Re: [NYTimes] Austin, we have a problem

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From: Gordon Mohr (
Date: Sun Aug 20 2000 - 12:08:26 PDT

Adam Rifkin writes:
> Sounds like a nice place to visit, but I'm not sure why people are so
> insistent on living there right now... Jeff or Lorin, set me straight,
> what's so nice about Austin?

Hey! What about me? Even though I'm moving to SF in a couple weeks, I
still think Austin's pretty darn nice, and I'll continue to have roots
in Austin.

I'd have to say the best thing about Austin is that even though
it is modern, and tolerant, and "happening" like bigger cities, it
still feels "human scale". You can still feel like you know
all the people and happenings across several different scenes.

Some other interspersed comments about both the good and the bad
brought up in the article:

# With its bars, bands and
# barbecue joints, its lakes, parks, low crime and temperate winters, Austin
# is a lifestyle mecca that attracts all kinds.

The winters aren't *that* temperate: we get subfreezing weather, and
every few years an ice storm paralyzes the city for a day or two.
Winters also feature a clouds of another type: pollen from
mountain juniper trees which blows in from the hilly west. If
you're allergic and don't stay medicated, "Cedar Fever" can make
January through March very difficult.

Also, the summers are blistering, though less humid than Houston.
# Garber and I took a driving tour of Austin when we met for the second time.
# As we nosed under an elevated highway, we came face to face with a
# modern-looking fortress of red brick and glass. "That's Vignette," he said,
# tapping on the window. He helped start Vignette four and a half years ago;
# today it is the largest e-business software firm in the world. "Vignette
# has created about $3 billion worth of employee wealth," he noted with
# pride.

Plug for my sister: she's now Vignette's inside-sales rep for the
San Francisco region. If you need a big E-Business website
installation, give her a call.

# Because of all the new people, Austin now suffers from world-class traffic
# jams, polluted air, a serious lack of affordable housing and a school
# system in disarray.

I think these "sufferings" are only relative to Austin's past, not
objectively bad compared to peer cities. Only a few rush-hour traffic
corridors remotely approach "world-class" congestion, and the air seems
better than average to me. Plentiful affordable housing is just 5-10
minutes further out. I don't know enough to assess the schools.

# Gone is Les Amis restaurant, where one character snapped: "To hell with the
# kind of work you have to do to earn a living!"

It got knocked down and a Starbucks took its place, which broke a lot
of locals' hearts.

# Unlike the rest of Texas, Austin has always been a place where what mattered
# most -- music, film, education, public policy -- was supposedly motivated
# by concerns that were not entirely commercial. Now Austin has developed an
# indigenous business scene. First came Dell, later Tivoli, Trilogy and
# Vignette. These days Austin has a 1.9 percent unemployment rate and has
# been named the best city in the country for doing business by Fortune and
# Forbes.

But like elsewhere -- and maybe worse -- dot-coms are dropping like
flies. was the biggest flameout. After raising a $20
million in a 4th round just last quarter, they went from 350 employees
to bankruptcy. It's amazing still walks amongst the
living; has slimmed from 250 employees to 40 over the
last few months; other consumer plays like and are

Local success story Trilogy is also behaving suspiciously. None of its
child companies, usually named [something], seem to have
achieved market traction. Trilogy remained stubbornly private through
the nineties -- passing up the best bull market and IPO markets
ever -- but then announced in May, after the downturn, that they
want to go public later this year. That doesn't make sense.

On the bright side, the Fortune and Forbes accolades are deserved.
There's almost none of the anti-business, anti-capitalist sentiment
common in California's urban liberal circles. Texas is good that way.
Even the environmentalists aren't so much anti-development as
they are in favor of directing development to certain areas, where
there's still plenty of space to grow.

# Garber formed a team of techies to consider light
# rail. John Thornton joined it, and so did Steve Papermaster, among others.
# Light rail was imperative, the group determined; the city's air was
# becoming so dirty that it would soon violate federal health standards.
# Garber got all fired up. "I'm not a train hugger," he vowed. "But this
# place is exploding."

OK, time for a digressive rant.

It's a disgrace that so many Austin tech bigwigs are putting
their names and money behind light-rail.

If it passes, we'll spend a billion dollars to tear up existing
high-traffic corridors and lay down fixed routes on which, some
time in 2008, glorified buses-on-tracks will run. It's the ultimate
low-tech, inflexible, high-dollar solution -- a circuit-switched
transportation megaproject.

We should instead be using cheap computing and communication
technology to get maximum efficient use out of the roads --
packet-based transportation markets.

Eliminate trips with telecommuting and ecommerce; eliminate
rush-hours with congestion pricing. Instead of rails, lay down
smart roads with privileged access for dynamically-routed and
creatively-billed buses, shuttles, and smart cars. Have people
enter their desired destination on location-aware handheld
devices -- and then let multiple bus/van/taxi services bid for
their ride, offering shared routes and transit-time guarantees
based on real-time demand and traffic information.

The same local VC types funding the pro-rail campaign will also
fund, over the next few years, startups which make rail obsolete
before construction completes.

I think the tech nouveau-riche are really just trying to buy
Austin a status symbol. Buses and roads are so common; trains
are cosmopolitan! It'll have a colorful route map and a catchy
name --"the A-Train"! It's sleek and goes "whoosh"!

It's a post-IPO BMW for the whole city.

# Garber liked his handiwork. "Aren't the colors great?" he asked.
# The colors were great, the look was clean, the lines were snappy. But what
# really got my attention was this imported fondness for rail.

See what I'm saying?

Separately about Austin, Jeff Bone wrote:
> In town, the cost of a modest funky remodeled 40s
> cottage -w- updates goes from $100k in 1992 to *well* over $500k this year.
> Basically, you can't buy anything even halfway decent within 10 miles of the
> capital without something like that kind of change; within a few miles of the
> capitol, even tarpaper shack knockdowns are going for $450k and up.

Jeff's definitions of "modest" and "halfway decent" are a lot
ritzier than mine!

There are lots of nice 2bd/1ba houses available in good central
neighborhoods for under $200k; I bought one last year. I'm just 4
miles from downtown and the capitol. Go a little further out, or
east, or take a chance on a up-and-coming neighborhood, and you
can get much more for your money. But hurry: values are rising
fast! :)

- Gordon

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