Everybody Loves a Wynn-er

City Hall's new local flavor: pure vanilla, mixed with nuts

Everybody Loves a Wynn-er
Photo By John Anderson

On the one hand: Will Wynn is the pro-business, tight-fisted, basic-services-hawking anchor of the right flank of the Austin City Council, and the favorite council member of the Austin American-Statesman.

On the other hand: Will Wynn has, twice, been dubbed Best Council Member by you, Chronicle readers, in the "Best of Austin" poll.

On the one hand: Will Wynn was the only council member to vote against keeping the Austin Music Network alive.

On the other hand: Will Wynn led the charge to get $150,000 for a city-funded skateboard park.

On the one hand: Will Wynn lives in quite comfortable surroundings in Tarrytown with a lovely (and wealthy) wife -- Anne Elizabeth, an artist, arts patron, and civic volunteer -- and two adorable daughters.

On the other hand: Will Wynn, for years, rode the bus to work, from Tarrytown. ("Every day neighbors would stop and ask if I needed a ride. Real quickly I started to realize how annoying that was. Eventually they stopped asking.")

On the one hand: Will Wynn is, without question, the richest member of the current City Council, between his wife's resources ("I made my money the old-fashioned way; I married it") and his own packaging of what is now the Congress at Fourth skyscraper project.

On the other hand: Will Wynn grew up in "working-class, at best" circumstances in Beaumont, the sixth of seven children, was one of few white students in his schools, and had "never been north of Marble Falls" until after he graduated from Texas A&M.

On the one hand: Will Wynn has the best suits on the City Council and is often described as "buttoned-down" or "preppy."

On the other hand: Will Wynn upstaged his colleagues and friends by not only modeling local hip-hop fashions at a community benefit, but by dropping his baggy pants at exactly the right moment.

On the one hand: Will Wynn is a developer, the former chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and the leader of the current council's economic recovery efforts.

On the other hand: Will Wynn "essentially flunked out of (Harvard) Business School," quit a good real-estate job so he wouldn't have to build over the aquifer, gave the DAA's highest honor to the Save Our Springs Alliance, and bought a building on Sixth Street so he could open a youth hostel.

On the one hand: Will Wynn is the odds-on favorite to be Austin's next mayor, in large part, because he has his own money to spend on his campaign and can thus get around Austin's $100 campaign-finance limit.

On the other hand: Will Wynn -- who expects to raise $150,000, in $100 increments, in the current campaign -- hates the $100 limit and led the effort to repeal it. "I'll try to kill it every chance I get," he says. "Screwing around with the First Amendment scares me a lot more than Don Henley giving Daryl Slusher $50,000."

Everybody Loves a Wynn-er
Photo By John Anderson

On the one hand: To a broad base of locals, Will Wynn represents the "consensus" that controlled City Hall during the peak of the Watson boom.

On the other hand: Now that Beverly Griffith is gone, Will Wynn is the most contrarian member of the council and, as the election gets nearer, will probably become more so.

You get the idea. The man with the made-for-politics name and well-lighted path to the mayor's office is the same man who says that three years ago, when he was first encouraged to run for council, "I couldn't have told you who was in which seat and which one I was supposed to run for. I hadn't been politically active at all." How quickly things change.

Will Wynn's future may currently be so bright not despite but because of his contradictions. Many progressives, looking at the field for the May election, fear that Will Wynn is too pro-biz and conservative ("He voted for Stratus!"). Many Chamber types fear that he is too flaky and progressive ("He supports two-way streets!"). Both are right. So far, as a public presence, Wynn is his own flavor of ice cream -- pure vanilla, but mixed with nuts.

Instead of making Will Wynn the leader of a party of one, this seems poised to make him the leader of us all, because Austin is itself a mess of contradictions right now. On the one hand, we want to get back on track economically, and Wynn is without question a booster who speaks the language of growth. On the other hand, we want to keep Austin weird, and Will Wynn, when you get right down to it, is weird (in a good way, of course). Being all things to all people is, of course, a useful political skill. But unlike most practitioners of the art, Will Wynn may not be able to help himself.

Birth of a New Urbanist

Growing up in the Golden Triangle, Will Wynn's goal in life was to "leave at 18, never to come back." He got as far as College Station, where he studied architecture. "In retrospect, I wasn't very artistic," he says, "but I was technically proficient." He ended up doing half of his college time in Austin on a co-op program, living in his brother's spare room, taking ACC classes at night, and working by day as a draftsman at the firm of Shefelman and Nix, whose offices were then and are now right across the street from City Hall.

When Wynn got here in 1981, "Barton Creek Square had just been finished, and the boycott was still going on. My first experience with urban land use and environmentalism -- back in Beaumont, you'd never heard of such things -- was my brother railing against the developer who scraped the top of that mountain clean off and covered it with asphalt. It was great for a kid to see how a normal citizen could be pissed off about something on the other side of town."

The normal next step for a promising Aggie architecture student would have been grad school at UT, but instead Wynn took a job in Chicago with LaSalle Partners (what is now Jones Lang LaSalle), one of America's top commercial real estate firms. "I made a conscious decision to not pursue 'architecture' in the traditional sense," he says. "Tom Shefelman was absolutely a mentor of mine, but working for him I could see what that life was really like -- that architecture was an old man's profession and you'd have to pay your dues for decades before having any real impact on a project. I saw I'd have more of an impact working in real estate in Chicago than by becoming a junior architect in a big firm in Houston."

While Wynn -- a seventh-generation Texan who at that point had seen "three whole counties" in his life -- figured his northern sojourn would be temporary, it was also transformative. "Within 48 hours, I had been beamed into Lincoln Park (a neighborhood on Chicago's North Side) and turned into a city boy," he says. "In Tony Lamas. Which wore out quickly, because I walked everywhere." (Wynn abandoned his car upon discovering the cost of urban auto insurance.) "It was a great quality of life even though it wasn't Disney World -- the sidewalks are crumbling, the buses smell bad, there's crap all over the place. Some of the 10 millionaires I worked for lived in the same neighborhood and rode the same crummy buses. And they would have to stand."

Thus a New Urbanist is born; though not a bona fide architect (a point of contention during his 2000 council race), Wynn certainly knows and cares more about urban design and the ideas behind Smart Growth than any council member in recent memory. But this avocation was not as important to advancement at LaSalle -- "a pretty blue-blooded, hoity-toity company" -- as an MBA; he chose Harvard "because half the people I worked with were Harvard MBAs, and they were all smart and made a lot of money." Harvard chose him back. "And I had a miserable experience. I hated it." He lasted one year.

To make matters worse, Wynn's older brother Steve -- a quadriplegic after a car wreck in 1970, when he was 16 and Will nine -- died in 1987, just as Wynn was headed to Harvard. "The original accident was very traumatic -- we had this little house with lots of siblings, and suddenly a third of it becomes a hospital." Wynn, his brothers, and especially his mother took care of Steve -- "kept him alive," he says -- for the next two decades. "So when he died, it was a tough thing for my family."

Wynn's escape hatch from Harvard ended up being a three-month stint in the Texas governor's office, part of a fellowship program Harvard created to teach biz-school brats "ethics" and "public service" at the height of the yuppie era. Once that summer internship ran out, Wynn quickly discovered that Austin was not a land of opportunity. "When I lived in Austin working for Shefelman, One American Center was still under construction, and all three towers at the south end of Congress hadn't been built. When I came back, they were all built, and all empty, and there were no jobs in Austin in my fields. I didn't know all that when I left Harvard."

From Katmandu to the DAA

Wynn ended up with a job in Dallas ("I'd like to say I was reluctant to move to Dallas, but really I thanked God that I had a job"), but his career path would soon bring him back to the 512 area code. His employer, Faison-Stone (predecessor of today's Cousins Properties, developer of Congress at Fourth), won the contract to redevelop -- and redeem -- the former First City Centre on Ninth and Congress, what is now Frost Bank Plaza. "When I had worked at Shefelman and Nix, I would bring my sack lunch to work and take it to the construction site for First City Centre," Wynn says. "I was 19 years old and I'd never watched a big building -- or even a three-story building -- being built. And I remember thinking 'Jeez, this looks pretty cheap and cheesy.'"

Ten years later, by the time Faison-Stone took over, the exterior of First City Centre had begun to fall in large chunks to the sidewalk 20 stories below, and the Teachers Retirement System of Texas had foreclosed on the building and taken a $42 million bath. "The only thing we could do was tell TRS that, while the building was still occupied, and filled with litigious law firms" -- First City Centre was then home to Austin's very active bankruptcy court -- "they would have to take the entire exterior skin out and replace it. And that this would only cost them $40 million -- and that when we were done, the building would still be worth only $40 million. They hired us anyway."

Wynn commuted from Dallas for six years, until finally convincing his boss to relocate him to Austin in 1993. It took Wynn nine months to make the 200-mile move; he and Anne Elizabeth (they married in 1992) traveled from Dallas to Austin via Katmandu. "We got the malaria pills and water filters and visas and synthetic underwear and each packed a backpack, and we worked our way across Asia, through 18 countries, then through Africa -- to a lot of places we couldn't take kids, when we had kids, or where we'd be too decrepit to go after the kids were grown." Wynn's backpack got stolen in Pakistan, "and I showed up in Katmandu with the clothes on my back. And I outfitted myself there, for $11, because all the other American backpackers would trade their clothes for pot. I got a whole wardrobe. I still wear those clothes all the time." Now, of course, he can afford a slightly better wardrobe. Anne Elizabeth owns a share of her father's successful petro-chemical distribution firm.

After limping back to Austin, the weary traveler, now Faison-Stone's managing director and thus a Downtown real estate player, found his way into the circle from which his mayoral prospects truly spring. "Faison-Stone's headquarters were in Charlotte, which was of a similar scale to Austin but which was a real downtown town. Overnight it became a national banking center, and the banks and all the other major employers were downtown, and you were a loser if you weren't. We'd break for lunch at meetings in Charlotte, and I'd be one of hundreds of people crossing the street at the light. And I would think about this stuff.

"One day, after I flew back to Austin, at noon on a Thursday, I'm at Ninth and Congress and realize I am the only person crossing the street. And I thought, 'This is pathetic. I'm in the heart of Downtown, in the shadow of the Capitol of a state of 20 million people, and nobody is here.' Instead of looking for a sandwich, I went and found the Downtown Austin Alliance and asked how I could sign up."

Everybody Loves a Wynn-er
Photo By John Anderson

At the time, the DAA -- a public improvement district supported by assessments on major Downtown commercial properties, including Frost Bank Plaza -- was five years old and mostly focused on Downtown housekeeping chores, like graffiti abatement and employing the Austin Downtown Rangers. It took almost no role in either economic development efforts or the city's broader politics. Wynn ended up becoming chair of the DAA board "right when the Watson council was first elected," he says. "Some of the business guys on the board were saying 'Woe is us; our candidates were slaughtered. Now Downtown is really toast.' And I knew they were looking at this backward. If Downtown were to ever get the attention I think it needs, it would have to be as neutral ground. It could be the geopolitically neutral spot for everyone to come sing 'Kumbaya.'"

That is, both the businessmen and the enviros could agree that developing Downtown -- "which has been 100% impervious cover for more than 100 years" -- was in their respective interests. Watson, of course, threw his considerable energies behind this platform, and Austin's New Deal was ratified in May 1998, when voters approved bonds to both expand the Convention Center and acquire conservation lands over the Edwards Aquifer. "The whole city could take advantage of the fact that Downtown had been dormant for a decade," Wynn says. "With the 1998 bond election, we showed we could get some stuff done -- the things I had been thinking about and trying to live daily. We went from worrying about keeping the streets free of litter to having Fortune 500 companies wanting to move their headquarters Downtown. It was a pretty dramatic change."

Smart Civitas

By that time, Wynn had parted ways with Faison-Stone, because once Frost Bank Plaza was done, his next project would be Motorola's then-planned campus near Circle C Ranch. "I told my boss that I'd rather spend my time bettering Downtown than building over the aquifer." In June 1997, he founded his own one-man show, Civitas Investments Inc., "for the sole purpose of doing the stuff I was passionate about -- helping Downtown, hopefully making some money, rehabbing some old buildings, and challenging the status quo about mixed use." "Civitas" means "citizenship" in Latin, and "as corny as it sounds, each project I did had to have a civic reason behind it. I didn't want to do a real estate deal just to do a deal."

Though Wynn is usually described as a "Downtown developer," he actually only owns two small buildings, both on Sixth Street, both historic. One, 701 E. Sixth, "was the first Hispanic-run hotel in Downtown." The roof had caved in when Wynn bought it; it now houses a tech company. Along with rehabbing the structure, Wynn turned the adjacent, abandoned portion of the Sabine Street right of way into a green space, completing a link of the Waller Creek trail and earning a Keep Austin Beautiful award. It was Wynn's first real face-to-face experience with City Hall. "I had to submit 17 sets of plans to 17 departments to spend my own money to beautify the city's own abandoned right of way," he says. "They wouldn't let me dig up the street, and they wouldn't let me plant trees. So I ended up with 4,000 square feet of lawn in the middle of Downtown."

It got worse with the second Civitas project, 600 E. Sixth -- "a typical nondescript Sixth Street bar" that, Wynn discovered, was the former Anderson-Caldwell dry goods store -- one of Austin's early black-owned businesses -- built in 1894. He had already decided the second floor should be home to a youth hostel, to help bring back the mixed-use and multicultural character that historic Sixth Street once enjoyed. "From a bureaucratic standpoint, that project nearly broke me," he says. "Every conceivable hurdle was placed in my path. After an unbelievably bad experience with city bureaucracy, the youth hostel opened up right before 9/11. It didn't do well. Right now, the building is completely vacant." The lower level has been home to several bars, including the Rehab Lounge, which to Wynn's consternation was busted and shut down for liquor-law violations in 2001.

By that time, of course, Wynn had been elected to the City Council, but before that he had embarked on the third, and biggest, Civitas project -- saving and restoring the Mexic-Arte Museum. The museum's building at Congress and Fourth was built in 1868, by one George Custer -- yes, that Custer -- as the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Army. It later became the Raymond Hotel. "On the first floor was a saloon, on the top floor was a whorehouse, and the legislators, when they came to town, lived in between," Wynn says. "Talk about smart growth."

Wynn's strategy, assisted by much larger partners like Tom Stacy -- owner of the Littlefield and Scarborough buildings, and like Wynn a former chair of the DAA -- was to assemble all of Block 42. "CSC had just happened, and Downtown was going to boom, and I saw the writing on the wall," Wynn says. "Mexic-Arte had been on a month-to-month lease for 15 years with an owner who clearly wanted to bulldoze the place. It took assembling the block to create value to justify that guy's sales price; then Mexic-Arte could stay, and we could do something else on that block."

"Something else" turned out to be Congress at Fourth, the biggest real estate deal in Austin in years, being built right now by Faison-Stone's corporate heir Cousins Properties -- a coincidence that Wynn says is just that. By the time Stacy swung that deal, Wynn had already sought, then won, the City Council seat vacated in 2000 by Bill Spelman. Wynn's vision for Block 42 was "a 21-to-25-story building, and that's what Tom thought he sold to Cousins," Wynn says. "They said thank you very much and then brought in their own deal. What's being built there is not mine." When completed, Congress at Fourth will be Austin's tallest building at 33 stories.

During the campaign, "it was an appropriate but small issue," Wynn says. "People would ask 'Don't you own a bunch of Downtown real estate?' And I said if it ever became an issue, I'd divest and then recuse myself from any council action." It did become an issue only a few months after Wynn took office, when the council agreed to give Mexic-Arte $700,000 to buy the building from the Block 42 partnership. "We bought it for $2 million," Wynn notes, adding that he was already in the midst of selling out his share of the partnership. "I told the council in executive session how much of the partnership I owned, left the room, left the dais, and went and sat outside. I've never even seen the tape."

Coalitions and Contentions

Wynn's 2000 race was both the apex of the Watson coalition's success and the first sign of its eventual undoing; his strongest challenger, longtime neighborhood activist Clare Barry, enjoyed solid support from progressives but found herself unable to top Wynn's backing by both business interests and environmental leaders, notably his good friend Robin Rather, then-chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance. (The now-notorious Democratic fundraiser that tripped up Rather's father, CBS anchor Dan Rather, was held at Wynn's house.) Although the DAA and SOS had teamed up on the 1998 bonds, the greens' entry into Downtown power circles was still a novelty to the DAA's real estate base. When Wynn told his board he was giving SOS a DAA award, "there was a pause, to put it politely, in the boardroom," he says. (At this time Wynn was "chair emeritus." His successor as chair was Statesman publisher Mike Laosa.)

At the awards ceremony, "There are 50 tables and 10 of them are filled with people like Bill Bunch and Robin Rather. I thought that was awesome. And I don't think I got out of the room before a couple of people asked me if I would run for City Council." Wynn disputes the oft-cited story that Bill Spelman gave up his seat because he found Wynn a suitable successor. "It's flattering to see that people think I'm the object of a big conspiracy, but Bill and I never spoke before he announced [he would not run for re-election]."

Wynn famously spent $90,000 of his own money in the 2000 race; many progressives are still bitter that he "bought the election," and when his mayoral aspirations became apparent, most political observers realized he would self-finance this campaign as well if necessary, which is why the field is, as of yet, devoid of the strongest potential challengers -- like Rather or Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. However, Wynn is eager to point out that he got $100 checks from more than 700 people in 2000 -- leaving Watson aside, more than all other candidates in that cycle combined. "That's when I realized the ludicrousness of this $100 deal," he says, "and I had to spend my own money, which I hated spending. But to send a single postcard to every registered voter in Austin costs $104,000.

"When I asked [political consultant] David Butts how much it would cost to run for council, he said between $150,000 and $175,000. And having watched the Watson/Reynolds race, that didn't seem like a lot of money. But a human being could not make more calls than I was making to people I didn't know, asking for $100 checks, and it was still only $70,000." Wynn got the council -- on a 4-3 vote -- to put repealing the $100 limit on last year's charter ballot; he had initially tried to get it raised to $500, "which is small in the scheme of things. But I wouldn't have to put in a single penny of my own money; if I could, I'd rather do it all with small donations. But it will cost a couple hundred grand for a very modest campaign. People in comparable cities" -- Atlanta, Boston, Seattle, Denver -- "would be stunned to know you could run for mayor for only $200,000."

The wrangling over last year's charter ballot was a prime example of Wynn's claim-staking at City Hall -- representing what looks like consensus, but doing so in an often adversarial way, the mirror image of his then-colleague Beverly Griffith. On balance, he has gored progressive oxen more than the centrist steeds, but there are exceptions -- like two-way streets downtown. Or his recent triangulations during the Barton Springs toxics flap, which set him against City Manager Toby Futrell and her support from the rest of the council, and which seemed to echo the Statesman's assertions of city malfeasance -- but which, in the main, also echoed the stance of today's SOS Alliance. Like Griffith, Wynn does not see being at the bottom of a 6-1 vote -- as with the Austin Music Network, or his abstention last week (with Betty Dunkerley) on the resolution against war in Iraq -- as a hindrance to his mayoral ambitions.

And, like Griffith, he has managed to piss off at least some of his colleagues in the process. Perhaps most damaging was his, uh, naive attempt during last year's deficit-ridden budget cycle to get council members to cut their own office budgets (and staffing) in half, as he had done, to show "we need to get out of the wagon and help pull." The latent message -- that council offices are overstaffed and not pulling their weight -- was not appreciated, and neither were Wynn's tactics, which were almost too awkward to be called "grandstanding." (Fewer staff members doesn't necessarily mean greater efficiency: Wynn's voice mail is routinely full, so if you wish to contact him, you'd better have e-mail and plenty of patience.) Some hard feelings persist, particularly between him and Goodman. Should Will Wynn become the next Kirk Watson, Jackie Goodman is well positioned to become his Beverly Griffith.

Catching the Car

If elected, Wynn will more likely be expected to be the next Watson than the next Gus Garcia, but he says he has learned from both masters. "In less than three years in office, I've served with two very different mayors, two very different city managers, and two very different economies," he says. "I'm hoping that will serve me well. When Kirk was re-elected and I was elected, I had never done this before -- the DAA board was my first exposure to this 'parliamentary' bullshit -- and he was the master of that. So I couldn't help but learn a lot from him.

"But from Gus I've learned completely different lessons. Gus recognizes you need more than just four votes -- you need input, ideas, and on many issues in the community you need an example, to see how other people and other interests deal with a situation. Serving with Gus has helped me really understand the role I want to play." Of course, Wynn was, by many reports, poised to run against Garcia should he have stood for re-election -- one topic on which Wynn is notably not-quite candid. "I'm glad I didn't have to decide whether to run against Gus," he says. "Let's leave it at that."

Garcia is, of course, also a model for Wynn because he faced the same economic and fiscal crunch the next mayor will face -- "The next mayor will be the dog who caught the car," Wynn says. The turmoil during Wynn's not-yet-one term has made his tenure seem a lot longer than three years. But he is still pretty much a toddler where Austin politics is concerned, although his campaign rhetoric is already focused on the far future. As he opines on his new push card -- printed, naturally, in several shades of green -- "Twenty years from now I want our community to look back and say we made the right decisions and preserved what was best about Austin."

And what might that be? Wynn isn't sure he knows, and he suggests that might explain his rapid upward mobility from good civic soldier to possible commanding officer. "A bunch of Austinites have looked up around the same time and said 'Wow! Who are we?' and are challenging preconceptions of what Austin City Hall is all about. And I find myself in the middle of that. Some people would say that it's a great thing about me -- that I can ramp up that quickly -- but I think it says great things about Austin. It's a town that's open, accepting, challenging, and if you're energetic and creative and want to get things done, there's no better town in America." end story

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  • More of the Story

  • Will Will Wynn Win?

    A rundown on Wynn's opponents -- so far -- in the 2003 mayor's race.

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