Austin’s suburbanized infill

The New York Times had a story recently about the suburbanization of cities. The basic premise is that wealthy people are increasingly choosing to live in cities but they’re bringing along much of the suburban ethos: large homes, abundant parking, big yards, big box stores.

The dividing line between urban and suburban limits has always been a little murky in most cities, many of which have their own vast stretches of single-family homes with attached garages. But the general idea was that the suburbs offered comfort and personal space, private backyards and a bedroom for each kid. City living was more exciting and offered culture and a more diverse mix of everything, but required some sacrifice. Apartments were smaller, parking a headache and a backyard unimaginable.

Today, the cost of city living in many areas is higher but the trade-offs for those who can afford it are fewer.

The result is that the idea of a city itself is changing. In some ways, living in a dense urban area has become much more pleasant for certain types of people — namely the affluent and those who prize proximity to the action above all else. You can now live within easy walking distance of your favorite restaurants, go see a play and shop at Target nearby. But what does it mean when urban living becomes a luxury good and a lifestyle brand?

This story rings true even in Austin, where single-family homes and yards have always been the norm. As much as people complain about density, the main reason that single-family homes are demolished in Central Austin is so that they can be replaced with much bigger single-family homes.

Meanwhile, even projects that are touted as urbanist infill end up catering largely to wealthy people seeking spacious accommodations. Just look at the Grove, the major mixed-use development under construction at 45th & Bull Creek. Of the nine floor plans available for single-family homes, eight of them are greater than 4,000 square feet. While they are offering some smaller condos between 1000-1,400 sf, almost none of their townhomes are under 2,000, while some of them are over 4,000!

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The Vantage Series houses at the Grove range from 4,059-4,737 sq ft. Starting at $1.56M.

Mueller is frequently derided as pseudo-urbanist, but jeez, you’ll rarely see a house anywhere near 4,000 sq ft over there.

Ironically, it appears that many of residences of what was framed as a compact-and-connected New Urbanist development will be much larger than the single-family homes in the surrounding neighborhoods, most of which are between 1,200-1,800 square feet.

Granted, the single-family homes and townhomes are just one part of the Grove. There will also be apartment buildings offering units that are smaller and cheaper. Although I fear that they will still be much larger than average.

Some of this is simply driven by the market. Central Austin is attracting wealth from all around the world. However, some of it is a result of political constraints. You can’t be surprised that developers build million dollar monstrosities when you put a unit maximum on a property, as Council did on the Grove. That was a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we screwed up big-time.

If we want the new housing in this city to accommodate more than the rich, we need to encourage developers to build smaller and cheaper. Otherwise, the only way they’ll be able to turn a profit on the land is to build luxury housing.

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