Austin’s rapid transformation isn’t limited to just downtown.
Over the past decade, local developer Endeavor Real Estate Group has worked to transform about 300 acres of land once owned and occupied by IBM into The Domain – a bustling mix of shops, restaurants, offices, hotels and apartments off MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) in North Austin that real estate firms nationwide have tried to replicate.
Domain I, the first phase of an ambitious project that’s still several years from completion, turns 10 years old this month. Now owned by Simon Property Group, Domain I brought a host of new retailers to Austin, including the city’s first Neiman Marcus store.
Domain II, also owned by Simon, followed in 2010, adding Dick’s Sporting Goods and Dillard’s to the mix, while the third and final phase of retail – Endeavor’s Domain Northside – debuted last year with Nordstrom, Whole Foods Market, a boutique Archer-branded hotel and the Rock Rose entertainment district.
An economic development agreement with the city of Austin helped the project get off the ground. City figures show about $12.8 million in rebated sales and property taxes have been paid out since the deal for Domain I was signed. Domain II and Domain Northside were built without such agreements.
A high-end, retail-heavy project wasn’t always what Endeavor had envisioned for the site. One early plan called for a concentration of offices aimed at high-tech firms, but the dotcom bust that caused countless websites to shutter put an end to that idea, Endeavor managing principal Jeff Newberg said.
Another setback came in 2010 when an economic downturn delayed construction on Domain Northside by several years. One major tenant, an 80,000-square-foot Saks department store, ultimately pulled out.
“We were bound to face challenges along the way and we definitely did,” Newberg said. “The retail component of The Domain arose out of necessity. After unsuccessfully attempting to develop a couple of alternative, non-retail strategies, we recognized the opportunity to establish a location for elevated retail in North Austin. We recognized that the demographics of Austin had evolved and that there was demand for a deeper collection of better retail.”
At the time, skeptics said the site was too far from the city center and wouldn’t succeed. People won’t drive that far, they said. But Endeavor was determined to prove them wrong. Early on, the developer set its sights on Neiman Marcus. If the Dallas-based chain came, others would, too, the thinking went.
Neiman Marcus did say “yes” to the project. So did Foley’s, which has since been absorbed by Macy’s. The rest quickly fell into line.
“We were off and running,” Newberg said.
‘Not many places like it’
In addition to landing big-name national chains, Endeavor says it has worked from the start to include locally owned businesses in all phases of The Domain.
A few steps from an Apple store and Banana Republic in Domain I, for example, you’ll find The Steeping Room, a tea shop and restaurant.
The Steeping Room’s owners, Austinites Amy March and Emily Morrison, said they spent more than a year looking for the right spot for their business before picking Domain I.
“It was the best location for us to launch our concept in Austin at the time,” March said. “We were looking for a space that was in a walkable environment, had trees, potential for outside seating, adequate parking and a mix of complementary businesses. When we saw the promotional sketches of The Domain, we knew that we had found our spot.”
A decade later, March says it’s a decision she doesn’t regret. In fact, she said The Steeping Room is looking to make some tweaks to its layout to accommodate the capacity crowds it often sees.
There’s also now a second location, at 4400 N. Lamar Blvd. in Central Austin.
“When we first opened our Domain location, Emily and I worked every day from open to close in the restaurant,” March said. “Sometimes in the evening, I would go outside and sit on the bench across from our front window and stare in. I would look at the warm glow, the contented tables, and the curves of the giant oak tree limbs and feel satisfied that all our hard work was bringing a little corner of our personal commitment to quality and service into this grand corporate endeavor. So, for us (The Domain) symbolizes hard work, opportunity and community in what is sometime seen as a sea of American retail.”
Lauren Krumlauf is another Domain pioneer. The director of marketing and business development for Simon’s portion of the project was hired before the first store had even opened its doors. She says she’s seen a lot of change – positive change – over the years.
“It was something totally different,” Krumlauf said. “The vision was really big. It’s so unique, such a forward-thinking project. It was 10 years ago and it still is today.”
When shops and restaurants want to enter the Austin market, The Domain has become their go-to destination, Krumlauf said. More than 50 retailers – including David Yurman, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. – have their only Central Texas location at The Domain.
That trend shows no signs of slowing down. Upcoming new-to-Austin additions in Domain I and Domain II include AllSaints, a British fashion label, and Houston-based Stitch & Trace, an upscale boutique. Others on the way include Organic Bronze tanning salon, Fast Fix jewelry repair and Smoothies Paradise.
“At the beginning, we did all sorts of things to get people to come – happy hours, fun runs on Sunday mornings,” Krumlauf said. “Once they did, they wanted to come back. We have a successful formula that’s working well.”
A number of events still take place throughout the year, including festivals and concerts – many of them on the “Great Lawn” Simon added to Domain II during renovations that took place in 2014 and 2015.
Businesses that set up shop at The Domain like that, in addition to occasional shoppers, they also have a built-in audience – office workers and apartment dwellers.
“They’re here every day,” Krumlauf said. “You can have your entire life here at The Domain – live, work, shop, entertainment – without ever having to leave. There’s not many places like it.”
An ‘economic engine’
Today, The Domain has 1.8 million square feet of retail space including more than 50 bars and restaurants, along with 1.5 million square feet of office space, 2,700 apartments and 775 hotel rooms, according to Endeavor.
Stephen Kreher, senior director of economic development for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, describes the project’s impact on Austin as “transformative.”
“The Domain has been transformative for the Austin region and specifically the vibrancy of the northern metro area. It has established itself as a premier destination and economic engine offering new and exciting housing, entertainment and lifestyle options,” Kreher said.
All those shops and offices in such close concentration prompted former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell to refer to The Domain as “Austin’s second downtown” – a nickname that seems to have stuck. In fact, if you overlay the boundaries of The Domain on top of downtown Austin, “it would run from Lady Bird Lake north to 15th Street and it would stretch eight blocks wide,” says Endeavor’s Newberg.
“We were very flattered when then-Mayor Leffingwell said that,” Newberg said. “We certainly see that The Domain has some of the same characteristics of a central business district. It was our goal to develop that type of a project. It is comprised of all of the same elements that you would find in a downtown: office, retail, four hotels, food and entertainment and public spaces.
“Rock Rose has provided The Domain with the entertainment piece that was previously missing. It is exciting to see that in 12 short months, several of the most successful bars and restaurants within Austin are located within The Domain.”
While the opening of Domain Northside largely marks the end of retail development at The Domain, the project is far from finished, Newberg said, with plans for four more office buildings on the northern portion of the 304-acre site.
Endeavor also is leading the a makeover of Plaza Saltillo in East Austin, building The Parke shopping center in Cedar Park and has been tapped to oversee the redevelopment of the American-Statesman site on Lady Bird Lake, just south of downtown, among other projects.
Companies with offices at The Domain include Amazon, Facebook and HomeAway.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of The Domain is that all of our (Endeavor) partners have had their fingerprints on one piece or another of this special project,” Newberg said. “We’ve all contributed to its success in one way or another. When totally complete, we will have been at it for around 20 years.”