Austin famously has a “missing middle” of housing. There are high-rise residential towers downtown, VMU along major corridors, and, most of the rest is zoned single-family-only, where even modestly denser homes like rowhomes are disallowed. But one neighborhood has, with far less fanfare than downtown condo towers or corridor VMU, remade itself into Austin’s premier dense, urban, walkable, midrise place. In this neighborhood, 4-story apartment buildings are built with little fuss or publicity and single-family homes sit in happy coexistence with vertical mixed use next door. It is a neighborhood far more people think they know than actually do: West Campus.
In 2004, Austin took a bold move toward walkable urbanism when it created the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO), an “overlay” zoning district in West Campus. In this overlay, parcels can be developed according to their original zoning, or by the overlay zoning. The overlay zoning added both new entitlements: the right to build taller, to build mixed-use, to build greater impervious cover (i.e. cover more of the lot in building or concrete rather than grass.) For developers, these great entitlements came along with great responsibilities: fairly detailed design guidelines for both buildings and sidewalk amenities like street trees and benches. Neighborhood shops (less than 6000sf) were not required to provide any parking–after all, most of their customers and employees are local neighborhood residents. Residential developers could provide significantly less parking than they are required to in other neighborhoods, as long as they set some of the units aside for low income households or provided room for car-sharing facilities.
Although the costs imposed by these responsibilities are not trivial, the demand for housing in this neighborhood was so great that developers rushed in to create new apartments, shops, and sidewalks. With only one brief pause during the financial crisis, they are still building to this day.
The buildout didn’t happen according to a very specific plan. In this, it is unlike Mueller or the Domain, where master developers created master plans for a large, empty tract, then set out to build them piece by piece. Instead, individual developers have located spots to create a building, built, and then repeated the process over and over. Many of the least productive parcels were
developed first: empty lots, decrepit homes, surface parking lots. But there have also been replacements of outdated homes–as well as some homes that could have lived longer, but were in ideal locations to be built on. The neighborhood as it stands today retains architecturally diversity: old 1970s apartment buildings sit next to single family houses, which in turn sit next to new buildings from the UNO era. Even the UNO buildings retain some architectural individuality within the prescribed design guidelines.
Just as these apartment complexes with in-unit amenities have been built out, so too have the neighborhood amenities provided by the apartment developers: wide sidewalks, street trees, benches, fancy street lamps. Corner convenience stores provide basic needs. A new FreshPlus urban-sized grocery market is about to open at 24th and San Gabriel (pictured in gallery below). Bars, churches, bike shops, tanning salons, optometrists, dessert shops, and more restaurants than can be counted are all embedded within the neighborhood.
So why do I call this centrally-located neighborhood “secret?” For one, it is oriented entirely toward students and non-students have little reason to venture in. Apartment complexes provide services that few non-students would take up: roommate-matching services, meal plans, direct billing to parents, residential advisors. Convenience stores stock product aimed at the student market, like bundled Solo-cup-and-ping-pong-ball beer pong sets.
For two, generations of Austinites have lived in West Campus and many have an outdated idea of what it looks like. Each new year brings so many new apartment complexes, so many new sidewalks, and so much more retail. West Campus has always been student-oriented and it has always been more walkable and bikeable than other Austin neighborhoods, so if you have been there 5 years ago, you may believe you understand what that means when people describe it as such. But unless you have been there recently, it’s difficult to grasp how much more West Campus has moved in each of these directions.
I recognize that West Campus isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Most adults wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood where the overwhelming majority of residents are 18-24 years old. But there are plenty of adults who wish they could live in a neighborhood built very much like West Campus–midrise, walkable both on the inside and to nearby attractions, retail and residential on the interior–only with a wider age range of residents and therefore a different commercial orientation.
Now, if you’ve made it this far, you get a gallery of pictures from my walk of the neighborhood with my friend Kelly: