I have had quizzical reactions from Austinites when I suggest that Austin has no downtown. It’s true that high density condos are going in, and it’s true that there is a scattering of large commercial buildings in the center of town, but bricks don’t make a downtown.
In Jane Jacobs’ terms, an urban core is a “macro-destination”, (mentioned in passing in this interesting article about suburban governance) a place where one goes to do more than one thing. When I go to downtown Chicago, or downtown Montreal or Manhattan or even Ottawa or Madison, I park the car and walk around. Often I have several destinations in mind: restaurant, theatre, grocery, bookstore.
Every time I have gone to central Austin I have driven to my destination, done one thing, and left. I suppose there has been an occasion where Momo’s and Katz’s have been combined; these are actually places I go that are in the same building; a music club and what passes in Texas for a deli style restaurant.
Recently I combined a trip to BookPeople and the Whole Foods flagship store. Those are very close on the map, but the walk between them is sufficiently unpleasant and inconvenient that I found myself driving from one vast parking lot to the other. Admittedly this makes me part of the problem. In Toronto or Montreal or even Houston there would probably be a pleasant climate controlled pedestrian tunnel linking them, but that’s asking too much. In Madison or Ottawa, the walk between them would be short and pleasant, landscaped and decorated, attractive in itself. The idea of a five minute drive being less unpleasant than an absurdly circuitous fifteen minute walk mostly through huge parking lots and a pedestrian-hostile intersection just wouldn’t come up.
I believe that Austin, like any mostly post-automotive city in America, expects this behavior. To the extent that my hypotehsis is true it means that the urban density downtown is mostly theater. It’s not a macro-destination at all, just a dense cluster of microdestinations. Not surprisingly it has traffic problems.
Yes, the summers are wretched here, but eight months out of the year the climate is delightful. A little landscaping, a little attention to human scale, and a little less attention to the convenience of vehicles would go a long way toward pulling downtown together as a destination in itself. Unlike on the bicycle front, I think Austin is working hard toward this end. I just think it has a longer way to go than it likes to think.