As of its grand opening on October 7, the Rainey Street District now has two locations of downtown Austin mainstay Royal Blue Grocery, located roughly a quarter-mile from each other. The new storefront, positioned at the corner of Red River and Driskill Streets on the ground floor of the new Quincy apartment tower, is the latest high water mark for growth in this district after residents of the former working-class neighborhood sought a rezoning to allow for downtown-style development in 2005 — and only 17 years later, the region is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of downtown, and actually denser than most of the central city. The neighborhood simultaneously represents a tidy case study in rapid urbanization, its potential, and all the associated challenges, with Royal Blue right in the middle of it all.
With the possibility of an economic downtown lurking beneath the surface of nearly every real estate-related article on Austin lately, it’s worth taking a minute to recognize the prescience and resilience of Royal Blue Grocery for its dedication to the big-city ideal of walkable urban grocery access. When the first store opened in the Second Street District in 2006, living downtown was still a relative novelty, with a total population about half the size of the more than 14,000 people who reside here now.
“We had no idea if it would work,” said Craig Staley, who founded Royal Blue with business partner George Scariano. “There were some people who told us we were crazy. Austin didn’t have stores like this. We saw a concept that worked in big cities – the corner bodega – and if Austin wanted to be a big city, it was probably going to need them.”
Surviving the 2008 recession and expanding to six locations in downtown alone, Royal Blue is no longer the only game in town for pantry staples beyond the 7-11 roller grill in the central city, so it’s easy to take for granted just how ahead of its time, and downright risky, the idea really was. The first location in the Rainey District opened in 2014, with residential tower growth already underway in the neighborhood, but nowhere near the fever pitch we see now. Nearly a decade later, the second Rainey store constitutes another gamble by Royal Blue on the district’s future expansion.
“We could see that with the growth plans for the rest of the neighborhood, our one store wasn’t going to be enough to serve everyone,” says co-founder Craig Staley. “We decided we couldn’t let high rent, huge property taxes, and ridiculous construction costs stand in the way of adding another store, so we went for it.”
An extremely conservative estimate of residential development in the Rainey District — as in, only counting the buildings that are actively under construction, rather than simply announced — indicates that nearly 1,800 new units are currently underway within the neighborhood, with approximately 1,000 more planned across several buildings that haven’t yet broken ground. At the moment, Rainey’s new Royal Blue at the Quincy faces two active construction sites, with as many as nine separate towers anticipated at various locations around this neighborhood alone depending on your level of confidence regarding downtown’s continued growth.
“It will be years before that store turns a profit, but we knew the neighborhood needed us, so we did it anyway,” Staley says. That’s a level of confidence in Austin’s continued prosperity and urban development we haven’t seen in recent months from many national real estate firms with a lot more money to burn — and as endless pushers for the potential of compact and connected city life, it’s a perspective that keeps us optimistic about the future of downtown.