Some 33 years ago, with the help of a midwife, a baby was born in the back of Terra Toys on South Congress Avenue.
The parents, Charles Edwards and Romalda Allsup, were owners of the store, and they lived with their newborn Sylvia and her two sisters in the back of the shop in a small space separated by a cinder block wall.
"South Congress in the '80s was really so different than it is now," Sylvia Edwards said. "There were plenty of heroin addicts and prostitutes who would live in the back alley. It was very difficult in many ways, but it was a super cool place to be too."
Terra Toys, one of Austin's oldest and most beloved independent toy shops, arrived on South Congress in 1984, when nearby Guero's Taco Bar was still a feed store. Over the next decade, the retailer, which specializes in classic toys from around the world, was joined by funky secondhand stores, vintage shops and a mix of local retailers.
Those merchants helped transform SoCo from a red light district into an eclectic, fun and weird destination popular with locals and tourists alike.
"It was South Congress that helped us become iconic, and on the flip side, it was stores like us that made South Congress iconic," Edwards said. "We were making that street the place to be, and that street was making us the place to be. It was this symbiotic thing. It was this beautiful thing."
Austin's rapid growth eventually changed that, though. As South Congress began gentrifying in the late 1990s, and much more intensely in the past decade, many of the shops that helped define the quirky shopping district have been forced out, either by rising rents or redevelopment.
But some former South Congress businesses are proving that being priced out of SoCo, or displaced by demolition, doesn't have to mean the end. Terra Toys, Rivers & Reefs, Hill Country Weavers, Uncommon Objects and Twomey Auto Works have all been pushed out of their South Congress homes – and all are thriving in new locations elsewhere in Austin.
While leaving was difficult and at times painful, it turns out there is life after SoCo, they say.
"There was no way we could stay, and in the end it worked out for the better," said Sylvia Edwards of Terra Toys, which was among the first in a wave of long-time local businesses to relocate after losing its lease in 2004 and moving across town to West Anderson Lane. "I don't think the landlords are out to get any of us. It's the taxes that drive the rent so high that it's almost impossible for a local business, or even a chain, to be viable there."
It's a pattern happening across much of Austin – from the East Side to South First Street and South Lamar Boulevard to Burnet Road.
"The Austin market is undergoing a significant redevelopment in the urban core – much like many cities around the world," said Eric DeJernett, senior vice president with commercial real estate firm CBRE Inc. "This is especially prevalent in key cities that offer a high quality of life and tend to attract technology, bio-tech, medical, AI and other high-growth industries. This has created gains for some business owners and competitive pressure for others."
The latest wave of change on South Congress involves the arrival of multi-level mixed-use projects, which are rapidly replacing the low-slung shopping strips that once housed locally owned salons, boutiques and auto body shops.
As South Congress continues to transform, more small retailers are likely to be displaced. But as the stories of Terra Toys and others show, that doesn't have to spell the end.
South Congress development projects that are currently underway or recently completed include:
• Music Lane, a $55 million mixed-use project, which stretches from Academy Drive north, including the former Twomey Auto Works site at 1009 S. Congress Ave. Music Lane will feature three buildings with retail, office and restaurant space, along with 500 underground parking spaces. Soho House − a trendy, members-only social club − plans to open its first Texas location in the project. SoHo House will include a hotel and rooftop and club spaces for members to work, eat, drink and relax.
• The Magdalena, a Liz Lambert hotel under construction at Music Lane and Academy Drive with a projected fall 2019 opening. Its 86 rooms will make it the largest hotel to date for Lambert’s Bunkhouse hospitality group.
• The Muse at SoCo, a four-story project underway at 1007 S. Congress Ave. A building at the front of this apartment complex was razed to make way for the Muse, which will have three floors of office space atop ground-floor retail. Tenants include high-end fitness center Equinox and the new headquarters for real estate technology startup Ojo Labs.
• St. Vincent, a three-story mixed-use building recently completed at 1327 S. Congress, the site of the former St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. Cowboy boot maker Tecovas has opened a sleek 1,200-square-foot showroom on the first floor and has leased the second and third floors for its headquarters. National retailers Madewell and Marine Layer are also tenants.
• 1221 South Congress, a mixed-use project that involved tearing down one of the buildings that was part of the Statehouse apartment complex. In the apartment's place will be a four-story building with three floors of office space above street-level retail and restaurants.
• Hummingbird, a three-story mixed use project sandwiched between Vespaio restaurant and South Congress Books at 1608 S. Congress Ave. It will include a restaurant with outdoor dining, boutique and specialty retail, office space and a luxury one-suite penthouse with a rooftop pool, cabana and city views.