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Downtown leaders map out pandemic recovery amid construction boom

Thursday, April 22, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Downtown Austin leaders painted a mixed but promising picture of the city’s core on Wednesday, with large-scale construction projects accelerating and helping the area shake off the slowdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Downtown Austin Alliance presented its annual State of Downtown report as well as its post-pandemic Roadmap to Recovery at a virtual press event.

While pockets of downtown storefronts have been vacated – as many as 25 percent by some analyses – since the beginning of the pandemic, long-planned growth in office, commercial and hotel space has created optimism for the economic health of the area.

Five new office towers scheduled for completion this year will add 1.5 million square feet of class A office space, with three new hotels adding more than 1,000 rooms as the lodging industry recovers from a 12-month stretch where occupancy rates dipped to single-digit levels at their lowest point. Over the longer term, 23 buildings are under construction downtown totaling 9.2 million square feet of space, with another 32 projects in the planning stages, bringing an additional 19 million square feet onto the market.

“Momentum in downtown Austin has been building for a very long time and while 2020 may have caused a pause, data suggests the new office space will be absorbed quickly,” said Jenell Moffett, director of research and analysis for the Downtown Austin Alliance.

The Downtown Austin Alliance’s recovery plan is centered around four priorities: assisting the local homeless population, activating more parks and public spaces, creating support programs for small businesses and live music, and increasing marketing efforts for the downtown area as a whole.

The plan will help boost the small-business economy that was trampled by forces such as the 2020 cancellation of South by Southwest – which alone took $34 million from hotel coffers – and the absence of nearly all tourist and office worker foot traffic.

“Our focus since March 2020 has been how to ensure downtown can recover and become more resilient to economic threats,” Dewitt Peart, DAA’s president and CEO, said in a prepared statement. “This Roadmap lays out a vision that will do exactly that. It won’t happen overnight, but our team is dedicated to working with the community and local government officials and stakeholders to implement this vision that will result in a better downtown experience and a downtown economy that is better able to withstand future catastrophic challenges.”

The Downtown Austin Alliance will partner with Waterloo Greenway, Shoal Creek Conservancy and other groups to improve and activate public spaces downtown. Plans call for collaboration with owners of vacant properties for use as live music venues or other creative purposes to draw foot traffic.

Peart said the creation of micro housing units will be a significant piece of the effort to help the homeless, with the city’s recently announced plan to house 3,000 people by 2024 a major component of the downtown recovery.

“We are continuing to do the work and have had meetings all this week working on the different elements of that strategy,” he said. “In the beginning we’re looking at how we measure success, the governance model so we can remake the way we manage and report on success … we’re looking at the different service providers and how they become coordinated, and lastly the funding piece.”

Also playing roles in the future of downtown are major public works projects such as Project Connect, the Interstate 35 cap-and-stitch project, the reconstruction of Congress Avenue, the Waterloo Greenway parks system, and the development of the South Central Waterfront District, which will collectively represent tens of billions of dollars in construction and other investment.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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