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business/tech Saturday, December 11

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Lofty aspirations

By Sheryll Poe
American-Statesman Staff
Saturday, December 11, 1999

Take a walk with 40-something software developer and entrepreneur Murray Freeman. Go for morning coffee at Ruta Maya on Fourth Street. Take a stroll on the Town Lake hike-and-bike trail. Walk with him to his office at the Bank One building.

Freeman is a downtown dweller, a loft-liver, if you will, who calls the Railyard on Fourth Street home.

When most people think of lofts, they think of warehouses converted into cheap living quarters for artists and musicians. But lofts in Austin are anything but cheap, with prices ranging from the low $100,000s to $450,000.

"That's what the concept was, but this is not starving artists' quarters. Those days are over even in New York," said Freeman, gazing out of his 1,600-square-foot loft. "When I think of lofts, I think of vertical living space. Because I'm tall, an 8-foot ceiling above me is not attractive at all."

Freeman bought one of the renovated lofts at the Railyard 18 months ago. "I bought a one-bedroom first, lived there for 16 months, liked it a lot and bought more space," he said.

More space, to Freeman, is a three-bedroom loft with clean, modern lines and neutral furniture.

But living downtown is not all soaring ceilings and city lights.

"When you live downtown, you basically take the advantages with the disadvantages," Freeman said.

One of those disadvantages is noise, as Billy Marcus found out when he moved into the Avenue Lofts at Fifth and Neches streets in August. Marcus, who works out of his loft, hears the construction at the Austin Convention Center expansion on one side of his ground-floor loft. And directly across the street is the City of Austin's Fire Station No. 1.

"In the beginning, the Fire Department was mildly disturbing, but you get used to it. I don't notice it anymore," Marcus said.

Also mildly disturbing, he said, are the twice-nightly trash pickups for Pete's Piano Bar and other Sixth Street establishments.

But many residents say that's the price to be paid for living downtown.

"With any urban living situation, you have typical street noises, such as rubbish trucks," said Nancy Burns, who has lived in the Brown Building lofts on West Seventh Street since January.

"Occasionally, on the weekend, there will be signs of some partying," she said. "If I were closer to the entertainment area, I'm sure that might be more of a problem. The big payoff is not having to commute."

Freeman agreed, adding that he has an alternative transportation option right below his window. The noise in his loft comes from city buses pulling up at the corner of Brazos and Fourth streets.

With 2,138 living units available downtown and almost 1,200 more announced, the trend in downtown living shows no signs of slowing down, said Ron Brinkley, a listing broker with Re/Max Austin Skyline Realtors.

"The market was right for lofts in Austin," he said. "The City Council has been pushing hard for Smart Growth. That's happening in all the cities right now. The projects that have come up, people are grabbing them up."

Sutton Lofts Inc., which has two loft buildings downtown -- Brazos Lofts and Avenue Lofts -- also has another three projects in the works.

The Reddy Ice building has been under contract for the past 2 1/2 years, and construction is set to start in about six months.

Another project, at Fifth and Guadalupe streets, possibly to be called Parkside Lofts, is set for construction in the spring. The seven- to eight-story mixed-use retail, office and residential property will include 70 to 100 condominiums and three levels of parking.

Mac Pike and partner V. Buster Hoffmaster of Sutton Lofts have been building lofts in Austin since 1996.

"Our concept is the loft," Pike said, "and the market will stand a bunch more downtown."

But instrumental to the growth of downtown as an attractive living option is the availability of goods and services, Pike said.

"There are not enough services, no retail," he said. "It's lacking a small local grocery. There are plenty of nice restaurants, but not enough retail."

Mike Knox of the City of Austin planning department attributes the lack of shopping to the small size of the downtown population.

"A lot of this depends on how many people you can affect," Knox said. "As you get more people downtown, you'll get more retail. It's the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome."

Knox said 150,000 square feet of the Computer Sciences Corp. project under way on Second Street, between Colorado and San Antonio streets, has been set aside for retail, but no shops have yet been specified. A small grocery store, with video rentals and dry cleaning, is a possibility, he said.

Burns said she is looking forward to more shopping options. "I have hopes for a grocery store and some retail shopping. I look forward to the point when we have that with the revitalization," she said.

Parking is not a problem for loft-livers, but in most cases their guests have to compete for spaces with restaurant and entertainment patrons.

"I have guaranteed parking, but on Saturdays after 7 p.m., parking outside is full," Freeman said, pointing to the row of meters available outside the Railyard.

Parking is a problem Marcus has faced as well.

"It's a problem for people who come over. They have to get here before 7 p.m. to get a spot. Sometimes you have to get creative," he said.

Despite the heavy evening and weekend traffic and the sometimes raucous atmosphere, many downtown residents say they are impressed by how safe the area is.

"We have security, although I'm not sure we need it because there are so many police," Freeman said.

Burns agreed. "I've gone out at night walking and never been bothered."

But some residents say the result of living near the entertainment district is having to live with the entertainment district's trash.

Kevin Quakenbush, a retiree from Round Top who lives in the Railyard, said he enjoys the action downtown but could live without the beer bottles he sometimes sees on the sidewalk outside the Railyard, especially after a University of Texas football game.

"There are so many broken glass bottles within two feet of here, especially longnecks. Texans love their longnecks." he said.

And while many residents say downtown is safe, they do have to deal with people loitering or peeking in windows.

Marcus lives in a ground-floor loft. "I get riffraff walking by all the time, people looking in," he said. "I think they are trying to find a party. I definitely need shades on the windows."

Quakenbush moved into his 1,230-square-foot loft five months ago. He said he is approached by a panhandler about once a month. "There are, from time to time, homeless people straggling through. I walk my dog, and there are people asleep in the alley," he said.

But he said the passers-by and panhandlers are part of city life. "If it bothers you, you shouldn't live downtown."

Builder Mac Pike pointed out, "People who are living here love downtown, love the vibrancy."

Nancy Burns is one of those who loves her neighborhood.

"I can go down to Town Lake or the Capitol for a walk. I'd recommend it for anyone. I think it's great living downtown."

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