The Austin Chronicle

CSC Who?

By Kevin Fullerton, December 11, 1998, News

As high-tech companiesgo, Computer Sciences Corp. is not the sexiest of players. It doesn't build speedy microprocessors, create eye-popping Internet graphics, or bring the furthest reaches of cyberspace onto computer screens. CSC's business is more mundane, yet in high demand: computer networking and information management. The company's Austin division, CSC Financial Services, specializes in outsourcing data processing for other entities. Sound unimpressive? The corporation's profits certainly aren't -- CSC's $6.9 billion in revenues are nearly double what they were just three years ago.

photograph by John Anderson

CSC's clients currently include General Motors Locomotive Group, and the company is one of two finalists competing for a multibillion-dollar contract to modernize the Internal Revenue Service's computer system. Now, thanks to an impressive "alignment" arranged through Mayor Watson's office, the growing giant may solve a problem that has proved far more intractable than scrambled computer files -- raising a development on Austin's prime tract of downtown property. Where the public process has failed, [see "Land Rush," p.22] a corporate solution is now sought. The vision to build a combined office, retail, and municipal plaza downtown is not CSC's, of course, but the company brings consolidated financing and sureness of movement to the project for the first time. The question is, are we comfortable with city government traveling at the breakneck speed necessary to deal with a large, aggressive corporate entity? And is corporate culture truly compatible with Austin's downtown vision, or just compatible with Mayor Watson's preference for quick, decisive action?

CSC Financial Services had been searching for a new office complex site for some time, but until recently had no designs on downtown. Howard Falkenberg, whose firm handles CSC's public relations, says that downtown office space "doesn't fit the pattern that CSC has used in the past," which is the "suburban campus" model ideally suited to larger sites such as the 109-acre Terrace PUD. But, facing resistance from environmentalists over the Terrace site, and with another preferred site off Parmer in Northwest Austin already taken by Motorola, the company was willing to listen when the mayor offered downtown. "It's a new concept, and it takes some getting used to," says Falkenberg, but he says CSC found the waterfront site surprisingly agreeable, and its access to the airport, restaurants, and hotels a strong draw. "If it had been even three blocks north," says Falkenberg, "they probably would not have even considered it." Diana Barbour, of Colliers/Oxford Commercial, says that a downtown location is a perfect match for the high-tech company, as long as CSC obtains flexible arrangements for its build-out.

For its part, the city has never before offered incentives to bring a high-tech company, or for that matter any office development, downtown. But the inevitable political battle at the Terrace promised to be lengthy, and CSC's offices were already bursting at the seams. What's more, the company, which employs 1,300 people in Austin and expects to hire at least 2,200 more over the next few years, had located other sites in Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Hartford, Conn. The train was ready to roll, and the city had to jump quickly to get on board. Thus, the present arrangement, which, depending on whom you ask, is either a miraculous confluence of events or a reckless rush to compromise.

"We're creating here the world's first high-tech district downtown, and that's international news," enthuses local developer and former City Councilmember Robert Barnstone. But grumblings have been heard from other developers who don't appreciate the city cutting deals to a wealthy tenant for downtown office space. On the record, most community and business leaders say the CSC design is what the city has been trying to accomplish for years, and express reservations only about the lack of public scrutiny over the financial details.

Austin's urban design consultant, Keyser/ Marston of San Francisco, says that a corporate office complex mixed with other uses is downtown development other cities would envy. "If you're just building office-spec space, that's one thing, but if you can combine it with cultural space, residential, and retail on the ground floor, that's a home run," says K/M's Gerald Trimble. The city has also pointed out that CSC Financial's employees, typically in their mid-30s and earning an average salary of $100,000, are perfect tenants for the new highrise apartments, reducing traffic impact on MoPac.

City Councilmember Daryl Slusher, responding to developers who object to the monolithic development of the downtown site by one company, says the city has already waited 30 years for something to happen on the property. Slusher says that "one giant step" is preferable to "a whole bunch of private deals" with uncertain futures. "They're [CSC] ready to move in right now. Everything else has just been ideas," says Slusher.

"It's perfectly good business to agree to this [deal] because of CSC's ability to perform," agrees Barnstone. "The non-speculative value of this is of great importance."

But whether CSC's culture matches Austin's visions for its downtown is another question. CSC, by its very nature, is a company that purges random events, normalizes anomalies, and consolidates into lump sums. Its office development may be an economic victory for the city; whether it is a cultural or aesthetic one is another matter.

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.