Laid-back, liberal-minded Austin residents stand out from their longhorn peers with their free-spirited acceptance of all things singular and weird. And it’s working: Forbes recently named the city the top “Next Big Boom Town in the U.S.” Through 2010, Austinites numbered more than 790,000, with a nearly even split between genders. The surrounding Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos area has a population of more than 1.7 million. The city’s residents are young, averaging in their early 30s, with a concentration of people ages 25 to 35 living downtown, according to Jeff Townsend, principal at Edge Realty Partners (Austin, Texas). Residents’ median income from 2006-2010 was $50,520. Like many southern cities, Austin also welcomes a large Hispanic population (approximately 9.4 million); 34 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home.
Less rocked by the recession than most U.S. cities, Austin enjoyed a 90.6 percent retail-occupancy rate through 2011, according to Capitol Market Research statistics cited by the Statesman. A booming foodie scene – including a spate of beloved food trucks – is luring restaurateurs. Among the eclectic new restaurants opened in 2011 are the Old School Grille, which is built into a yellow school bus; P. Terry’s Burger Stand, a casual favorite; and Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant, one of a family of Austin-based eateries. Downtown, a redeveloped warehouse district welcomed Brooks Brothers, Retail W Hotels, Urban Outfitters and the Violet Crown Cinema last year.
“There was interest in suburbs until the economy changed and it really slowed down that growth. Austin’s uniqueness, and where a lot of the retailers want to be, is the central core, especially if you’re local,” Townsend says. Blossoming neighborhoods include the upscale Second Street district, which draws affluent young professionals who live and work downtown. South Congress, affectionately dubbed “SoCo,” is the unofficial epicenter of Austin oddness, having evolved from a rundown urban hub to a funky hangout and tourist hotspot crammed with bars, shops and restaurants. Nearby, the South Lamar corridor mixes hints of historical grit with a locally owned flair.
Austinites are fiercely protective of local retailers, taking pride in brands that “Keep Austin Weird,” as a favorite slogan boasts. Still, new development must accommodate a trio of urban obstacles: strict sustainability guidelines, rolling topography and gridlocked traffic. An aquifer, which runs from north to south along the city’s west side, has led to additional restrictions, forcing retailers to buy more land to comply with impervious concrete cover restrictions.