Sometime in 2012, Austin whizzed past Jacksonville, Florida, and Indianapolis to become the country’s 11th largest city. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent count, Austin has 842,592 residents.
Now, government officials, real estate professionals, Austin residents and others are looking toward the city’s next major population milestone: 1 million residents. Ryan Robinson, the city’s demographer, forecasts Austin will hit that mark in late 2024 or early 2025 — more than 10 years from now. (The population of the 10th largest U.S. city, San Jose, California, currently stands at 982,765.)
Looking into his “crystal ball,” Robinson foresees at least 10 more office or residential towers rising on the Austin skyline in the next 15 years, and Austin’s current tallest building — the 56-story Austonian — being the third-tallest tower downtown.
“Downtown is beyond totally hot right now,” Robinson said, “and I think we’ve only seen the beginning of things to come.”
“Restaurant names, bar names, music styles, fashion all change from time to time. But the soul and the character of Austin remain the same. Finding the right balance is the challenge,” said Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.
To be sure, we’ve only seen the beginning of things to come all over Austin. But we have gotten a painful glimpse. Austin’s traffic already ranks as some of the worst in the U.S., and it’s bound to grow worse unless massive changes occur in our transportation system, such as the addition of the planned urban rail line.
“The pattern of booming population growth will surely continue to strain the city’s and metro area’s infrastructure,” Robinson said, “and will be felt most acutely within our transportation system as it struggles to keep up.”
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said transportation is top priority as the city copes with the continuing wave of growth. “Overall, we have planned well, but our biggest challenge really is transportation,” Leffingwell said. “We need to address traffic congestion, and we must invest in a robust and truly multimodal transportation system.”
Leffingwell and other city leaders say Austin’s multimodal system must provide convenient, dependable ways for people to travel by train, bus, foot and car.
Another of Leffingwell’s concerns: making sure people can afford to live in Austin. Apartment rents and home prices in Austin continue to climb at some of the fastest rates in the country. Affordable housing, coupled with reliable transportation, are crucial when it comes to creating, attracting and retaining jobs, he said. “People must be able to depend on reliable transportation to get to their jobs,” the mayor said, “and they must be able to afford to live near their jobs.”
Lew Little, chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and CEO of Austin-based Harden Healthcare, said other pressing issues related to the city’s growth include water, electricity and education. Little said a regional approach must be taken toward growth-oriented issues. He acknowledged regional cooperation can be difficult but said it represents “the only real hope for meaningful progress.”
“Let’s find something we can all agree on to address, like trying to reduce congestion on I-35. Easy solutions have already been attempted with limited success. It is time for heavy lifting for people throughout the region,” Little said. Little stressed that in discussing Austin’s growing pains, he’s expressing his own opinions and not those of the Chamber of Commerce.
Despite the influx of people into Austin from other Texas cities and other states, Leffingwell, Little and Robinson believe the city will hold onto its one-of-a-kind flavor — something that attracts many newcomers in the first place.
Leffingwell said: “You know, people have been hanging out at Barton Springs doing whatever it is they do for 10,000 years. Restaurant names, bar names, music styles, fashion all change from time to time. But the soul and the character of Austin remain the same. Finding the right balance is the challenge.”
“When people ask if Austin is losing its character, I prefer to think that it is evolving,” said Little. “We, as a community, must be open to change. If we have learned anything over the last 20 to 30 years, it is that people will continue to come despite any effort to stop them. We have to try to get ahead of the growth so that our future generations will not be worried about the same issues.”
By: John Egan at Austin Culture Map