The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

By Amy Smith, August 25, 2000, News

Watershed Movement

Vignette chief executive Greg Peters was out of town last week when he learned that a story was about to break detailing his company's plans to move downtown. Certain that his employees' jaws would drop if they had to read about it first in the local papers, Peters dashed off a companywide e-mail bringing them up to speed on a real estate proposal that could place Vignette's corporate headquarters across the street from the Austin Convention Center. Employee responses were predictable: How will we battle traffic, they asked, and where will we park?

Those concerns are just a smidgen of what the 40-year-old CEO will be dealing with as he tries to negotiate a monumental deal that could land the homegrown company on some key property along Cesar Chavez. He doesn't want to make enemies in the process. "I'd like us to be the model for how companies should do this in the future," Peters says, in a veiled reference to Computer Sciences Corp.'s controversial move to downtown's west end. "Downtown is our first choice," Peters continues. "We're not going to the city and saying, 'we want x, y, and z, and if we don't get it we're going to the Terrace.' We're trying to do this right."

That's good news to people like Robin Rather, vice president of the Hill Country Conservancy, who has worked to steer growing companies (such as CSC, Motorola, Intel, and now Vignette) into the Central Business District and other preferred growth corridors -- in short, anywhere but the sensitive watershed area. "It's nice to have a very positive experience with people who totally get it," Rather says of the company.

As things stand now, the publicly held software company has options to buy four tracts of land -- three owned by downtown property kingpins Perry Lorenz and Robert Knight, and the fourth owned by Trinity Street Joint Venture, a partnership of Austin developers Barshop and Oles Co. and San Antonio-based Hixson Properties (see map). Vignette's 700 Austin employees are currently scattered in five different buildings on the southwest side of town, so the goal is to bring the whole crew to one downtown campus.

Much of the property under consideration nudges up against an acre-and-a-half of scenic land on the north shore of Town Lake, home of the Lakeside Apartments, a senior citizens' high-rise operated by the Austin Housing Authority. So imagine the residents' surprise when they opened the American-Statesman last week and read that Vignette was taking over their property -- an error that caused a panic up and down the halls of Lakeside. Then, in a follow-up story, Mayor Kirk Watson tried to explain the goof as "brainstorming," but in the process came off sounding all too willing to exchange the elderly folks for a younger, hipper crowd. He offered further clarification in a third follow-up story, noting that the Housing Authority would make any decisions affecting the apartments.

Vignette maintains it is not interested in displacing the Lakeside residents. "That would be mere foolishness on our part," Peters says, though he acknowledges that Vignette would be interested in the property "if it became available."

For now, at least, there's no "for sale" sign on the Lakeside, according to Austin Housing Authority Director Jim Hargrove. "There's not a month that goes by that someone doesn't inquire about the property," he says of the high-rise located a stone's throw from the swank Four Seasons. "A real estate agent called me up not too long ago and said, 'I have investors with cash.' Well, I've got 164 households over there. There's far more to this equation than someone wanting to pay cash for the property." While one could argue that the residents would be better off within walking distance of a grocery store and other conveniences, Hargrove points out that, for many residents, the shoreline amenities likely outweigh what downtown lacks in services. Of course, he adds, "the board has a fiduciary responsibility to look at whatever comes our way, but just to jump up and say, 'we're going to do a land deal' -- that isn't going to happen."

On another level, Vignette's move downtown could help jump-start the revitalization of the long-neglected east end, including the clean-up of Waller Creek, which thus far has been stalled in the face of cost overruns. Lorenz, who owns other property along Waller Creek, thinks Vignette -- not to mention the substantial tax revenues its downtown presence would generate -- could provide the incentive to turn Waller Creek from a trashy urban waterway to a pedestrian-friendly river walk.

The creek project is just one of several ideas spinning out of the Vignette proposal. Given the demise of downtown music venues, Peters also wants to create a fund (for which he's already earmarked $1 million) to help subsidize live music in the heart of the city. And then parking has to be to be considered, as well. A public-private parking arrangement is one suggestion that would provide vehicle space for employees by day and the public by night. As for traffic, "A commuter bus is a possibility," says Peters, "but so are stipends for car pooling, or downtown living, and who knows what else the employees will come up with. They are very creative."

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