May 3, 2024 - COVID

Austin's downtown is still in COVID recovery mode

Change in downtown visitor activity levels from March 2023 to February 2024
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Downtown defined as the central location with the highest concentration of employment in each metro area; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Austin's downtown saw a bump in activity between March 2023 and February 2024, per new University of Toronto data examining U.S. and Canadian cities.

Why it matters: The updated figures are one way to understand which cities are recovering and which are still struggling after the worst of the pandemic.

How it works: Researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities are using anonymized mobile device location data to estimate visitor activity in the downtown areas of dozens of North American cities.

  • They define "downtown" as the location in each metro area with the highest job concentration.

By the numbers: Austin's downtown visitor activity level was up nearly 8% over the time period examined, according to the researchers.

  • In 2023, average downtown visitor traffic was at 86% of 2019 levels, per an end-of-year report by the Downtown Austin Alliance.
  • Downtown's weekday population last year averaged 63% of 2019 levels, with hybrid workweeks the new norm that report found.

The big picture: By and large, downtowns nationally are recovering nicely — if slowly.

  • "Fifty downtowns are in an upward trajectory, while just 14 are trending downwards," per the researchers' latest update.

Zoom in: Austin's strategy of encouraging a multifaceted downtown is paying off.

  • Even as several office buildings have struggled to find tenants, restaurants and clubs, conventions and bachelor(ette) parties continue to draw visitors to central Austin.
  • Underpinning the downtown economy is a residential high-rise boom that translates into diners and shoppers all day and week.
  • The 41-story Vesper condo tower, for example, is newly complete in the Rainey Street District and is 67% sold, per Austin Towers. Four other residential towers are under construction in that neighborhood.

Yes, but: San Antonio (-17.5%) and Fort Worth (-9.4%) are among the cities that fell below their March 2023 figures, a sign of "stagnating recovery," according to the researchers.

💬 Our thought bubble: While city officials and business leaders might prefer to have a vibrant city center, the pandemic sparked lots of interesting and valuable activity in many cities' outer neighborhoods.

A rendering of an office building.
A rendering of The Republic office building. Image: Neoscape

What we're watching: Whether Austin's downtown is resilient enough to endure those commercial office vacancies.

  • Even as tech companies are backing out of leases, financial and legal services continue to work downtown — two law firms and Austin-based private equity firm Vista Equity Partners — have signed leases in The Republic, an office tower under construction by Republic Square.
  • The building, scheduled to open next year, is nearly 50% leased, according to building developers.
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