Burgeoning burbs; Area's growth mostly outside Central Austin

By Andy Alford

Thursday, May 05, 2005
(Story originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on March 27, 2001)

During the past decade, Austin's urban core area reversed a 30-year trend of losing population, according to the 2000 census.
And while Austin was buoyed by the robust economy, it was growth in the suburbs that brought the most surprise. The growth clogged area roadways and taxed government services, but it also changed the ethnic and racial complexion of Central Austin neighborhoods, demographers say, because some people became more concerned about short commutes than about the color of their neighbors.
Each day over the past 10 years, the region saw its population grow by an average of 110 new people — increasing Central Texas' population by 403,536. One in 10 of Texas' 3.9 million new residents settled in Williamson, Hays, Travis, Bastrop or Caldwell counties.
The fastest growth in Travis County — which swelled 41 percent, or 235,873 residents — occurred in the northwest, driven by new subdivisions like River Place and Steiner Ranch. Parts of that area grew by more than 438 percent. Parts of Pflugerville more than tripled in size, as did much of far East and Northeast Austin.
Newcomers included people like Ana Ortiz de Montellano, who with her husband chose three years ago to retire to a lakeside home in West Lake Hills, leaving the harsh winters of Michigan.
"We hated the snow. We wanted a more pleasant climate. We wanted a place with a good cultural setting," said Ortiz de Montellano, whose home also overlooks Emma Long Metropolitan Park. "It's such a pretty location, and that's what we wanted. I have visions of growing old here, sitting on my porch and taking in the lake."
One western Travis County area, along Barton Creek and Texas 71, grew 170 percent since 1990. Some Southwest Austin subdivisions grew by as much as 134 percent.
"I hate to admit it, but the region sprawled more than I thought it had," said Ryan Robinson, the City of Austin's demographer. "I was certain that you'd have this significant urban core population increase along with a suburban population increase. The urban core held its own, but there was not as much growth in light of the suburban growth. The suburban growth was overwhelming."
Part of the city's growth is because Austin added to its population by annexing 42,510 acres, which added 52,329 residents since 1990, city officials say.
As the population blooms along Interstate 35, the "hop distance" between Austin and other nearby urban centers — like Round Rock and San Marcos — shrinks.
"We're tied closer to Austin than we ever have been," said Round Rock City Manager Bob Bennett. "Physically, the cities have grown together. We're doing a lot more transportation and highway planning. It just seems to me like during the latter part of the '90s, Austin began to assume a greater leadership role . . . because of that, regional efforts are more of a reality than they ever have been in the past."
About 61,136 residents, nearly twice as many as in 1990, live in Round Rock, where tax revenues are exceeding expectations thanks to commercial as well as residential growth. "We were growing pretty good when Dell showed up," Bennett said, "but when they showed up, the growth curve really took off."
More detailed census figures to be released in June will provide more information on who's living in Central Texas — such as the number of men, women, families and homeowners. For now, demographers can only estimate why some areas have grown so much and others haven't.
Communities in flux
While some areas are apparently deluged by young families, working professionals and retirees, others seem to be just holding on.
A part of southern Travis County that includes San Leanna lost about 6.3 percent of its population.
Many central East Austin neighborhoods, from Town Lake to East 12th Street, either lost residents or grew less than 2.8 percent. Del Valle, which recently became the home of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, lost 52 percent of its residents when the Air Force moved out.
However, city officials say the urban core neighborhoods — roughly contained by Ben White Boulevard, Loop 360 and U.S. 183 — are as stable as they've been in decades.
"It's generally what I expected," said Austan Librach, director of Austin's transportation, planning and design department. Librach oversees the city's Smart Growth program, which seeks to encourage growth away from environmentally sensitive land out west and toward areas already supplied with road and utility infrastructure.
"We've had a tremendous amount of growth in the Austin area, and the vast majority is suburban," Librach said. City planners explain that land and homes are cheaper on the fringes of the city, luring middle-class families. "What we've done in the urban core is just a drop in the bucket."
Austin communities along South Congress Avenue and South First Street became more diverse as non-Hispanic whites moved in to traditionally Hispanic neighborhoods, Robinson said. And market values within the urban core and west of I-35 are at a premium, selling for 17.9 percent to 125 percent more than the city median home price of $156,950.
Apartments built along Pleasant Valley Road and Riverside Drive in the Montopolis area have brought more young white college students, also changing the complexion of that part of town, he said. Meanwhile, black residents in the St. John's community in North Austin are increasingly sharing their blocks with Hispanic neighbors.
Omer Galle, a University of Texas sociology professor, said some of the patterns revealed in the census numbers remind him of the Clarksville neighborhood of Central Austin — once a black enclave — in the 1970s. Then the neighborhood school, Mathews Elementary, was almost equally black, white and Hispanic, he said. Now, blacks make up about 14 percent of the student body. Gentrification of Clarksville has meant that most run-down homes have been remodeled or replaced with houses that can sell for upwards of $300,000.
"There's not much left of Clarksville now," Galle said. "It's as good an example as any of that process (gentrification)."

You may contact Andy Alford at aalford@statesman.com or (512) 445-1774.

Fastest-growing cities in Central Texas
Cedar Park: Population 26,049, up 194 percent
Pflugerville: Population 16,335, up 183 percent
Bee Cave: Population 656, up 176 percent
Kyle: Population 5,314, up 133 percent
Leander: Population 7,596, up 123 percent
Lago Vista: Population 4,507, up 98.5 percent
Round Rock: Population 61,136, up 93.7 percent
Lakeway: Population 8,002, up 90.3 percent
Georgetown: Population 28,339, up 75.8 percent
Austin: Population 656,562, up 41 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, City of Austin

Original Austin American-Statesman article may be seen at
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