Positives edge out negatives for staying downtown

Austin American-Statesman, December 31, 2014

Read this article online...

There's something energizing, purifying and calming about the vast openness of our place where we can see the horizon, the night cityscape and the moods of the sky.

My last column reflected on the ten years since my husband Ian and I became empty-nesters and moved downtown. I concluded, “despite the year-round drunks, car alarms, lack of decent public transportation, sirens, nightly loud amplified music played without permits and way beyond the legal decibel limits and cut-off times, distracted and aggressive drivers, deafening motorcycles, traffic congestion, construction noise/dust and the occasional machine-gun fire, we do still like living downtown.”

moods of the sky ... and construction

Those are some serious negatives, but the positives listed below have remained static since we moved:

•          No yard work — When the last bird (lawn-mower) flew from the nest, Ian was determined not to have to mow the lawn again, his dreaded chore as a child.

•          Height — Probably the best part about living 100 feet in the air is there are zero mosquitoes or cockroaches. Our last home was nice, but we couldn’t relax outside lest we be eaten alive by mosquitoes. Inside, we triumphed over the cockroaches, but it was a constant battle. Here, the only varmints we see are on the balcony: the occasional moth or cricket in the doorjamb — to the supreme delight of Tina the cat. The many happy desert plants on the balcony attract welcome visitors — house finches, bees and ladybugs.

Here, we ride up eight floors to get views that we used to drive to Enchanted Rock to earn. There’s something energizing, purifying and calming about the vast openness of our place where we can see the horizon, the night cityscape and the moods of the sky — storms coming in, dizzying blue, the moon, the clouds — and the sun rising, moving across the sky and setting. The red-tailed hawks are as noble and majestic as the bats and nighthawks are fun to watch as they dive for insects in the evening.

•          Compact city — Our geographic boundaries for work, living and eating drastically decreased when we moved downtown. Most of what we do takes place within an area bounded by Lamar Boulevard, West 15th Street, Congress Avenue and West Second Street. We used to rarely see our neighbors. Now, it’s nice seeing neighbors often and lots of people on the street as they go about their day.

•          Getting out of your car — Ian sold his truck soon after we moved. Every day he walks to and from work along Shoal Creek where he communes with songbirds, wading birds, bats and turtles; he knows the homeless by name. If he needs to go somewhere out of his ‘hood, he’ll take the bus, happy to get in the exercise walking to and from bus stops.

I bought a scooter and have put 10,000 miles on it just driving around town (and to work) — that’s 10,000 miles less on my car. We walk to most places we need to go.

Public transportation is less than perfect. I wasn’t crazy about the route, but rail losing the last election was a major disappointment, although not as bitter and crushing a disappointment as the loss in 2000. In both cases, dubious arguments that rail would reduce auto traffic missed the real point of public transit — giving people an alternative to driving in the chaos and congestion. That’s a worthy goal for any city.

•          Footprint — Our building houses 82 units in a half block; 82 homes would normally take up about eight city blocks. When Sen. Kirk Watson was mayor in the late 1990s, he championed the then far-fetched idea of urban density. Subsequent mayors have followed through to where the ghost town that was downtown now has many thousands of residents.

Austin’s Great Streets project has given us hope that downtown may become safer and more livable. If implemented, sidewalks would be 18 to 32 feet wide; streets would have benches, bike racks and trash bins; street trees would be planted and spaced to provide contiguous shade on maturity; telephone/utility poles would be buried; and several one-way streets would be converted to two-way, which would open the street up to businesses and reduce vehicle speed as well as the miles and turns drivers would make to arrive at their destination.

I guess there are tradeoffs wherever you live. In the end, the scale tips in favor of the positives. So we stay downtown.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.