Special Report: Local 'Old Austin' vibe slipping away due to rising costs

"I just liked the culture, I like the feel of it, I liked who I became when I came here which was very cool," said Austin musician Alan Barnette.

Barnette owns Prima Dora on South Congress. The gift shop is basically one big love letter to the city he started visiting when places like the Armadillo World Headquarters reigned supreme.

"When I came up here in high school and college, it was at the tail end of all that so that's kind of where I wanted to keep it," Barnette said.

But "keeping it" doesn't seem to be an option. Places like Liberty Lunch are long gone -- but now "old Austin" spots like the 53-year-old El Azteca are also falling by the wayside due to the rising costs of doing business here.

There are some survivors though, like Krugers Jewelry.

"My rent is manageable because we've been renting from the same family since 1939 when my father opened this store," said David Kruger.

When you look at The Drag, there are very few "old Austin" remnants. The Wooten Barbershop has been there since 1964.  Current owner James Nelson started working at the shop in the early '90s.

"Well...it's changed a bunch.  We used to have a lot more parking right out front," Nelson said.

Nelson says the rent is not cheap but it's workable because like Kruger's they've had the same landlord for decades.

And the barber has a fairly positive view on recent changes to The Drag.

"They say there are over 13,000 more beds in West Campus than there was in '06 in 10 years.  And that's a whole lot of foot traffic that's available to us and to the little restaurants up and down the street here," Nelson said.

Even some newer businesses can't survive the outrageous rent like the Veteran-owned Brass House jazz club and a place that became an iconic part of the hip rebirth of South Congress -- Snack Bar.  No it's not old Austin per say but it is a mom and pop shop built into an old Austin landmark:  the Austin Motel.
Owner Bethany Andre says new property owners took over the motel and told her Snack Bar couldn't stay beyond their current lease.   

"Legally we could have stayed two more years.  But instead we chose to go ahead and leave early so that we could close properly," Andre said.
Even if Snack Bar had stuck around, Andre says the rent was coming to a boiling point.

"It was going in that direction.  I mean when we renewed our lease there was definitely significant increases over the next 3 years that were coming up...60% increase," she said.

Ward Tisdale with the Real Estate Council of Austin says it's just supply and demand.

"That's kind of where the city comes in at the government level.  They need to do a better job of approving plans and permits to keep things moving along...otherwise, rents are going to go up, leases are going to go up and citizens and businesses are going to suffer from that," he said.

"What's sad is with that comes the loss of the mom and pop quirky businesses that are here," Andre said.

Austin City Council Member Ora Houston's family moved here in the 1940's when she was just a baby. Where Houston once stood on her front porch, now stands the Amlie East Side apartments. I asked her if she too feels like Austin is losing it's local "old Austin" vibe.

"I think so. I think so and I'm not sure what we do to do a mid-course correction.  I think the dye is pretty much set. On some of the streets in District 1, one developer has purchased 35 parcels of land.  There's no way that the community can generate that kind of revenue to be able to do some protection for themselves,"  Houston said.

Houston says she's not anti-growth but she does have some serious concerns about what's happening to the city.

"We have to think about how do we then keep that that we love about this city at the same time manage what we're doing so that we don't outpace ourselves and that's the fear I have at this point.  A gentleman told me the other day 'we don't need to put our foot on the brake but we need to take our foot off the accelerator,'" Houston said.

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