History of Downtown Austin

The First 14 Blocks

In 1839, shortly after the tiny village then-known as Waterloo was selected as the new capital of the Republic of Texas, the city’s first mayor, Edwin Waller, designed downtown’s first 14 blocks. Streets running north and south were named for Texas rivers with the exception of Congress Avenue. Streets running east and west were originally named for Texas trees, though later changed to a numbered system.

A Bustling Downtown Business District

By the late 1840s, a bustling downtown business district was well established featuring hotels, saloons, stores, restaurants and government offices. Many of early Austin’s most prominent families built stately homes in the northwest corner of downtown. The Bremond family, which made its fortune in dry goods and banking, was one of the first to move in the 1850s. Family members went on to build six Victorian homes in a well-preserved area now known as the Bremond Block Historic District.

The Start Of The Driskill Hotel

Around 1885, Frank Rainey and Jesse Driskill began developing a more modest neighborhood for the middle class in the southeastern portion of downtown, now known as the Rainey Street Historic District. Driskill, a cattle baron and entrepreneur, also built the Driskill Hotel on East Sixth Street the following year, described at the time as “the finest hotel south of St. Louis.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Congress Avenue was crowded with pedestrians, buggies and streetcars. The grand avenue remained unpaved and riddled with potholes until 1905, when brick was added – making it the first paved street in Austin. As car ownership increased, many upper and middle class families moved to the suburbs, leaving mostly working class families and ethnic minorities living downtown by the 1920s. As suburban development accelerated in the post-war era, retailers began their own exodus out of the urban core.

By 1970, downtown’s population had fallen by more than half. Falling rents helped usher in a thriving bar and live music scene along East Sixth Street, but empty storefronts, seedy bars and surface parking lots began to characterize the once-proud Congress Avenue. By 1980, just 3,000 people lived downtown, down from 12,500 in 1940, and many Austinites found little reason to visit.

Downtown Becomes A 24-Hour Community

City leaders made the revitalization a priority in the 1990s with a vision of transforming downtown into a 24-hour community where people lived, worked, shopped, ate and enjoyed entertainment beyond the bars of Sixth Street. Presidential daughter Luci Baines Johnson was one of the first to invest in new downtown housing when she spearheaded the redevelopment of the historic Brown Building at 708 Colorado St. from offices into lofts in 1998.

More Than 1,000 Apartments Built

The City of Austin played an active role in the revitalization from the beginning, often leveraging underutilized city properties to lure new development, a process that continues today. In 1998, the city signed a long-term lease with Post Properties to redevelop a three-acre utility storage yard along Shoal Creek into the 293-unit West Avenue Lofts on the southwestern edge of downtown (now Gables West Avenue). More than 1,000 apartments and condominiums were built downtown in the next three years, despite the tech bust that had hit Austin’s economy.

Downtown Grows Up

The Frost Bank Tower, home to Heritage Title’s main office, became the first new downtown high rise in nearly 20 years when it opened in 2004. In 2010, the ultra-high end, 56-story Austonian condo tower at Congress Avenue and Second Street became the tallest building in Austin.  Today, downtown has evolved back into being a desirable and vibrant neighborhood. In 2016, more residential buildings are under construction with  5th and West, the Independent, and the Proper Residences all expected to be completed in 2018.


Information included was provided by Heritage Title Company of Austin.

For more information on Downtown Austin real estate contact Greg Walling of Moreland Properties