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Fears in Multimedia Gulch

A rare day of sun in El Niño-soaked San Francisco masks darker concerns at the mayor's Multimedia Summit.

SAN FRANCISCO--It was a day of rare relief from weeks of El Niño-driven rains and floods, the sun shining on this city's beautifully landscaped Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Within the center's darkened auditorium, however, participants in the mayor's Multimedia Summit were busy warning of storm clouds in the local economic climate: High rent. Low bandwidth. No parking. Heavy traffic. Expensive labor.

Summit participants spent the day mulling threats and solutions to the region's burgeoning area that has come to be known as "Multimedia Gulch." Could local problems force firms to relocate to nearby Bay Area cities? Should San Francisco be collaborating with those cities? Could San Francisco become the next Route 128, the Boston area where high-tech boom turned just as quickly to bust?

Amid these nuts-and-bolts business concerns, the advice from one San Franciscan who has reaped riches from the high-tech industry sounded more like Washington rhetoric than Silicon Valley entrepreneurship: "Please go home and read to your kids," said John Doerr, a Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner.

Indeed, Doerr's lunchtime keynote at times struck themes that were seemingly more appropriate of a social policy platform than a high-tech pep rally.

After a requisite discussion of bandwidth and the exponential growth of the Internet, the venture capitalist spoke at length about class sizes, charter schools, social promotion, reading scores for California third-graders, the social significance of the human genome project, and the tragedy of homelessness in the midst of so much computer-related new wealth.

No wonder some are whispering about Gore-Doerr in 2000.

Elsewhere on the convention floor, others mused that the champion VC was sharing speechwriters with the White House. Like President Clinton, Doerr envisioned a day in which any child could "reach a hand across a keyboard and access any book ever written, any painting ever painted, any symphony ever composed."

If Doerr doesn't wind up in the Washington, he could also find work on Comedy Central. He repeatedly broke up his sober audience with quips about "America OnHold," and how "Wired Willie" (San Francisco mayor Willie Brown) has made it "chic to be geek."

Inside the Beltway, the response to a discussion of encryption, according to Doerr: "Who died?"

Doerr also disclosed, in a defense of the Java, that the two most active areas on Amazon.com are books about the programming language and those devoted to sex for the single lovelorn male.

Back in the auditorium, city officials, multimedia business people, and pundits voted in real-time polls and traded statistics and policy proposals.

Mayor Brown outlined a plan to subsidize San Francisco's skyrocketing commercial rents for multimedia firms, launch a low-rent "campus" for multimedia start-ups, expedite the city's construction permits for those firms, and commission a report on the dismal state of transportation in Multimedia Gulch, the downtown San Francisco neighborhood where many new media firms are located.

The mayor was late returning from lunch, reportedly because he'd gotten stuck on public transportation--a familiar excuse in this city.

The day's excitement took a 60-second pause for Vice President Gore's video address. At the conclusion of the decidedly wooden speech, Brown noted to audience laughter: "That's the most excited I've seen him. The man has possibilities."

At the end of a sober day of municipal hand-wringing over network and automobile traffic, the summit hit an upbeat note as Yahoo Internet Life magazine declared San Francisco the world's most wired city.

"San Francisco is plugged in," the print journal declared.

Just don't try to take the bus to work.