As Austin’s city center continues its revamp, the Rainey Street district’s small corner of downtown is seeing a large share of the local growth that’s bringing significant opportunities—and challenges—to the area.

The Rainey area, once a quieter Hispanic residential community, is now an urban sector brimming with high-rises, a thriving entertainment strip and lakeside recreation access. Still, many related pressures for residents and visitors are now coming back to the forefront.

Area residents have for years raised concerns over the effects of local changes, including the pace of new construction in the top destination. Recent drowning deaths in Lady Bird Lake, extended street closures and more development plans are examples of some local issues that are yet to be fully solved.

“Rainey Street is not the same Rainey Street it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. It’s ever evolving,” said Council Member Zo Qadri, the district’s representative. “I think it’s important to make sure that—growth is very important—but to make sure that we do listen to these concerns of people who live there or around there.”

Rush on Rainey

The area’s profile has already moved vertically, but area stakeholders said now is likely the peak of development with more than 4 million square feet of new construction underway.

Projects now in motion include a 16-story hotel on East Avenue, the long-awaited Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center expansion, and several living or mixed-use spaces such as Waterline—set to be Texas’ tallest tower at over 1,000 feet. Austin Energy also invested $30 million in a new substation on Lambie Street to power the new growth.

Paseo broke ground in February and is bringing a new look to its property at 80 Rainey St. while also preserving the past. The 48-story high-rise only moved forward after developers agreed to avoid wiping out pieces of the historic district by relocating old bungalows within the property to serve as eateries or bars.

“While the landscape of Rainey has changed over recent years, its character and attraction is unwavering. It’s important to us to keep the history and authenticity of the Rainey neighborhood alive,” said Lauren Little, marketing director for developer LV Collective.

For Royal Blue Grocery’s owners, enough demand built at their Rainey location—now their busiest—that they decided to open a second store less than a half mile away.

“It took a long time; it cost a lot of money, but we’re glad we have it because we know that it’ll only grow as those buildings get completed over there,” co-owner Craig Staley said.

Even at the height of building activity, the end is not in sight just yet with even more projects proposed.

“Despite the slowdown in newly announced projects in the area, there is robust potential for future development once the current crop of active projects have delivered and are absorbed by the market,” the Downtown Austin Alliance, which monitors downtown and represents local property owners, said in a statement.

Getting around

Rainey’s economic and cultural boom is not without some problems, however. Dana Evans has owned a space at The Shore condominiums for more than five years, but he said local disruptions made it “almost unlivable.” He moved to Leander while waiting for the area to settle down so he can sell his place.

Moving through the Rainey area is often difficult with bargoers, scooters and heavy vehicle traffic clogging sidewalks and roadways. It’s even harder during events such as South by Southwest Conference & Festivals or others at the nearby convention center, and further complicated by road closures related to in-progress construction.

The district is only accessible via Red River Street or off the I-35 frontage road, but Red River is closed for Waterline’s construction.

“These giant, tall buildings are having a significant impact. ... We’re in this forever, it seems like, and get no relief from the traffic,” Evans said.

A community meeting about such area issues ended up as one of the best-attended events Qadri’s office has held since he took office, he said, with residents sharing questions about mobility, such as how emergency vehicles could quickly move through if an incident arises. Cristal Corrales, a spokesperson for the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department, or TPW, said transportation planners are also paying attention to the “biggest current challenge” of construction in the district.

“TPW is trying to balance the existing mobility needs of the neighborhood with the right-of-way closure requests to accommodate construction plans,” she said in an email. “TPW would like to enable the contractors to finish construction as quickly as possible while still preserving the safety and mobility of existing residents and users.”

Austin is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to improve the I-35 underpass, and a realigned Red River intersection at East Cesar Chavez Street will follow Waterline’s completion. But short-term fixes aren’t in the works.

A 2020 pilot program to block car traffic on Rainey during busy hours wasn’t supported locally or found to be effective, and the concept has not returned. A planned extension of Red River behind Rainey was also shelved after area stakeholders “provided a clear message” that they oppose the project, Corrales said.

Balancing safety and growth

Residents and officials are also paying close attention to public safety around Rainey given the area’s rising population and popularity.

Two bodies have been found in Lady Bird Lake at the south end of the district in 2023 following several other drowning deaths there in recent years. In the aftermath, community members rallied for weeks to secure the area and prompt action from city leaders.

“We all know that the city is popular for its entertainment districts and for its nightlife and for its recreation, and I’m here to ensure that my friend’s life was not lost in vain and to push for increasing the safety for our community members near the Rainey Street Historic District,” Sean Bereson, a friend of drowning victim Jason John, told City Council in April.

Qadri went on to pass a resolution calling for safety upgrades and planning with special consideration for the Rainey bar district’s proximity to the lake and the hike and bike trail. The city parks department also rolled out temporary measures, including new signage, lighting and fencing in the area, and public safety patrols have been boosted on weekends.

The installation of permanent cameras, the creation of a new local safety plan and further coordination on security with Rainey bars could be coming as well.

The city continues to weigh safety and mobility outcomes in the area while construction cranes are set to remain for years to come. But even with local worries and mixed reviews over what the area’s becoming, stakeholders including Staley said they’re hopeful growing pains will end up for the best.

“We’re a part of all of that buzz that’s going on,” he said. “I can only imagine that when all those towers are opened up and the streets are open again that it’s just going to be busy nonstop down there. And to me, that’s what makes a city a city.”