New Year's Eve: 100,000 People Expected Downtown

Austin’s First Night New Year’s Eve celebration is expected to draw 100,000 people downtown for a full day and evening of activities celebrating the arts in Austin. Starting at 3 pm and stretching until fireworks ring in the new year, First Night is Austin’s biggest party of the year.

For Austin residents who long for a more vibrant downtown, filled with people, art, and activities, News Year’s Eve is the one day where downtown Austin fills to capacity and lives up to its highest potential. To make 100,000 people fit downtown, To make it all work, the city is working overtime to coordinate public transportation, law enforcement, and parking logistics.

With sky-high hotel prices and endless taxi lines, New Year’s Eve will be a great day to live downtown.

More information is available at

Las Manitas Quickly Demolished

No downtown Austin project is more controversial than the mammoth Marriott complex between 2nd and 3rd between Congress and Brazos. The massive and thoroughly unispiring project has many enemies across the city for many reasons. First, the project is large and architecturally mediocre. Second, the project lacks a plan to extend the retail streetscape on a critical downtown block. Finally, it displaced a number of beloved local businesses including the restaurant Las Manitas, the folk art store Tesoros trading company, as well as a downtown daycare center.

Although the global economic crisis has delayed the $275 million 1,000 room project, the existing storefronts were demolished this week. Now, the critical block at the intersection of Congress Avenue, the Second Street District, and the Convention Center district will lay empty. The Marriott compex has managed to eliminate three core businesses from Congress street with no future project in site. Fortunately, Tesoros has reopened on South Congress, the day care center is moving, and Las Manitas is expected to open at some point in the future in a different building on the same block.

Las Manitas Demolition (Photo by Paul D’Arcy)
Las Manitas Paul D'Arcy Copyright


Uh Oh. Austin Homes Sales Fall 39% in November, Prices Down 3%

Last month, at the peak of the national economic crisis (so far), Austin home sales dropped 39% from last November, dropping from 1,805 units in 2007 to 1,086 today. During the same one year period, the median sales price fell 2.9% from $185,200 to $179,900.

In looking at this data, it’s the sales volume that is the big news -- much more so than the small price drop. From a volume perspective, last month was the weakest November in 11 years. The number of transactions was roughly half the number 2-years ago during the 2006 market peak. While median sales prices dropped 3% year-over-year, it’s important to note that median price changes do not necessarily mean that home values have changed. The median price factors home sales prices and the mix of sales. So, if prices increase slightly but sales boom for inexpensive houses while sales fall on expensive house, the median price will likely decrease while house values may actually go up. In the current market, we’re seeing both ends of the market under unusual pressures: new home buyers have trouble getting credit and high-end houses are being hurt by very high jumbo mortgage rates.

The rapid drop in sales volume clearly reflects uncertainty about the ongoing economic crisis. While many forces effect sales --consumer confidence, mortgage rates, credit availability, net migration, and local employment --it is important to note that mortgage rates have dropped to a nearly 40-year low since the end of November, providing a very strong reason for buyers to jump back into the market and reverse the November trend.

For historical context, the following table shows November sales volumes and median sales prices in the Austin MLS for the last 15 years:

Year # Sold Median $
2008 1,086 $179,000
2007 1,771 $185,200
2006 2,141 $172,200
2005 1,975 $167,900
2004 1,630 $147,500
2003 1,362 $151,500
2002 1,304 $149,800
2001 1,388 $152,400
2000 1,245 $148,000
1999 1,340 $130,800
1998 1,222 $119,300
1997 1,004 $113,600
1996 861 $109,400
1995 928 $103,200
1994 727 $ 98,100


The numbers reinforce the point that sales volumes have dropped dramatically -- to 1997 levels -- while median prices have dipped just slightly, behind only last years record levels. Read More...

Downtown Water Treatment Plant Decommissioned, New Neighborhood to Emerge

For those who feel that the heart of downtown Austin is the aging Green water treatment plant, today is a sad day. After 83 years, the Green plant has been decommissioned as a first step to redevelopment of the prime site just north of Ladybird lake.

With the removal of the plant, the City begins ones of its most important and ambitious urban redevelopment projects. Over the next few years, the City and developer Trammell Crow will remove the plant and replace it with large scale multi-use development that restores the natural street grid. In fact, Trammell Crow was selected because they proposed the most dense and ambitious plan for the site

When the project is complete, as many as five high-rise buildings - some as tall as 40-stories -- will be added to the Austin skyline. In addition, a new retail district will connect the 2nd street district to the Seaholm development, creating a vibrant new downtown region which will draw many more residents, workers, and visitor downtown for shopping, dining, and entertainment.

Renderings of Proposed Green Water Treatment Plant Redevelopment

The Trammell Crow proposal for the Green site includes the following components: Read More...

Higher & Higher: Austonian Keeps Going Up

Each week, 55 truckloads of concrete and 50 tons of structural steel are added to the structure of the Austonian, growing what will be the tallest building in Austin by one more floor. This week, the Austonian hit the half-way point -- the 28th floor was poured ad the project continues on its march to completion in 2010.

Since it has been a little while, here are the key facts on the Austonian:

Height of Building: 683 feet; 56 stories

Gross Area Square Feet: 850,000

Total Residential Area Square Feet: 600,000

Total Number of Units: 188

Unit Size: 1,221 to 8,379 square feet

Shared Amenities: Over 40,000 square feet

Price Range: $559,000 to $8M+

Amenities: 24-hour concierge and security services, 24-hour valet service, housekeeping, dry cleaning and laundry services, Lobby-level retail, Secure climate controlled wine storage, Billiard room, 4 Guest suites, Private spa treatment rooms, Screening room with seating for 12, Conference room, Swimming pool, fitness center.

The Austonian under Construction (D’Arcy)

Here is the summary from the Statesman:

Mortgage Rates Dropping, Treasury Plan Aims to Push Rates Down, Down, Down

Before the economy entered a total nosedive, the first signs of real estate problems began with the credit crunch and out-of-control mortgage rates. Starting 18 months ago, mortgage rates began to spike -- especially for jumbo loans over $417,000.

Over the last few weeks, mortgage rates have dropped significantly. While jumbo loans are higher, lending standards are stricter, and down payments are required, rates are once again becoming very attractive. According to Zillow, the average rate on a conventional 30-year loan is now 5.42%. On 15-Year loans the rate is now 5.11% -- and some 15-year loans can even be found for under 5%. Jumbo loans, however, still remain well over 6%.

As mortgages continue to drop, the Treasury Department has begun to circulate a proposal for the government to boost the sagging U.S. real estate market by backing programs that would drop 30-year conventional mortgage rates nationally to as low as 4.5% for new home purchases. These rates would mark historic lows and would certainly drive new buyers into the market.

For downtown Austin, falling rates and new low rate programs would certainly spur demand, helping to fill out vacancies in many of the projects currently under development. These changes would be unlikely, however, to effect the tight commercial credit and investment markets, still making it hard for developers to bring new unfunded projects to market.

Here is the summary of the Treasury program from CNN:

NEW YORK ( -- Lobbyists are pushing the Treasury Department to consider a plan to purchase mortgage-backed securities in the hopes of driving mortgage rates to as low as 4.5%, an industry source said.

Kevin Burns Interview: Expert Analysis of the Downtown Austin Condo Market

Today, AustinTowers is very lucky to have the opportunity to interview Kevin Burns, the visionary founder of urbanspace Realtors. Kevin is a long-time downtown resident and a true expert on the downtown Austin condo market.

Founded just 8 years ago, urbanspace has made its name as the most important downtown-focused real estate agency. In this short period of time, it has grown to become one of the most successful agencies in the city.

Urbanspace was AustinTowers first sponsor and we have been working hard to get Kevin to sit down and share his insights on the local market.

Kevin Burns Urbanspace Realtors Austin
Kevin Burns
urbanspace CEO & Broker

Here is transcript of our interview with Kevin Burns:

How long have you lived in Austin?

I have lived in Austin for over 13 years. I came here in 1995 to attend the University of Texas. I fell in love with this city and never left. I earned my real estate license in 1997 between my sophomore and junior years at UT. In 1999 I graduated from UT with a degree in economics along with a concentration in real estate investment and finance.
Where do you live?

I have lived in Austin’s urban core since 2000 when I founded urbanspace Realtors, LLP. I have owned and lived at the Talisman condominiums on Barton Springs, The Austin City Lofts, The Milago Condominiums, a home on south 3rd st 11 blocks from Lady Bird Lake and my next residence is at the W that I currently have under contract. I chose the W because of its proximity to Lady Bird Lake, Second Street Retail District, Whole Foods and the warehouse district. Furthermore, it offered the size unit that would allow my wife, two daughters and dog to live comfortably. I also like the design of the building, the layout of the units and access to the hotel amenities. Also not to forget the easy access to Austin City Limits below.
Why live downtown --- what are your favorite reasons to be downtown?

Why live downtown… There are so many reasons to live downtown. I have lived in both the suburbs and the urban environment. I choose downtown. Why, because of the quality of life that it affords. I hate sitting around behind my tv… when I live downtown there is always something to do. I like being around people… there are always people around in downtown. Because downtown is so pedestrian friendly, I seem to run into friends, business acquaintances and neighbors almost every time that I take a walk downtown. Chance encounters on the street are one of my favorite things and this happens all the time in downtown Austin. I like the convenience of downtown… I can walk, bike or drive to anything I need inside of a few minutes. I never have to go north of MLK or much south of Ben White. I love being able to get on the trail and be a part of nature while still being in the center of the action. You can buy whatever you need (and want) in downtown Austin now. That was not always the case…  I like being a regular at my favorite, restaurants and bars downtown that are just a short walk from home. I like the views from the buildings that I have lived in. I like not having to maintain a yard, take my trash cans to the curb, deal with a roof leak, etc… I like having a concierge accept packages, call my cabs, greet me at the door. I like the sense of security of being in a high rise. I like having a pool, spa and fitness facility at my disposal. I like the camaraderie of the different buildings. Each building has its own personality and style. I have found living in the different buildings that each one has afforded a different style, group of people, etc… some of my best friends I met because we lived in the same building. You do not seem to get that in the suburbs… In the W, I know half of the people that have purchased there… and they are all great, unique, interesting people… and they are all very different.
Whether size, view, or décor, what is the coolest downtown unit that you have seen?

Regarding my favorite residences in downtown… I have several picks. One of my favorites is PH22 at the Milago. It is a 2/2.5 with a study that has one of the best views of Lady Bird Lake and downtown. It was custom designed for the developer of Milago. The developer let his interior designer go all out with no expense spared. From the lighting and electronic curtains to the agate countertops and Miele appliances. Another one of my favorites is unit 102 at the Austin City Lofts. It is a unique first floor unit tucked away off of the street overlooking the pool and Shoal Creek. It is perched about 15 feet off the ground so it looks right at the bamboo and trees. You almost forget that you are downtown in this unit. The owner of this particular residence has traveled the world and brought back bits and pieces of his favorite places. From the 11’x11’ antique doors from India to the muralist from central Mexico to the modern clean lined cabinetry.
What led you to start urbanspace?

I founded urbanspace because I have always have loved urban environments. I grew up in downtown Charleston, West Virginia a block from the Capitol, next to the river and in the heart of the historic district. This is what I know. When I started my career in real estate, I did everything under sun. One day I was selling a ranch in Blanco County, the next I was doing a downtown commercial lease. I realized that if I was every going to become great at what I do, I had to focus, be passionate about what I was selling and most importantly become mayor of my zip code. Will Wynn has definitely given me a run for my money… The mixed use aspect of the urban core is what drives me. When I founded urbanspace there was very little product and variety to sell downtown, so I spent most of my time in the early days of my business advocating for downtown. It has now paid off…
How would you describe the different downtown lifestyles available to buyers?

Here is how I would describe the downtown lifestyles available in Austin:
High rise: The high rise lifestyle is rich in amenities, service and views. The floorplans are more traditional in nature with partitioned spaces. HOA fees are usually a bit higher, however you get what you pay for.

Low Rise: 
In many cases, fewer amenities, no concierge or doorman, stairs are the way you to your residences, etc. Floorplans vary from partitioned traditional spaces to open lofts. HOA fees are usually cheaper than highrises.

Open environment, usually in a converted building (adaptive reuse of an office or warehouse building). These spaces work well for singles and couples, not so much for families. They are great for entertaining, artists, etc… they can be found in high rise or low rise environments. Amenities vary based upon building.

Single family home:
Believe it or not there are quite a few single family home options in downtown. The advantage is you get a yard and you make all of the decisions about your property. The disadvantage is you have to make all of the decisions about your property.

Townhouse: a nice compromise between single family and highrise. If you need a yard, yet you do not want to deal with maintenance, this becomes a nice option.
How much interest do you see in downtown living?

Seems like everyone is at least curious about downtown living. I do not think it is for everyone, however I have found that downtown Austin is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Austin. I have also noticed that most people that try living downtown love it and stay. I continue to see very strong interest in downtown Austin, especially due to the increased number of options that have become available over the past few years.
Describe the typical downtown condo buyer?

The typical downtown condo buyer is anyone that enjoys being a part of a vibrant, convenient, pedestrian friendly neighborhood. Demographics are completely across the board. From singles to young families to empty nesters. The days of downtown being only for bachelors, artists and homeless people are long gone.

Why does a buyer need a realtor, can’t they just go sales office to sales office until they find the right unit?

A buyer can go directly into a condominium sales center without a Realtor, however I recommend working with a Realtor that is knowledgeable about downtown Austin. In many cases there can be substantial differences in value of a unit based upon a myriad of factors. A knowledgeable Realtor can help you through the process in finding the right you to fit the buyer’s needs. Furthermore, the Realtor can work as the buyer’s advocate through the process. I also feel that it is important to view multiple properties before buying so that you can make sure that you find the unit and building that fit your needs and personality best. A Realtor can show you all available properties in the marketplace.
What is different about buying a condo v. a single family residence?

There are several differences between buying a condo vs. a single family residence. It is very important to understand health of the Home Owner’s Association for a condominium project. Your value in a condo is directly tied to the condo project. If it is a desirable project, it can increase the value of the condo significantly. If it is not a desirable project or has a weak HOA you run the risk of the value of the condo being affected. The same holds true with which neighborhood you buy your single family home in. Other important things to consider when purchasing a condominium is the parking situation, views along with factors that could affect your view, HOA fees, etc…
What advice do you give people who are beginning their search for a downtown condo?

My advice to someone who is beginning their search for a downtown condo is to contact urbanspace. (or another knowledgeable downtown real estate company).
Can you share one fact that most people don’t know about the downtown condo market?

Each of the condominium projects are alive. They each have their own personality, strengths, weaknesses, etc… it is very important for a perspective buyer to figure out what is important to them and then learn about the personalities of each of the buildings before making a decision on which building to buy into.
Kevin, thank you again for your time! If you have further questions for Kevin, he can be reached here.

State of the Downtown Condo Market

Last week, the Statesman wrote a very strongly worded article suggesting the impending collapse of the downtown condo market. The article was based on the following assertions:

- With mortgages tough to get and consumer confidence eroding, it is a tough time to sell real estate
- The capital markets are a mess, making it difficult for new projects to get the financing they need to get off the ground
- Sales absorption has slowed as the economy has weakened

These comments are all true and all derivatives of a single fact: the national economy is a mess. Over the last few months, the financial markets have plunged, the government has invested $8 billion in bailouts, and U.S. real estate is experiencing an unprecedented erosion of value.

It is true, it is a very difficult time to be raising money for a project or selling real estate --- no matter who you are. The Austin economy and real estate market has eroded but still remains much stronger than similar markets in almost every other city in the country. And the problems here are the same whether you are selling a million dollar house in Barton Creek or a million dollar condo: fewer people think it is a good time to buy real estate.

What does this mean for the downtown condo market? Let me start by what it does not mean: it does not mean that the new buildings will never be filled, it does not mean additional buildings will never be built, and it does not mean condo values will plunge disproportionally. What it does mean is that the condo market is not isolated from the real estate problems facing the rest of the city, especially when it comes to million dollar units. In addition -- because condo projects take a long time to be built -- it means that the new units currently under construction will be all that is available for the next 2-3 years.

For buyers, the current market provides additional leverage. In this environment, buyers should be able to get price reductions or free upgrades in many of the projects. At this point, there is no fire sale: developers would prefer to wait out the market than give unbuilt units away.

As part of their survey of the market, the Statesman provided updated sales numbers for four of the largest projects:

360 - 96% under contract, 91% closed
Spring - 50% under contract
Four Seasons Residences - 50% under contract
W Hotel & Residences - 45% under contract

As usual, the Austonian did not provide any sales numbers. As we wrote in mid-2007, “It remains to be seen how many high end condo units can be absorbed by the Austin market. In the Austonian alone, there will likely be more than 100 units priced over $1 million -- that is a lot of inventory in one building. The project's construction budget alone is greater than $1 million per unit which should provide an indication of the average unit selling price.”

Here are key excerpts from the Statesman Article: