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March 8, 2019

Volume 40, Number 47

First an important announcementIn four weeks, this newsletter will reach its 40th anniversaryFor four decades, we have chronicled events about the remarkable Austin areaForty years, with a deadline every weekThis represents approximately 3 million words in 2,000 newsletter editionsAnd now, the time has come for us to change our career emphasis.

 The March 29, 2019 issue will be the final edition of The Neal Spelce Austin Letter, that we first published April 1, 1979.

 Were not going awayWe are just stepping aside from this timeconsuming enterprise, as we step forward in different directions.

Our efforts are now being turned toward an exciting new ventureAfter years of encouragement from numerous associates, friends and family, yours truly has undertaken the humbling task of a memoir book projectTo modify a line from a Farmers Insurance TV commercial, “Its about a thing or two, because weve seen a thing or two.”

The book project includes an indepth look at Austin how the metro has evolved to a globallyimportant city.  Humbly, we have come to recognize no else has during the past 40 years written each week (or, importantly, been involved in) how Austin has emerged in ways that many could never imagineThe book also includes some entertaining (we hope) accounts of a long and varied career.

We still plan to contribute our insights, perspectives and analyses to LinkedIn similar to what weve done in this newsletter, only it will be free to those who follow us on LinkedInSo, if you are interested, simply join our LinkedIn familyAlso, we are continuing ongoing consulting work, putting our decades of wideranging experience and knowledge to good use.

Well share more about all this with you over the next few weeks, before we reach the 40year milestone at the end of the month.  Well be working with our computer gurus to wind down.  Subscriptions will receive prorated refunds as appropriateAnd, we will be glad to answer any questions you may haveJust shoot us an email.

We want you to know how very much we have appreciated our loyal subscribersNow, lets get on to this weeks edition. Read more →

March 1, 2019

Volume 40, Number 46

Dear [MM_Member_Data name=’firstName’],

So, whats Michael Dell up to these days?  You know, Austins most famous billionaire who made so many Austinites millionaires the moniker Dellionaires took hold.  That was back in the day soon after the computer whiz kid came up with an industrychanging computer manufacturing concept in his UTAustin freshman dorm room.  Hes changed, his company has changed a lot.  Lets check in on how the now 54yearold is doing.

First of all, he and his wife Susan have poured immense amounts of their personal fortune into making Austin a better place.  Providing enough funds so the new UTAustin medical school bears the Dell name is just one example and no small deed.  But, as Michael Dell has grown older, his company has gone through a number of iterations.  The official company name change illustrates Dell’s new focus.  No longer is it Dell, Inc. it is now Dell Technologies.  Make no mistake, though:  Michael Dell is still very much in charge.

As the tech scene has changed since the 1980s, so has Dell.  It would take too much space to detail the move from the dorm room concept of a transformative way to build and sell computers, to going public, going private, then going public again.  The marketplace has changed and Michael Dell has continued to change with it.

A big part of the change was the acquisition of EMC, a company almost twice as large as Dell.  It cost Dell $67 billion — the largest tech deal at the time — reinforcing Dell as a powerful company specializing in selling technologies to businesses and running it for them.  Transformative!  You bet!

Wait a minute, what about the personal computers business?  As Darrell Royal used to say in a different context, you “dance with the one who brung you.”  Dell is still peddling PCs.  And, yes, you can still buy Dell personal computers.  But it is a smaller part of Dell Technologies business.

Dell is betting on the hybrid cloud, the latest iteration of cloud computing,” reported Texas Monthly (TM) in its March 2019 issue.  “Thanks to the EMC acquisition, Dell can manage … those tasks,” noted TM.  The mag also states:  “The new Dell will profit from being one of the largest, most comprehensive, most integrated product and service companies on the market.”  Check the March 2019 Texas Monthly article by Loren Steffy for more detail. Read more →

February 22, 2019

Volume 40, Number 45

Televised presidential primary debates played a huge role in helping newcomer Donald Trump beat a crowded field to win the nomination of the Republican Party last time around.  Now its the Democrats turn.  And it wont be long before the Dems line up maybe as many as 20 wannabe presidents on TV appealing for votes.  The first debate hold on is right around the calendar corner in June.  So how will the Dems decide who gets to debate?

Somehow it seems appropriate to review this topic in a week that started with the President’s Day holiday, and this issue is now being published on George Washington’s birthday.  Anyway, be that as it may, let’s get to the nitty gritty.  First of all, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is running the show – setting the rules, negotiating with the TV networks and deciding which candidates “qualify” to participate in the debates.  And, the DNC is planning 12 – count them, 12 debates during the course of the 2020 campaign cycle.

The DNC has selected NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo to carry/host the first debate on back-to-back weeknights in June 2019.  The second debate will be carried/hosted on CNN on back-to-back weeknights in July 2019.  The DNC says both agreements are unprecedented.  No debate has ever aired in prime time on back-to-back nights before.  Location, venue, moderators, date and time, format and logistics for both debates will be announced at a later date.

Which candidates will be selected out of what looks like a very crowded field?  Just because a person declares I am a candidate for president is not enough.  The DNC said candidates may qualify by meeting one of the two following sets of criteria:

A candidate must register 1% or more support in three different preselected polls conducted by different organizations and released between January 1, 2019 and 14 days prior to the debate.

The second criterion is the candidate must demonstrate the campaign has received donations from at least (1) 65,000 unique donors and (2) a minimum of 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 US states.

The Repubs haven’t announced any plans.  Trump is running for reelection and no one has yet officially announced a run against him.  Don’t worry.  Things will heat up in due time. Read more →

February 15, 2019

Volume 40, Number 44

Its more than a coincidence.  Its a bigtime trend unfolding before your eyes.  The companies of the future are betting on a future in Austin.  When you look at the size of the deals, its not bethedging or dippingacorporatetoe in the water.  Youre seeing fullblown commitments the likes of which are seldom seen in cities around the US.  The big office towers downtown and in North Austins Domain are visual indicators of this trend.

It’s usually risky business for a developer to put up a speculative office building.  Not now in Austin.  Before buildings are even completed, they are substantially leased by substantial companies.  Those pre-leases have the financial backers patting themselves on the back about how “smart” they were to support such normally-risky ventures.  Consider a few examples of what is happening in Austin in recent weeks.

The biggest and most obvious example is a visuallystrikingly 35story office building on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake downtown.  It soars to the sky, with setbacks that taper toward the top to resemble a sail on a giant sailboat.  According to news reports, all 723,000 sf have been leased by Google.  Let this sink in.  Then consider another example.

It was reported this week Amazon is leasing 145,000 sf (four floors) of a Tower under construction in The Domain that is set to be completed in the 2nd quarter of next year.  Amazon already occupies about 250,000 sf in two other office towers in The Domain.

One more example.  Facebook is said to have leased an entire 17story tower to be completed later this year in The Domain.  We’re talking about 320,000 sf.  Remember Facebook already employs about 700 people downtown, has pre-leased another 250,000 sf in a downtown skyscraper under construction and also has a fetch of employees in The Domain.

These are just a few examples and it’s certainly not a complete list.  (We haven’t even discussed the expansion of Oracles huge campus along the south side of Lady Bird Lake.)  But, let’s go back to our original thesis:  these successful mega companies are sitting on top of stacks of cash and they are pouring resources into the Austin area as they expand to become megamega entities.  Quite an endorsement of our economy, lifestyle and workforce. Read more →

February 8, 2019

Volume 40, Number 43

No doubt the availability of affordable housing is important inside the Austin city limits.  Check the exploding growth in metro suburbs where less expensive residential units can be found.  Austinites recognized this and voted in last Novembers bond election to raise $250 million toward affordability initiatives.  But, did they realize this expenditure could possibly reduce parking?  This is part of a proposal the Austin City Council will consider 2.21.19.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar has put forth a plan that will be considered in less than three weeks, and it has gained support from other council members.  City staff has been directed to draft a resolution to accomplish his objectives.  Generally, his plan would relax building size and parking restrictions if affordable housing is included in specific projects.

Right now, his plan would apply to the entire city – not limited to areas such as downtown or the West Campus adjacent to UTAustin.  As an example, this could include the high-dollar West Austin neighborhoods where it is difficult if not impossible to find lower-priced living units.

Admittedly, Casar’s plan is aimed at developers who are already specializing in subsidized, low-income housing.  It would allow those developers to make at least 50% of all rental units available to renters who earn 60% or less of the median family income.  For homeowners, income restrictions would be set at 80% of the median family income.

In return, developers would have looser height restrictions.  They could go 25% higher than the current building codes allow.  Also, and this is important, parking minimums would be eliminated.  Casar maintains that waiving these current requirements would allow a significant number of affordable units to be build at little cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, this does not address the additional stress of more vehicles in areas with no parking provided for them.  Don’t forget:  once these regulations are in effect for areas where affordable housing is currently desirable, the plan is still slated to be citywide.  So the devil will be in the details as the language is lockedin prior to the 2.21.19 City Council meeting when it will be up for consideration.  Another factor to consider:  this is planned to stand apart when the City Manager presents an overall code rewrite in the weeks ahead.  Stay tuned. Read more →

January 25, 2019

Volume 40, Number 41

The City of Austin has invested heavily in contracts for wind energy to produce electricity.  It indicated it may continue to do so in the future.  Austins commitments have helped Texas emerge as the nations leader in wind energy. This is taking place in a state where oil is king, with no signs of relinquishing its crown.  So, what is the future for wind as a power source?

Let’s get this out of the way up front:  wind power can exist alongside Texas abundance of oil and gas.  Its not an either/or situation.  In fact, visual evidence exists in West Texas where both giant spinning wind turbines and oil/gas wells dot the same wide-open landscape.  It’s a below-ground industry working beside an above-ground dynamic.

Back to the original question, what is the future for wind power?  Wind energy is an expanding business.  And it is not just for generating electricity.  For instance, there are nearly 13,000 wind turbines operating in Texas for electricity.  Yet, there are still another 80,000 wind turbines spinning in the state that are used for pumping water and other purposes.  (Think windmills pumping water in the days of the Old West.)

We focus on Austin’s energy needs, rightly so.  But considering the future of wind energy it’s important to note “wind power has become an invaluable tool in the rural economic development space,” reports Powering Texas.  It is providing opportunities for landowners and local school districts, as well as creating jobs,

The national wind energy association reports Texas is home to nearly fourdozen manufacturing facilities and numerous component suppliers.  This is a growing support group for the expanding wind energy industry.  Not only this, but eight of the worlds ten largest wind farms are in the US and five of those are in Texas.

The US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration this month released bullish 2019 projections.  Some of its strong forecast is based on these facts:  1) there is already installed wind capacity in Texas amounting to 23,421 megawatts, 2) Texas wind capacity under construction is 6,148 megawatts, and 3) the wind capacity in advanced development is 1,804 megawatts.  Do the math.  In the pipeline (so to speak) is a capacity that will increase wind power in Texas by more than onethird.  This is a hefty increase, signifying a solid future. Read more →

January 11, 2019

Volume 40, Number 39

Property values are increasing dramatically in highdemand, lowavailability parts of Austin.  Take the land west of the UTAustin campus where hot new development projects include highrise (and highdollar) luxury living units.  But, prime land is at a premium.  So, how do you meet strong demand?  An emerging trend is to build in air space above existing structures that are ideally located.  At the forefront of this trend is a church.  Thats right, a church.

You couldn’t ask for a much more ideal location for high rise student living units than in the 2000 block of Guadalupe Street (The Drag), alongside the UTAustin campus.  This is the location of St. Austins Catholic ParishSt. Austins is in active negotiation for air space development rights above its property.  This could be a big win-win for both parties.

Currently we are negotiating an exclusive agreement with Greystar, where we will spend the next couple of months developing the financial model that tells us if we could make a project work for all of us,” the pastor, Rev. Fr. Charles Kullman, told his parish.  The property is huge.  It not only includes the church facility itself but other buildings such as the rectory, offices, school, etc.

Greystar, he said, is a global leader in student housing with assets close to $30 billion.  “They stood out with their global experience and specific experience in West Campus, and it has the balance sheet needed to support a potential project of this size,” said Fr. Kullman.

Negotiations are not public, but the church will probably want to improve its existing facilities and negotiate ongoing payments from the development, while it maintains ownership and control of the land and church assets.  Greystar would, within existing city zoning regs, see how many living units (condos? rentals?) it can build and how high it can rise above the church facilities.

So, what’s the timetable?  “No decision to move forward will be made until everyone is comfortable with the financial model and it is approved by the Diocese,” said Fr. Kullman.  “I expect it would be sometime in late February before we get through this next step.”  St. Austins, by the way, tried to work a similar air space deal with UTAustin, but was told the universitys business model does not include student housing off their own property.  Also, we understand a small UTAustin fraternity, Acacia, is also working on an air space deal. Read more →

December 14, 2018

Volume 40, Number 37

As 2018 winds down, its time to look ahead to what can be expected in 2019 (especially since this is our final 2018 issue, as we take our traditional yearend 2week hiatus).  In no particular order, lets hit as many issues as we can cram into this weeks newsletter.  First, as you plan your 2019 travel, heres what you can expect at Austins airport.

Frequent flyers know record-breaking passenger traffic has crowded the corridors, security lines and parking at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) this year.  It is averaging a huge 15.1% increase over last year, with no additional airport capacity.  Hang on.  Help is on the way.  And sooner, rather than later.

Nine new gates are nearing completion.  They should be quite impressive.  They will open in phases in the next year.  The north facing gates are on track to open in the spring of 2019.  This is none too soon.  But final construction will continue on new restaurant space, concessions and for an area ABIA calls the patio.  All this and the south facing gates are set to open by fall of 2019.

Important, but not as sexy, the remodeling and modernization of 13 vestibules is entering into the final construction phase.  Vestibules are the automatic sliding glass entrances and exits.  They will be enlarged to allow more space to enter and exit the terminal with luggage, while controlling drafts and the loss of cooled air.

In 2019, look for a continued major increase in passenger traffic.  But, by the end of the year, the new construction should alleviate some of the hassle as you travel through ABIA. Read more →

December 7, 2018

Volume 40, Number 35

Its common these days for glowing national articles to be written about Austin.  So when an opinion piece in a respected national publication criticizes actions by Austin, you need to be aware of what is being said.  Within the past week, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) wrote the City of Austin risks becoming the San Francisco of the South an expensive playground for wealthy progressives.”  And it cited examples.

 “It would be hard to find a better example of left-wing naiveite in municipal affairs than what transpired here in November,” wrote the WSJ in its opening sentence.  “Voters in the Lone Star State’s progressive bastion overwhelmingly approved a $925 billion bond package, but rejected a simple ballot initiative for an independent audit of city spending.”

“The defeat of the audit wouldn’t be so galling if the new bonds didn’t so obviously demonstrate the need for an independent review of Austin’s books.  Spending in the Texas capital is more like what one would expect in some profligate California city,” observed with WSJ.  “With this new bond package, Austin has been reduced to using debt to fund parks, public safety and sidewalk repair instead of paying for them out of its $4.1 billion annual budget.”

It cited other examples saying Austin “spends too much of its steadily growing budget on dubious social programs and utopian schemes, financed by a steadily growing tax burden.”  It ticked off actions such as mandatory paid sick leave “with an exemption, of course, for union shops.”  A solar-ready requirement for all new homes and commercial buildings was another example, as was “exorbitantly high development fees that get passed on to consumers.”

The priority of the citys ultraprogressive political establishment is to serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people who fund and elect Austins insular political class,” claims the WSJ opinion piece.  “As living here gets more expensive and as the city’s elite dig in to protect their left-wing haven from disruption and change,” it becomes more like San Francisco.  Tough talk.

Let’s put this in perspective.  Readers of the WSJ can agree or disagree with this assessment.  This is not the point.  The pointthis review of the City of Austins governing policies is now out there for all to see.  In a respected publication. Read more →

November 23, 2018

Volume 40, Number 34

While enjoying leftovers from the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, its time to look ahead at a special Austin City Council runoff election that will likely be largely overlooked.  Even though Council positions are theoretically nonpartisan candidates are not listed by political affiliation Council District 8 has taken on an aggressively partisan Dem vs Repub tone.

It’s a special runoff election December 11, 2018 for three seats on the Austin City Council.  No candidate got 50+% of the vote November 6, 2018.  So the top two votegetters for District 1, District 3 and District 8 must face voters once again.  Here’s how it breaks down.

District 1 features newcomers Natasha HarperMadison against Mariana Salazar.  District 3 is a re-match of a family affair:  incumbent Pio Renteria is in the runoff with his sister, Susana Almanza.  Neither of these contests has partisan overtones.  No matter who is elected, these districts will continue to be represented by another leftleaning Council member.

The change in tone is for the District 8 Council seat.  You’ll recall this is the Council district currently represented by Ellen Troxclair.  An avowed conservative, Troxclair – who was frequently on the short end of 10-1 votes – decided not to seek re-election.

The runoff for this seat pits Paige Ellis against Frank Ward.  Why do we say this is a highly-partisan contest?  The Travis County Democratic Party endorsed Ellis.  And described the contest this way:  “Her opponent Frank Ward is a TrumpRepublican and former staffer for the Republican National Committee endorsed by outgoing conservative Council Member Ellen Troxclair.”

The Dem Chair says of Ellis:  “Paige is an advocate for Planned Parenthood and believes that Austin can be a leader in gun safety reform … and is running to ensure environmental responsibility.”  The Democratic Party is raising money for Ellis and is block-walking Sunday, November 25th to get out the vote for her.

If Ellis wins, there will be no conservative voice, much less a lone vote, on the Austin City Council.  And, as the Austin American-Statesman noted previously, in the very diverse 11-member City Council, there will be no white, heterosexual, Christian male serving on the lawmaking body.  Early voting runs from November 29th to December 7th. Read more →