North Loop is Latest Austin Neighborhood to Get a Face Lift

It doesn’t take a lifelong North Austin resident to see the changes happening in the North Loop neighborhood. Just a little over a year ago, getting a cheap beer and a slice at The Parlor has become getting a craft beer and a burger at Workhorse. A little east, combing through racks of vintage women’s wear at Montage is now sipping a cocktail at gastropub Drink.Well.

For better or worse, over the past few years North Loop has become one of Austin’s hottest neighborhoods, making those who live and work there both excited and cautious.

In city planning definitions, North Loop is the neighborhood between North Lamar and Airport, Koenig and 51st Street. It was originally populated by two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalows built for GIs returning from World War II. Over the past few years, many of those houses have been renovated or torn down and built again, only much bigger, and more multi-family residences are being built as increasing numbers of renters come to the neighborhood.

For example, a new construction permit was issued in mid-October for a four-story, 28-unit apartment complex along Waller

Creek on 51st Street. A vertical mixed use building featuring 186 apartment units is already under construction at the site of a razed strip mall at North Loop and North Lamar. And along North Loop just east of Lamar, several multi-unit houses have recently been constructed where there were previously small single-family houses. Why the booming interest in North Loop now?

“In simple terms, it’s the central location, plus this opportunity created by the fact that five years ago, it was undervalued,” said Ryan Robinson, demographer for the City of Austin. “There is a whole lot of vibrancy in the neighborhood that I don’t think you saw even two or three years ago.”

The rising cost of houses in the North Loop area would support Robinson’s idea. Between 2009 and data available so far for 2012, the average price for a two-bedroom home in North Loop has jumped up by more than $60,000, to $311,000.

Although there are still plenty of people who have been living in the neighborhood for decades, the demographic of the homebuyer is changing, said JoAnne McKinney of Violet Crown Realty. More professionals in their early 30s are buying in the neighborhood, staying until they start expanding their families and then moving to the suburbs.

“This area is really trendy and there are a lot of first time buyers and career people,” she said, adding that North Loop “is a nice jumping off spot that allows you to be in Central Austin.”

That desire to live in Central Austin is exactly what’s driving people to North Loop, which Robinson calls one of the last affordable central neighborhoods in a city with a quickly expanding population and a lack of affordable central housing to meet it. North Loop is starting to experience some of what East Austin has been seeing for the last decade, he says.

“East Austin as a whole is growing like crazy because it’s close to downtown and has historically been undervalued,” he said. “North Loop doesn’t have that extreme undervaluation, but you could say it’s one of the last few remaining affordable central city neighborhoods. That’s changing because it’s changing as a whole in Austin.”

That affordability is one of the reasons Maitland Lederer, a software engineer at hometown video game developer BioWare, chose to move from South Austin to North Loop this year.

“We chose this neighborhood for a few reasons. A big one was that it seemed like we could get a lot more space for our money here than on the south side, where we were, and we both work on the north side of the city, so that was a factor,” she said. “It was a good balance of convenience and price.”

Close proximity to local shops and bars was another big factor in her decision to move, Lederer said. In just a few years, the North Loop strip has gone from few refreshment locations, like the 24-hour Epoch Coffeehouse, which also sells beer, and the now-closed location of The Parlor, to upscale dining at Foreign & Domestic, craft beer and cocktails at Drink.Well., mixology creations at The Tigress and beer and pub fare at Workhorse.

Pam Pritchard, a California transplant, opened The Tigress in 2010. Just a couple weeks later, Foreign & Domestic opened down the street. Pritchard looked all over town for the right neighborhood that had a specific mix before opening The Tigress.

“I was looking for a neighborhood, as opposed to a downtown area. I was looking for the demographic of people in the 30- to 60-year-old range who might enjoy cocktails. I was looking at the proximity to the University and to Hyde Park,” she said. “I just thought North Loop was a great spot and that it was so underutilized and had so much potential.”

Of course, North Loop's underutilized potential is now getting to a saturation point. Although Pritchard said the neighborhood is changing and becoming more of a destination, she doesn’t see it going the route of East Sixth, for example.

“The way the neighborhood is set up, I don’t think many more businesses could move in here. The uniqueness of North Loop has to do with its limited capacity as well,” she said. “Perhaps some of the vintage clothing shops might become other kinds of shops, but as far as restaurants and bars are concerned, I think we’re at the top. There’s just limited space.”

Still, there are concerns from residents that the popularity of the neighborhood could change its identity. For example, an application to change the zoning of a property at the corner of Sunshine and Houston (on the outskirts of North Loop but technically in Brentwood) was recently shot down after the neighborhood association rallied against the idea. Developers wanted to put in several hundred apartments where there is currently a couple of houses, a vacant lot and a car lot owned by the Texas State Troopers Association. Neighbors felt like the leap from a couple of houses to a large complex was too sudden.

After only one year in her current residence, Lederer said she has some concerns about rent increasing. “I do think the neighborhood is changing a bit. It's becoming a bit more upscale,” she said. “Some houses definitely look nicer than others.”

This is all to be expected as more people want to live in the center of a vibrant city, Robinson said. North Loop is just experiencing this trend a little later than other neighborhoods around town.

“The kind of people who are attracted to Austin are interested in alternative lifestyles, alternative ways to get to work, they’re involved in the creative industries and they want to be in the action,” he said. “North Loop isn’t just hip and young; it also represents the incoming streams of people coming to Austin – they want to ride their bike to a club, they want to walk to a coffee shop. People are embracing that whole idea of the urban lifestyle right now.”

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