Foodies and downtown residents alike cheered last week when Trader Joe’s announced that it would open its first Austin store adjacent to the Seaholm Power Plant, only blocks away from competitor Whole Foods Market’s flagship store and headquarters. The store will not only provide more options for Central Texans in an already competitive high-end grocery market, but give downtown residents a more affordable option for groceries in their neighborhood.
Meanwhile, students living in West Campus continue to have to drive or take the bus to do their weekly shopping. For many West Campus residents, Whole Foods’ downtown store is geographically the nearest national supermarket, though higher prices send many students to H-E-B on 43rd Street or Randalls on 38½ Street.
Wheatsville Food Co-op, located at 32nd and Guadalupe streets in Hyde Park is the nearest full service grocery store to campus. The store is a favorite among socially-aware and health-conscious students, as well as those interested in supporting local and organic foods. Nonetheless, many students bypass Wheatsville for cheaper store brands and sale items at larger supermarkets.
Last year the University Co-op opened Co-op Market on the Drag. The store was meant as a way to provide more food options closer to students living in West Campus and in University housing. Though the market usually stocks some produce, the selection and prices are no replacement for a traditional, full-service grocer.
As West Campus’ population has grown, convenience stores and corner bodegas have opened across the neighborhood, providing easy access to sugary drinks, salty snacks and alcohol. These corner stores help to make living in West Campus more convenient by making it possible to walk down the block to purchase soda or milk but do little to promote healthy cooking and eating. While healthier food options such as the weekly farmers markets downtown and at The Triangle are available to students, they require special trips and don’t offer the all-day access of a traditional brick and mortar supermarket.
Construction sites around the neighborhood indicate continued growth in West Campus. As more students move into the neighborhood, it will become increasingly important for policymakers at the neighborhood and city levels to decide if West Campus will become a thriving urban neighborhood or whether it will function merely as an oversized dormitory for university students. While the concentration of a transient student population may keep West Campus from developing into a district as vibrant as downtown, this doesn’t mean the neighborhood should be made up of only large apartment blocks punctuated by occasional convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
The latest census results show nearly 10,000 residents living in West Campus, making it the most densely populated neighborhood in the entire city. And while books like David Owen’s “Green Metropolis” explain the environmental benefits of dense urban living, a high concentration of housing units alone is not enough to create an urban environment that is as pleasurable to live in as it is environmentally sensitive. On KLRU’s television series “Downtown,” UT architecture professor Larry Speck explains that urban density is “not so much about the volume of people as it is about the close packing of activities.” While West Campus already has an appreciable volume of people, it falls short when it comes to a density of activities.
The announcement of Trader Joe’s new store in downtown serves as a sort of coming-of-age for the neighborhood. With the addition of a cost-competitive supermarket, downtown Austin becomes less like an urban frontier and more like the thriving, everyday place to live it is intended to become in the Downtown Austin Plan. This contrasts with West Campus, which has seen an even greater quantity of physical change than downtown but at a lesser quality.
As Austin’s population climbs, city planners and neighborhood officials must take care to make sure that growing neighborhoods including West Campus offer a diverse array of activities and services in addition to a place to sleep at night. Getting a grocery store in the neighborhood would be a good start, not only for the health of students, but also for the health of the neighborhood.
Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.