As downtown Austin continues to transform, this small corner of downtown in the Rainey neighborhood has seen a large portion of the local growth, presenting significant opportunities and challenges for the area.
Once a quieter Hispanic residential community, the Rainey area is now an urban area of high-rises, a thriving entertainment strip and lakeside recreational access. Still, many of the related pressures faced by residents and visitors are now back at the forefront.
Residents of the region have expressed concern over the years about the impact of local changes, including the pace of new construction in top destinations. Recent drowning deaths at Lady Bird Lake, extended street closures and more development plans are examples of local issues that have not been fully resolved.
“Raney Street is not what Rainey Street was 10, 20, 30 years ago. It’s evolving,” said Zo Qadri, a council member and district representative. “I think it’s important to make sure – growth is very important – but make sure we actually listen to these concerns of the people who live there or close to them.”
Rush to Rainey
The image of the area has shifted vertically, but stakeholders in the area say now may be peak development, with more than 4 million square feet of new construction underway.
Current ongoing projects include a 16-story hotel on East Avenue, the long-awaited Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center extension, and several living or mixed-use spaces such as waterline— will be the tallest tower in Texas at more than 1,000 feet. Austin Energy There is also a $30 million investment in a new substation on Lambie Street to power new growth.
Paseo broke ground in February, bringing a new look to its 80 Rainey Street property while also keeping its past intact. The 48-storey high-rise only moved forward after the developer agreed to avoid destroying parts of the historic district by relocating old bungalows on the property into restaurants or bars.
“While Rainey’s landscape has changed in recent years, its character and appeal remain steadfast. Preserving the history and authenticity of the Rainey community is important to us,” said Lauren Leigh, director of marketing for the developer. Lauren Little says LV Collective.
for Sapphire Grocery The owners, building enough demand at their Rainey location—now their busiest—decided to open a second store less than half a mile away.
“It took a long time; it cost a lot of money, but we are glad we have it because we know it will only grow as those buildings are completed there,” said co-owner Craig Staley.
Even at the height of construction activity, with more projects being proposed, it’s not over yet.
“Despite a slowdown in newly announced projects in the area, there is significant potential for future growth once current active projects are delivered and absorbed by the market,” the Downtown Austin Alliance, which oversees the downtown and represents local property owners, said in a statement.
Rainey’s economic and cultural prosperity was not without its problems, however. Dana Evans has owned a space at The Shore for more than five years, but said local damage has made it “almost uninhabitable”. He moved to Leander while he waited for the area to settle down so he could sell his house.
Crossing the Rainey area is often difficult as alcoholics, scooters and heavy vehicles clog sidewalks and roads. During events such as the South by Southwest Conference and Festival at the nearby convention center, the situation will be more difficult and compounded by road closures related to ongoing construction.
The area is only accessible via Red River Street or the I-35 frontage, but Red River is closed for construction of the Waterline.
“These huge tall buildings are having a major impact. …We seem to be in this forever and have no relief from the traffic,” Evans said.
Community meetings on such area issues ended up being one of the most well-attended events for Kadri’s office since he took office, with residents sharing questions about mobility, such as how emergency vehicles pass quickly in the event of an accident, he said. Transit planners are also focusing on the area’s “biggest current challenge” in building, said Cristal Corrales, a spokesman for Austin’s Department of Transportation and Public Works (TPW).
“TPW is trying to balance the existing mobility needs of the community with the right-of-way closure request to accommodate construction plans,” she said in an email. “TPW wants contractors to be able to complete construction as quickly as possible while still maintaining existing residents and user safety and mobility.”
Austin is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to improve the I-35 underpass and will realign the Red River intersection on East Cesar Chavez Street after the Waterline is completed. But a short-term fix isn’t in the works.
A 2020 pilot scheme to block traffic during rush hour in Rainey has not received local support or proven to be effective, and the concept has not returned. Corrales said plans to expand the Red River behind Rainey were also put on hold after area stakeholders “made it clear” that they opposed the project.
Balancing Security and Growth
Residents and officials are also keeping a close eye on public safety around Rainey, given the area’s rising population and popularity.
In 2023, two bodies were found at Lady Bird Lake at the southern tip of the area, following several drowning deaths in the lake in recent years. Community members rallied for weeks after the incident to defend the area and prompted swift action from city leaders.
“We all know this city is popular for its entertainment district, nightlife and entertainment, and I’m here to make sure my friend’s life wasn’t lost in vain, and to promote safety for community members near the Rainey Street Historic District,” Drowning Sean Bereson, a friend of victim Jason John, told the council in April.
Kadri went on to pass a resolution calling for safety upgrades and planning, with special consideration for Rainey’s Bar District’s location near the lake and hiking and biking trails. The city parks department also rolled out interim measures, including installing new signage, lighting and fencing in the area, and increasing public safety patrols over the weekend.
The installation of permanent cameras, a new local security plan and further coordination with the Rainey pub on security could also be on the horizon.
The city continues to weigh safety and mobility outcomes in the area, and construction cranes will continue to exist for years to come. But even with local concerns and mixed reviews of the area’s development, stakeholders, including Staley, say they want the best for growing pains in the end.
“We’re part of all the buzz that’s going on,” he said. “I can only imagine that when all these towers are open and the streets are open again, there will just be non-stop hustle. To me, that’s what makes a city a city.”