Editor's note: To view this story as it appeared in the May South Central Austin edition, click here.

When locals tell tourists where to go in Austin, a common tip is South Congress Avenue, or SoCo, due to its walkability and local shopping, Visit Austin spokesperson Wesley Lucas said.

"It’s just what you want to show off about this town,” said Steph Steele, owner of Tiny Grocer.

For some, the street’s appeal—from Oltorf Street to Riverside Drive—has changed over the years as businesses come and go.

“Back in the day, if you wanted to tell anyone what Austin was like, it was the Drag and it was South Congress,” said Charles Milligan, co-owner of now-closed Doc’s Motorworks Bar and Grill. “Now I tell people it’s South First.”

Milligan co-owned the flagship Doc’s on SoCo since 2005 but closed in 2016 to make way for the Music Lane redevelopment. He said it was the “best people-watching patio” in the city.

The space now consists of hotels, apartments, offices, restaurants and brands such as Hermès and Nike.
Oregon-based company Nike opened in the Music Lane development, replacing Doc's Motorworks Bar and Grill. (Zara Flores/Community Impact)
Put in perspective

In 2022 alone, 23.7 million people visited Austin, spending over $10.2 billion, Lucas said, and SoCo offers one of the densest strips of stores in Austin.

“Any shopping and visitation to Austin benefits the community at large,” Lucas said. “We’re not naive to the fact that folks will [shop at a] big name brand. Maybe that business isn’t locally owned, but those that work there are local and benefit from visitors coming in.”

Brands based outside of Texas, such as New York-based eyeglasses retailer Warby Parker, have opened on the street in the past few years.

Sandy Gilsenan, Warby Parker chief retail and customer experience officer, said after the brand first visited the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals in 2012, the team “fell in love with the city.”

“When the opportunity came for us to open a permanent retail store on South Congress, we jumped at the chance to be a part of the neighborhood’s vibrance and bustle,” Gilsenan said.
New York-based retailer Warby Parker offers glasses, sunglasses, contacts and eye exams in store. A mural by Austin artist Alannah Tiller is inside the shop on SoCo. (Elle Bent/Community Impact)
Mixed in are Austin-based businesses, ranging from clothing shops, restaurants and music venues to candy shops and grocery stores.

In a noncomprehensive analysis of 90 SoCo hotels, retail stores, restaurants, grocers and venues, Community Impact found about 64% of Austin-based and about 36% are not. This analysis excluded professional services and convenience stores.

Steele opened Tiny Grocer in 2021. She said she was attracted to the spot because it serves the Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights neighborhoods in addition to tourists.

“It’s a connector, being on that street,” Steele said. “Not only do you meet amazing local people, you make an acquaintance with really amazing people traveling from all over.”

Steele recognizes the street has changed but encourages locals to support businesses residing there.

“I really would love to see South Congress keep its charm,” she said.
Locally owned shop Tiny Grocer joined the array of businesses on the street in 2021. (Elle Bent/Community Impact)
What's changing

Milligan said growing up in Austin, most businesses on the corridor were mom-and-pop shops. When he and his business partners learned of the planned Music Lane development, he said the most logical decision was to leave.

“Once that development came and we got out of there, that’s when it totally changed,” Milligan said. “If you didn’t own the building, you couldn’t afford to rent.”

According to data from CoStar Commercial Real Estate, rent per square foot for retail space off SoCo has increased by about 40% over the past 10 years.

Other local names that left include South Congress Books, Tesoros Trading Company, Maya Star and Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds. Retailer Good Company left May 27.

South Congress Books owner Sheri Tornatore said rising costs caused her to relocate.

The inception of SoCo is often credited to the ‘90s, when unique, local businesses opened. In 1994, hotelier Liz Lambert purchased the San José Motel and revamped it to the Hotel San José.

Milligan admits while he is not fond of change, SoCo appeals to a new generation—his daughters “think it’s cool.”
Home Slice Pizza opened on the street in 2005 from couple Jen and Joseph Strickland, and friend Terri Hannifin Buis. (Elle Bent/Community Impact)
Home Slice Pizza opened on the street in 2005 from couple Jen and Joseph Strickland, and friend Terri Hannifin Buis. (Elle Bent/Community Impact)
Going forward

Plans are underway from New York-based developer Related Cos. to transform a 6-acre site at the intersection of SoCo with Riverside Drive to include retail space, a hotel and more. The only property to remain on the site will be 45-year-old karaoke bar Ego’s.

New shops will continue to open on the strip, such as German shoe manufacturer Birkenstock and the rebuild of Texas-based supermarket H-E-B’s 60-year-old store.

The new H-E-B will be twice the size of the original, catering to the area’s growth while "honoring the community and rich history of the area," spokesperson Heidi Anderson said.

“We’re not immune to [the growth] happening across the country,” Lucas said. “I think at the end of the day, we have maintained that quintessential, unique Austin feel in South Congress, even though we have seen some growth and redevelopment.”