Seaholm Powers Ahead, Amid Questions About the 'Public Interest'

Oft-delayed development getting serious at City Council

Seaholm – the historic power plant to be transformed by a private development team into a mixed-use mecca – should move one step closer to fruition at City Council this Thursday. A public hearing is posted, before council approves rezoning of the site to Downtown Mixed-Use, Central Urban Redevelopment overlay. DMU-CURe allows building heights of 120 feet with a 5-1 floor-to-area ratio and opens the door to additional height and density variances.

Due to Capitol View Corridor restrictions, just one major tower can rise on the site. Its revenues must offset the money pit of Seaholm itself. Retrofitting the 136,000 square foot plant – for some still-blurry civic/public/profitable uses – will be “incredibly expensive” and a “money loser” for the developer, said council member Brewster McCracken this week. In executive session Thursday, council will consult privately on the legally binding Master Development Agreement being struck with Southwest Strategy Group. Outside legal counsel helping the city to craft the MDA: Kirk Watson, with Hughes and Luce. Watson played a similar role for Block 21.

Like Mueller, the Seaholm redevelopment represents a significant public investment – 7.8 acres of city-owned land, and tax waivers for 30 years. The area will become a Tax Increment Financing district, with all property taxes (but not the bed tax) invested back into the project. A successful redo could catalyze a whole new tax-paying Seaholm District west of Downtown, near Town Lake – the subject of a 2000 Master Plan vision developed by ROMA Design Group. Predictably, some criticize the current deal for being too-developer friendly. But insiders interviewed say the city has squeezed the deal so hard, it risks destroying it.

“This deal is so much skinnier than the Mueller deal,” said McCracken, referring to a slim profit margin for the developer. The public can scrutinize the details after the Seaholm Master Development Agreement gets a preliminary sign-off from council, anticipated in mid-January. McCracken said council has discussed providing a 60-day review period, for Austinites to comment on whether the agreement adequately serves the public interest.

Another Seaholm-related item on Thursday’s council agenda: A Parking Enterprise Fund Resolution. If approved, a new Austin Parking Enterprise will invest in garages available to the public; Enterprise revenues will provide long-term funding for transit, trails, sidewalks and bike paths. State and federal dollars could help fund construction. The Enterprise would own the Seaholm Garage; however, its profits go first to the developer under the MDA. The big money would come from new underground parking on a nearby to-be-redeveloped site: Green Water Treatment Plant. Other structured parking opportunities named in the resolution: Downtown, South Congress, Transit-Oriented Development zones, the North Burnet Gateway “second downtown,” and along rail lines.

Council authorized the adaptive reuse of Seaholm in 1996 to create "a unique and exceptional cultural facility in downtown Austin.” Many cool cultural proposals were floated in a public conversation about Seaholm; meanwhile, once-discussed tenants like the Austin Children’s Museum and the Austin Museum of Art still need permanent homes. But when the economy tanked in 2001, Seaholm became something of a civic white elephant, weighted down with daunting costs for redevelopment, retrofit, operations, and a projected $30 million in streetscape infrastructure improvements. Three years after hiring on a development team, plans show a mix of retail, condos, hotel and offices – hardly “unique and exceptional” in today’s Downtown. But at this point, all involved simply want to get the project into construction – before the development cycle dolphins downward yet again.
One vocal project critic has been Andrew Clements, a former Chair of the Urban Transportation Commission. He believes the redevelopment plans will be “an unfortunate violation of the long-term public good, instead favoring the short-term financial benefit of the development team.” Clements’ focus is preserving mass transit options, particularly existing Union Pacific rail track. The 2004 council resolution seeking a Seaholm redevelopment team specifically cited “mass transit use options” and “a possible passenger rail/transit link to central downtown and other points.” Clements and others fear those options have been needlessly lost in accommodating the developer.

But McCracken said the debate amounts to a “philosophical disagreement” over which rail technology is best now for a Downtown circulator – heavy rail, ultralight rail, or a streetcar. A choice on the transit configuration was made after a study, jointly funded with Capitol Metro, that explored five different visions for how the Seaholm rail juncture could work. McCracken favors light rail, or a modern streetcar; he said the heavy rail line from San Antonio still could link up to it at Seaholm. Mayor Will Wynn has called for a passenger rail referendum in November 2008, to provide short-hop transit around the central city. Now in planning is an inclusive city-led public forum on alternate technologies and routes, seeking (voter) input on whether the line should run all the way to Seaholm and/or the Long Center, and across Lady Bird Lake.

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