More Changes Ahead for South Congress Avenue

Ask any longtime Austinite, and they’ll tell you that South Congress Avenue hasn’t always been the popular commercial district it is today. In fact, less than two decades ago, it had an X-rated movie theater, a bar that was known for frequent brawls, a hotel with hourly rates, and other “seedy” elements.

But first, let’s go back even further. It wasn’t until 1852 that Congress Avenue even extended south of the Colorado River. In that year, James Gibson Swisher donated land for the road, which was intended to serve as a postal route to Austin and a highway to San Antonio. In 1910, a concrete bridge provided reliable transportation over the river, and in the 1920s, the streetcar route was expanded to South Congress. By 1931, the street was paved all the way from the river to the railroad at present-day Ben White Boulevard.

Many of the strip’s beloved icons opened between 1930 and 1960, including the Austin Motel, the Hotel San José and the Old Nighthawk burger joint (the first two landmarks are still present today; the Night Hawk was destroyed in a fire in 1985, rebuilt, and ultimately shut its doors in 1989). The Twin Oaks Shopping Center at Oltorf and South Congress was one of Austin’s first “strip malls” when it opened in 1954.

In the 1950s, the Congress Avenue Bridge was widened, and the construction of Interstate 35 provided an alternative north-south route. With the rise of I-35, though, tourist traffic diminished, and several businesses along South Congress fell into disrepair. By the late ‘80s, the cheap rents made it an attractive location for trailblazers such as Magnolia Café South. Then came the economic boom and increased demand for housing in Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek. That kicked off the massive cleanup and renovation – and the evolution – of South Congress.

The South Congress Avenue of today is a popular destination for residents and tourists alike, offering a variety of dining and shopping options – or just a great place to go and people watch. People flock to the “I love you so much” mural outside Jo’s coffee to get their picture taken; music lovers take in local and national acts at the legendary Continental Club, and its newer live music companion, C-Boy’s Heart and Soul.

But while the transformation of South Congress been largely embraced, recent developments and rising property values have some people wondering whether it’s on a fast path to losing its unique character. From parking concerns to new mixed-use developments displacing businesses, challenges abound. The latest is a planned 113,300-square-foot development on 1.5 acres called Mixed Use Music Lane. It will house offices, retail and restaurants and a parking garage, but will also displace seven businesses located along the northeast side of the commercial district, including Sfanthor House of Wax, Texas National Outfitters, Wet Salon & Studio, Strut, Parts & Labour, United Apparel Liquidators and Ignite Fitnez. A timeline for the new development has not been given. Across the street, another casualty of change, the Snack Bar, has already closed its doors.

Since its humble beginnings in the 1850s, South Congress Avenue has been transformed from a rural country road to one of the most popular destinations in Austin. But as the area continues to evolve, there is growing uncertainty about its future. We hope that with wise planning, community involvement, and continued support of its local merchants, South Congress continues to play an important role as Austin’s vibrant, eclectic corridor.

Photo: airbnb.com

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