by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Warren Chang
“As long as I’m in Austin, I’m living here,” says Fredrick Martin, leaning back into his patio chair and surveying the sidewalk in front of the Archer Hotel with satisfaction. It’s 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, and the Domain NORTHSIDE is unwinding: the first happy hour revelers are out, along with late-day shoppers and athletic types basking in the smug glow of a good workout.
I’m sitting down for a glass of wine with Martin and his neighbor Heather Mathers, both residents at The Standard, one of the Domain NORTHSIDE’s nine apartment buildings, to hear what it’s like to live at the mall. They both laugh away the question: it’s the typical reaction they get around town. “I moved here because of the walkability, and because it’s kid-and dog-friendly, not because of Nordstrom,” says Mathers, a preschool director who is finishing her PhD in early childhood education at UT. She, her husband, and teenage son moved here from East Austin last year.
“I was initially drawn to the apartment complex, and when I saw it on Google Maps, I thought, ‘That can’t be right, that’s just a mall’,” says Martin, who moved here from Houston four years ago, and initially lived at the Residences, another Domain NORTHSIDE apartment complex. “But when I got up here, I thought: ‘This is it.’” Martin, who grew up in Miami, and lived in New York before coming to Texas, says he was drawn to the “live, work, and play” concept. And while he’s far from a shopaholic, “you can’t beat the convenience. You can buy everything here, from a pair of socks to a car.”
How do they feel about the Domain NORTHSIDE’s dramatic development in the past year? “It’s great,” says Mathers. “We get invited to all these awesome openings.” She turns to Martin. “Remember the Restoration Hardware opening?”
“Oh my God,” he says. “That was awesome. Black tie.”
Mathers loves that her teenager can meet friends at nearby hangouts and still be close by. “It’s safe and easy,” she says. “It turns out we didn’t need a yard. We were ready for a break from the responsibilities of homeownership, and love the community feel, from events thrown by the Standard, to meeting other residents on our floor, to hanging out with fellow dog owners.”
Martin, who also owns a dog, agrees. “This place is crazy about dogs. You know the dogs’ names before you know the owners.”
Aside from canine affinities, Martin and Mather say that a common denominator of Domain NORTHSIDE residents is their sociability. “You don’t run into too many introverts,” says Martin. “I mean, at the end of the day, we live in a mall. You’re going to be surrounded by other people.”
Mathers adds that most residents seem like they’re transplants from other places around the country and the globe. “There’s a good mix of ages,” she says.
I mention that the setup seems to simultaneously trade on a nostalgia for small-town living (with Rock Rose functioning as a Main Street of sorts) and futuristic urban planning, with mixed-use complexes that have been embraced elsewhere in Austin, like Mueller. Martin (who decided not to live in Mueller, since his workplace is there, and he prefers a live-play arrangement to a live-work-play one) agrees. “I’ve got relationships with the servers in all my favorite places. You start to know everyone, you bring the dog. I haven’t gone downtown since Uber left Austin.”
“Remember when the Symphony played?” asks Mathers, referring to a recent concert held by the Symphony on the NORTHSIDE Lawn. “We just sat out on our balconies and drank wine, took in the music.”
“It’s definitely not Austin weird,” says Martin. “But the developers have made a big effort to bring some of the city’s boutiques here, too, like STAG and Weathered Coalition. I think it’s a model that can work in any city.”
When challenged to come up with a drawback, the only thing Martin and Mathers can offer seems to be, like any Austinite, traffic-related. But their complaints have to do with pedestrians, not gridlock on I-35. “You’ve got shoppers that think it’s fine to just walk into traffic,” Martin says.
“They don’t live here,” Mathers adds. “It’s people who are just coming to the mall for the day.”
And while SXSW creates havoc for the rest of the city, it’s Christmas shopping that breeds chaos at the Domain NORTHSIDE. Not to mention getting in and out of the garage on a Friday or Saturday night, thanks to the wild popularity of Rock Rose. But Martin says it’s a small price to pay. “I very rarely pull my car back out of the garage until Monday morning,” he says. “Everything’s here. It doesn’t make any sense to go anywhere else.”
Rachal Robichau, a Woodlands native, and a hair stylist, was a longtime North Austin resident, who stumbled onto The Standard when she and James Raeh, her pitbull, got lost one day in the maze of Domain NORTHSIDE construction sites. James perked up at the sight of a water bowl and treats, and Robichau decided to take a tour of the apartment complex. (Note to leasing agents: never underestimate the power of a water bowl.) The two fell in love with the premises, and moved in shortly after.
Like Mathers and Martin, Robichau adores the “community vibe,” and says that the retail workers, maintenance crew, bartenders, security, doormen, feel like “family.”
“I was never neighborly when I was in a house,” she says, “but here I’m greeted daily by people that I now consider friends. They run up to James as if they haven’t seen her in weeks!”
For Robichau, proximity to a sprawling mall can also be a liability: “I shop everyday!” she admits. “Whole Foods, Sephora, Victoria’s Secret, Nordstrom will stay afloat due to me!” Another double-edged sword of Domain NORTHSIDE life is the intense socializing: “we’re such a tight group . . . you can’t go downstairs without running into the same crew, which can go both ways depending on your escapades!”
John Chriss, the co-manager of Engels and Völker at Domain NORTHSIDE, also has an unofficial title: the “self-appointed mayor of the Domain NORTHSIDE.” You can spot him around the neighborhood in an open-road cowboy hat, he says, although that style is getting so ubiquitous that he might have to switch up his signature look. Chriss lives at the IMT, and his office is on the ground floor, with a seconds-long elevator commute. “I wake up, grab a coffee at Apanas, go to work, hit Culinary Dropout for lunch, stop by Jack & Ginger’s for dinner, go home, then get up and do it all over again.”
Chriss calls the Domain NORTHSIDE “Austin’s new Uptown”: “It’s a piece of Dallas; a piece of Scottsdale,” he says. “It’s urban, flashy, and fast-paced,” a stark contrast to “Willie Nelson Austin.” And it’s not just the vibe that makes living at the Domain NORTHSIDE different; all the available apartments are for lease, not sale. “That puts everyone in the same boat,” says Chriss. “Everyone’s renting, working jobs in tech or retail, with a target demographic of 30-50.”
Chriss insists that the Domain NORTHSIDE is “the most ethnically and culturally diverse” neighborhood in Austin. “You hear so much about keeping Austin weird,” he says. “But where’s the international crowd? Where are the 150 new residents, arriving every day? They’re up at the Domain.” Part of the appeal, he says, lies in the Domain NORTHSIDE’s tabula rasa qualities. “It’s any developer’s dream,” he says. “In America, corporations are people. Here, Mr. Simon and Mr. Peter are in charge: they control pricing, they’ve got anchor tenants.” Unlike comparable planned communities like Mueller, Chriss says, or The Grove, the developers were not obligated to include affordable housing units.
So while the Domain NORTHSIDE may be Austin’s largest “culmination of different cultures,” as Chriss puts it, with start-ups and restaurants residents hailing from all over the globe, it comes with a price tag that lower-income Austinites can ill afford. But Chriss argues that rent, starting at around $1000 a month, is much more reasonable than what you’ll find in other sectors of the city.
Chriss grew up in Corpus Christi, which he describes as a “sleepy little surf town,” where he spent his adolescence “looking out the window, yearning to move.” He’s lived in Los Angeles, Seville, Spain, and Sydney, Australia, but he’s happy to be in Austin, which he says, “respects individuality and cares about the arts” unlike Los Angeles, a city he describes as a “giant greasy machine that eats people up and spits them out.”
Chriss claims that the Domain NORTHSIDE is “uniquely Austin,” in this manner, too, that the developers are “hellbent on keeping and promoting local talent,” and “matching the mentality of Austin.”
There’s no question that these “Domainites,” as Robichau put it, heart their new hood. Hard. And if their enthusiasm occasionally sounds slightly defensive or echoes the shrill tones of a pep rally, it’s not surprising. Both conspicuous consumerism and a walkable, “live-work-play” urbanism are new looks for Austin, and whether the Domain NORTHSIDE’s cosmopolitan identity will develop into an interesting, complex culture or stay closer to the eponymous cocktail remains to be seen. Just as John Chriss is considering a new look, and ditching the cowboy hat, his new neighborhood is experimenting with what its own aesthetic will turn out to be, and chances are, it won’t look too much like the rest of Texas—or Austin.
Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2017