Inside the New Lake Austin Wonderland — How a Maverick Entrepreneur Made Four Seasons and Hines See His Unconventional Cliffside Vision
What Jonathan Coon is Really Doing With the Much Talked About Four Seasons Private Residences Lake AustinBY Chris Baldwin // 02.01.22
A $15 million funicular elevator will whisk homeowners at Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin down to the lake in air conditioned comfort. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin will be a high-end community like no other in one of the hottest real estate markets in America. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
It took more than six years for Jonathan Coon and his wife Kirsten to purchase the parcel of land that will be home to Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin residents will have lake views like no other. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
Jonathan Coon turned himself into a very wealthy man, starting with a business that began in his BYU dorm room.
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin is aiming for a new level of lake living. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
There will be a full infinity pool at Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
An aerial view of the site of Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin shows how vast the site is. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin is the kind of retreat that Jonathan Coon wants to call home. And he and his wife Kirsten will live there. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners
A private lake clubhouse will be part of Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin's draw. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin will be unlike any other Austin neighborhood. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin will have some of the best views in Austin. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin will have plenty of community spaces, including a full indoor basketball court. And clay tennis court. (Courtesy Austin Capital Partners)
AUSTIN — Jonathan Coon stops in mid sentence, his eyes fixating on something across the room. The serial entrepreneur who made himself into a very wealthy man sees something that needs to be corrected. A wayward marker.
“I’m going to straighten this out,” Coon says. “It’s driving me nuts.”
Coon goes all the way around a long boardroom table to get to a big whiteboard, where the askew marker rests. “They’re going to dry this marker out,” Coon says, shaking his head. “They’re retractable markers so they never dry out. As long as you retract it. Somebody didn’t retract it.”
Coon clicks the marker to retract it and goes right back to talking about the Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin, a 145 acre land with 179 future residences on a spectacular hillside 370 feet above the lake that sprang out of his desire to live in the most stunning, pampering place in Austin. It took Coon and his wife Kirsten more than six years to acquire the prime piece of cliffside land, which had been covertly owned by Exxon, more than a year to get things approved and three years to get it designed just right.
But to truly understand the level of making sure every detail is perfect that Jonathan Coon is putting into this, you need to spend time with him. And see how he reacts to a rogue marker.
“I’m OCD,” Coon says. “As a fellow neighbor, anything that a neighbor probably finds upsetting is probably like something I’ve already identified. Because I dislike any kind of little details that are off. They drive me nuts.”
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin aims to make lakeside living more convenient — and luxurious — than anyone’s ever imagined. Consider the $15 million funicular elevator — completely glass enclosed and air conditioned — that will whisk homeowners down to the lake. Amazing views all the way. Or the full clay tennis court, indoor basketball court or 82-foot long indoor pool and gardens.
There is also a 576 foot private marina, which will make you a boat person without ever having to actually own a boat. (You go out on a Four Seasons prepared craft.)
“There’s no kind of low friction, feel like a guest home ownership experience in Austin,” Coon tells PaperCity. “No where we could find. So we decided to create it a at a cost of incredibly high friction for us.
“It’s probably (for) like minded people who would like to have a low friction lifestyle. There’s a saying that a friend of mine has that is ‘You’re going to like everything about this except the price.’ ”
These private residences will start at $4 million for the smallest of them (they range from 1,900 to 7,000 square feet). Coon’s convinced some of the most respected and powerful entities in global real estate and hospitality that plenty of wealthy people will be eager to pay those prices to get this setting — and perks.
Hines and Four Seasons are both all in as co-developers with Coon’s Austin Capital Partners (Jason Subotky, and Eduardo Margain.co-founded the company with him). For Four Seasons, this will be one of only a very few standalone residences (one not connected to a hotel or resort) it has in the world. Currently, the only other standalone Four Seasons Private Residences can be found in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Another standalone Four Seasons Private Residences will soon open in Dubai (it’s already sold out). And another is in the works for Marrakech, Morocco.
Now, you can put Austin among those true global hubs. You get the idea that Matthew McConaughey would dig it.
“Four Seasons is all about the best of the best,” Four Seasons Private Residences president Paul White tells PaperCity. “This is one of the most special —if not the most special — undeveloped sites left in Austin and all of Texas. Austin is one of the hottest real estate markets in the world and we wanted to be a part of that. In a truly special setting.
“It’s really a no brainer. This setting and Four Seasons’ service are a seamless fit.”
Standing up on top of the four story tower that Coon had built just to show off the views to potential home buyers, it’s easy to see the appeal. Nothing but green, dense trees and bushes stretch out below, leading all the way down to the glistening lake. There’s even a nice breeze — almost as if Coon ordered it.
A plain clothes security guy named Carl sits in a black SUV parked in a shaded area on the edge of the land cleared for the tower. Carl is anything but a simple rent a cop. But if you happen to trespass onto the land when Jonathan Coon is there, Carl’s boss is likely to invite you up the tower to take a long look around.
On the day of this reporter’s exclusive tour of the property, two nearby neighbors (nearby’s a relative term in this case) hike an hour through the brush to get to the tower. And Coon enthusiastically calls down for them to come up. The two men already know Coon by sight from the countless meetings he held with neighborhood groups in the area.
But you get the idea that Coon would be happy to share this view — and his vision for the property — with anyone.
Jonathan Coon’s Dream Home Mission
Coon, who looks at least 10 years younger than his 52 years, is something of an unlikely real estate developer. He first gained notice as the college student founder of 1-800-CONTACTS, selling contact lenses for cheaper (and getting them turned around faster) out of his dorm room than the major eye stores did. That homespun operation ended up disrupting the entire contacts industry, changing federal law and growing into the behemoth that Coon sold for $900 million in 2012. Coon later financed the indie classic Napoleon Dynamite, which was produced and edited by his younger brother Jeremy Coon.
You’d completely expect Jonathan Coon to give a TED talk (he did demo an app there). The idea of him leading a real estate seminar is not so easy to picture. Which is sort of the point. And what’s liable to make Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin so unique.
“Other developers have 10 projects,” Coon says. “I have one.”
One he and his wife plan to live at. To Hines and Four Seasons, this is an unbelievable piece of real estate on the lake that should only become more and more valuable over the years. To Jonathan Coon, it is his chance to build his family’s dream home — and bet that 178 other families (or individuals) will dig his vision of what lake living can be.
“Most things I get involved with I start by wanting to be the customer,” Coon says as he guides a black luxury SUV over the rough terrain of what will be part of this multi-million dollar lake community. “And in this case my wife and I saw the view that you just saw and said we’d like to live here.
“But we can’t afford to be the only two people who do. So it becomes a project.”
One that has Coon thinking about every little detail. Even for the metal viewing tower that will be dismantled once the home sites are purchased and the real building begins. “We probably ought to have a lightning rod,” Coon announces, almost to himself, as we’re high up in the tower, looking out on the blue water of Lake Austin.
“Even a billionaire would kind of double clutch and go, ‘I don’t know. We’re going to spend 15 million dollars on an elevator just for us?’ But when you divide by 179, things that seemed insane become practical.” — Jonathan Coon
You don’t think this guy has already obsessed over, analyzed and reanalyzed every detail of the community where he wants to live? The team from the Ocean’s Eleven movies had less elaborate plans than Jonathan Coon.
Consider Coon’s insistence on making sure that none of the 179 residences will face West. The vast majority will face North.
“It’s really important — in our perspective — when you’re designing in Texas to not only think of the views, but energy consumption,” he says. “In Texas, you don’t want to have anything facing West into the setting sun. . . Go to downtown Austin and that’s not the case. Most of the best views (downtown) face East/West.
“Like the Proper (hotel and residential tower), just finished. They’re Google building, Google building, Facebook. Like a horseshoe around them. The only view is facing due West.”
As Coon details Texas sun patterns you almost start to pity those fools living in those multi-million dollar downtown Austin tower condos, staring right into the sun every evening. But Coon is just clinically analyzing a situation. This entrepreneur is interested in a very different type of living. One where 90 of the 145 acres will be protected as green space or preserve.
“We’re not ever developing that cliff,” Coon says. “We dedicated it to the city — to be an overlook or a preserve park. Basically, it’s dedicated to the public.”
This is a very long term play for Coon. Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin will not be completed till the end of 2025 — if everything goes right. Add that to the 10 years it took Coon just to get to this sales, pre-construction point. Coon’s had time to think about everything.
Four Seasons Private Residences — and the Public View
Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin’s property abuts the unofficial (but very highly trafficked) Pennybacker Bridge overlook, one of the spots to snap a selfie or film a quick TikTok video in the entire Austin region. People have been parking alongside the side of the road (technically illegally) for decades and decades to get their Pennybacker Bridge lake photos.
Coon knows trying to stop that would be foolish — and has no interest in doing so. Instead, his plans include building a new official parking lot with 25 spaces to make getting those pics easier (and hopefully) safer. A new park also will be created, complete with marked trails, the first new park on Lake Austin in decades.
Of course, this is also very much about creating some of the most stunning residences anywhere. The type of home that even the mega rich might not be able to make happen on their own.
Including that $15 million elevator to the lake.
“It’s air conditioned. Two cabins,” Coon details. “Eight by eight by eight cube. It’s glass. It looks towards the skyline. It’s got these amazing views during your two minute ride down to the water. That’s just not practical for any home.
“Even a billionaire would kind of double clutch and go, ‘I don’t know. We’re going to spend 15 million dollars on an elevator just for us?’ But when you divide by 179, things that seemed insane become practical.”
In this case, that also means your own 3,500 square foot Lake Clubhouse and your own private two-story restaurant. When those things are divided by 179 well-off homeowners, they suddenly move within reach.
If it all sounds like something a tech billionaire would have in his own compound in a mysterious Netflix series, well it sort of is. Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin is going to be a community that’s designed to almost blend into the cliffs.
The exacting agreement Four Seasons sent over — which actually was four different agreements, covering every possible thing — ran 380 pages long. Jonathan Coon appreciated the detail.
The tallest structure that will be built is four stories and the project is adhering to a max building height of 45 feet above the hill. There will be villas on the hillside, but no monster mansion compounds that overwhelm the surroundings. Some extremely wealthy people already have showcase homes in the area and convincing them that Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin would not impact their views took plenty of Coon’s time over the years. Plenty of other concessions were made to the neighbors as well.
“It was a pretty substantial list of things people wanted,” Coon says. “My view is these were going to be expensive houses anyway — so might as well do them.”
Best in Class
Getting Hines and Four Seasons onboard took some more convincing. The exacting agreement Four Seasons sent over — which actually was four different agreements, covering every possible thing — ran 380 pages long. Jonathan Coon appreciated the detail. That massive paper flex is something he might do.
“Start with the admission you don’t know what you’re doing and partner with the best,” Coon says. “That’s Hines — including high-end luxury apartments. The Victor, which I think is the nicest apartment complex in Dallas. 56 Leonard (a 60-story cutting edge tower in Tribeca) in New York. I think 56 Leonard was $5,000 dollars (a square foot).
“Four Seasons have done projects like Grosvenor Square in London. Has got to be one of the most expensive projects to live in. A $7,000 to $10,000 per square foot project.”
Still, Coon swears he did not set out to make his Austin dream land ultra expensive. He and his wife — who met at BYU and got married as 20-year-olds when Coon was a line cook at a Red Robin and Kirsten worked as a seamstress at a sewing factory — just didn’t really want to live in Westlake.
“Westlake Drive is like six miles long and you can’t even go for a walk,” Coon says. “There’s no sidewalk. If you did go for a walk, there’s no coffee shop. Every one of those homes is like its own little compound.”
Jonathan Coon is not excited by that type of living. He’d rather jump in the air-conditioned funicular, maybe sharing it with a neighbor who is also headed to the lake, and get whisked down to the glistening water. Where Four Seasons pampering awaits.
“We know this customer,” Four Seasons Paul White tells PaperCity. “We know what they expect and need. We’ve been serving this customer for generations.
“We try to never say no.”
Jonathan Coon is used to turning nos — whether it’s from a contacts industry that just can’t understand why it should give up its monopoly status or a super connected homeowner used to always getting his way — into yeses. He really does seem to genuinely admire the views from that temporary tower, though.
There is no entourage or assistant with Coon on this day. He straightens any wayward markers on his own. And when he’s done talking to me, he gets into an SUV and drives himself away, a serial entrepreneur turned one-time real estate developer whose mind is no doubt racing as he mulls over several dozen other new things he can make better about this place, even as his dream site fades into his rearview mirror.