ways government can’t through individual and neighborhood-organized projects.

“A lot of positive change has come from people moving here and adding to what we already have.”
– Carol Thompson, President & CEO, the Thompson Group

Longtime Austinite and local leader Carol Thompson agrees that much can be done on the individual level. To her, Austin is a city with keen interests – be they environmental, technological or philanthropic – and she believes our own residents have the ability to make the city one everyone wants to live in.

Amidst our conversation about change on a local level, Thompson shares that “a lot of positive change came from the people who moved here and added to what we already have. They helped bring out the best of us.”

Those discussions of an Austin disappearing may never be completely replaced by excited chatter of a city improved. In fact, many argue, talk about “the old Austin” should be welcomed and even encouraged. Austin is full of rich history, rolling green hills, artistic culture and Southern charm, and even in the course of change, it’s important to preserve those elements that are so central to Austin’s very definition. Losing them, we fear, is akin to losing Austin itself.

Chuck Gordon, however, is confident that won’t ever happen.

“As long as Austinites support events like Eeyore’s Birthday and the Zilker Park Kite Festival, as long as we frequent restaurants like la Barbeque and Qui, and as long as we cycle around Lady Bird Lake or run in the Keep Austin Weird 5K, Austin will still have the qualities we know and love,” he says.

Gordon reminds us that it’s possible for preservation and change to work in tandem. The question is: what are you going to do to help keep Austin, well… Austin?


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Writing: Rachael Genson
Lead Image: Courtesy of City of Austin

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