A Long Time Coming

Why Now?

After more than a decade of planning, why are these dreams finally starting to materialize now? The answer is, in a word, detente. According to Austin political veterans, the de-escalation of hostilities between developers and environmentalists has allowed for redirecting energy toward points of local pride. The rancor has evaporated, and suddenly the political will, money, and wherewithal exists to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the downtown area and get long-stalled -- even presumed-dead plans -- on the fast track to completion.

"Now that [the developer-enviro] fight doesn't consume Austin politics, we've been able to start looking at what we can do about some of these other stalemates," said Councilmember Daryl Slusher, who got his start in politics when he "woke up to find Mayor Mullen on the front page of the newspaper," proposing a three million square-foot convention center multiplex on Town Lake's south shore. Slusher joined a group of Austin notables (Roberta Crenshaw, Jackie Goodman, Susan Frost, John Henry Faulk, among many others), which was angling to get the land dedicated as parkland. Since the City Council wasn't amenable to putting the proposition to voters on the January 1985 ballot, the group got it on the ballot the old-fashioned way -- by a signature drive. The initiative failed (52% to 48%), but so did Mullen's proposal. (Among measures that passed were funding for the Austin Museum of Art, and authorization for Capital Metro.) But although the January election was technically a draw between the two sides -- the convention center plan was dead and so was the parkland -- the need for Auditorium Shores to be protected was ingrained in the consciousness of many Austinites. That led the council, over the next two years, to dedicate the entire 84 acres as parkland, including lake shore east of I-35.

A little over a year later came the development of the Town Lake Master Plan, and the vision for the area as a cultural park was born. All parties agree that today's plans for Auditorium Shores -- as passed in the November 1998 bond election and outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by major Town Lake stakeholders -- are consistent with the ideals outlined then. The memorandum of understating was essential to quelling some initial mistrust between the longtime parks people and the arts people, some of whom were newer to the scene and who, some neighborhood activists feared, would use the park "for their personal playground," as one put it.

This 1987 plan of Town Lake Park is used as the blueprint for today's updated vision of the park, which will include a renovated Palmer Auditorium, a new Civic Center, a pedestrian bridge, and enhanced parkland.

This 1987 plan of Town Lake Park is used as the blueprint for today's updated vision of the park, which will include a renovated Palmer Auditorium, a new Civic Center, a pedestrian bridge, and enhanced parkland.

Courtesy of City of Austin

All Together Now

Now on the same page, for the most part, the stakeholder group meets weekly to help achieve the plan's aggressive timetable, which calls for both new buildings to be up and running by 2003. The new civic center will come first, so the Palmer users (SAMI shows, the Junior League's Christmas Affair, and cat shows, to name a few) will have some place to go before Palmer goes under construction. Palmer and the park projects will be completed two years later.

Though some members of the mayor's task force, convened before the bond election, complained of having no other purpose than to "rubber stamp" the mayor's proposals, task force members now say the ongoing process is exemplary. Jeff Jack, past president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, calls the process a model for future city projects. Currently, the stakeholder group is interviewing candidates for the positions of master planner and architect on the civic center project, with recommendations expected to go to the City Council in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, says Jack, the task force intends to be involved in the process through the project's completion. Councilmember Beverly Griffith stresses that the hiring of the master planner and architect are crucial. Without naming names, Griffith said one of the two prime candidates for the master planner position is stronger than the other because that candidate "really seems to value open space in an urban setting..." She said she fears that the other candidate may not "share the philosophy that the buildings should complement the open space."

Michael Guarino, an architect and volunteer consultant on the design process, calls Palmer a "grand scale recycling project." He said much of the building's interior and exterior will be salvaged to make the $50 million price tag about half of what a performing arts center built from scratch would cost.

The Grand Dame

While Palmer and the City Coliseum inspire mild affection for their familiarity and longevity, the Seaholm Power Plant is cutting-edge urban industrial cool. If Austin's mob of urban revitalizers had its own version of Sedona, it would be here. At the western edge of downtown on Town Lake's north shore, Seaholm Power Plant is where the proposed Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line intersects the proposed Capital Metro Austin light rail, and where the Town Lake and Shoal Creek hike and bike paths meet. Throw in the 1950s art deco Seaholm structure (whose glowing red "City of Austin Power Plant" sign still shines on nighttime travelers along Cesar Chavez and Lamar), and you've got a New Urbanist renovation project waiting to happen.

Ken Atles at Seaholm

Ken Atles at Seaholm

photograph by John Anderson

The building, retired since 1987, has long been used as a canvas for amateur urban planners, as well as professionals who donate their time, unable to resist the challenge it presents. One of the renovation's prime champions, real estate inspector Ken Altes, was inspired to work on the building's reuse. While eyeing the structure one day in the early Eighties, Altes recalled the Tate Gallery on the Thames in London, which rehabilitated a defunct power plant across the river from its main building to house its modern art collection. Altes contacted UT architecture professor Sinclair Black, and the two -- organized as the Friends of Seaholm -- began the slow, plodding process that finally turned a corner late last year when the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee issued its report to the City Council (more details on the committee's work are available at http://www. seaholm.org).

The front-runner option for the building's next use is a technology museum, perhaps an exploratorium type of training center for children. Other top choices include performing and visual arts facilities, and services for public transit. The building is so big, in fact, that planners say that simultaneous uses of the plant may be possible.

Leslie Pool, chair of the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee, said the ideal way to fund the project would be similar to the plan for Palmer. In other words, have the city kick in the building and the land, and have a private or non-profit outfit, or a combination of the two, fund the renovation. Pool said she's talked to several interested groups that "actually have the wherewithal to make it happen." She said the new user would have to honor the principles that came out of the public process (which include the preservation of Seaholm's history and the retention of some of its energy-producing "artifacts"). In the meantime, the local technology think tank, IC2, will study Seaholm's potential technology uses, including the possibility of housing a technology incubator that would provide resources to high-tech startup companies.

None of this can start, though, until the residue of Seaholm's use as a power plant is removed and the cleanup done. The decommissioning of the plant -- with Austin Energy, the city electric utility, presiding -- is well underway and should be completed sometime next year. The Friends of Seaholm group, meanwhile, are still trying to persuade the utility to spend the $40,000 it would take to discover whether Seaholm's boilers -- judged by the Friends to be an important part of the building's history and aesthetic power -- are salvageable, or must be torn down as Austin Energy suggests.

Whatever the next life holds in store for Seaholm, the reuse committee wants it to be part of the larger downtown renaissance and the Auditorium Shores redesign. In particular, the Town Lake Advisory Group envisions Seaholm as the northern anchor of a triangle that includes Seaholm, the Mexican-American Cultural Center,and the new Palmer. Seaholm will help "define the arts district; be a tourist destination," Pool said.

Sand Beach and the Lumbermen

But in order for any Seaholm reuse project to be a success, it needs to add 250 to 450 parking spaces to the existing 40, according to the reuse commission. The group recommended the Cedar Door tract west of Seaholm as the prime location for such parking. (The little bar moved to its present site from East First Street in 1990 to make room for the Austin Convention Center. Any development of the land would force yet another move for the Cedar Door, which would join Liberty Lunch as popular nightspots threatened by downtown revitalization.) The tract is owned by Lumbermen's Investment Corp., and is currently slated for a 200-300-unit apartment development by the ubiquitous Gables Corp., which owns several other multi-family complexes in Austin. But it is also subject to a long-standing dispute over its boundary with the city's land, and a dormant lawsuit by longtime activists Roberta Crenshaw, Susan Toomey Frost, and Mary Arnold.

The city-owned Sand Beach Reserve, which makes up about half of the five-acre tract, was given to the city by the state in 1945, with the condition that it be used for public purposes. When the city tried to run a road across the tract several years ago to accommodate an office building on the Lumbermen's land, the "Three Ladies" of Austin activism sued the city. Though the building project went bankrupt and the lawsuit is now moot, the three are keeping an eye on the land they still feel should be put to public use. They also contend that because of a survey mistake in the late 19th century, the city owns more of the land than maps indicate, and if allowed to proceed, the Gables could actually be built on city land. "All the land from MoPac practically to Congress Avenue on the north side of the river is pretty much publicly owned land. It's not an appropriate area for dense apartments," said Arnold.

Last year, the Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee recommended a proposition allowing the city to purchase the Lumbermen's land, but the council chose not to include it on the November 1998 ballot.

Another rather bizarre rumor has the Texas A&M alumni association buying the Lumbermen's land for an alumni events facility, complete with a parking garage it is offering to share with Seaholm. One councilmember acknowledged seeing a copy of the proposal, with sketches and impervious cover estimates (13%, in case you're wondering). The Gables deal is clearly the front runner -- it's shown on city-drawn maps of upcoming downtown projects -- but Mary Arnold said that her ally and Town Lake matriarch Crenshaw would rather see the Aggies get the land. "Mrs. Crenshaw feels very strongly the area below the railroad track should be incorporated as part of the Town Lake Park. [The plan is] one that would [better] fit in with the character of Town Lake."

According to Arnold, the city hasn't taken a position on the boundary issue or acted on the Gables site plan. But Arnold promises to watch this one closely. "If the city ended up approving their site plan, we could very well end up filing suit again,"she said.

Laying Tracks?

Another piece of the Seaholm puzzle is how the power plant and its environs will figure into Austin's plans for mass transit. Though this one's a little farther away from the launch pad, there are stirrings. With the ongoing financial and management rebound of Capital Metro, a November ballot success could mean progress on the issue for the first time in a while.

That November light rail referendum, if it happens, will be the culmination of efforts on a variety of parallel fronts, including the beginnings of a citizens' light rail commission and an Austin Transportation Study feasibility study. The ATS study indicated Fourth Street as the preferred route for crosstown light rail, proposing that it come out of Seaholm, transition to Fourth Street at Shoal Creek, and terminate near the Austin Convention Center. Of course, this is all going to take some time. "My best guess, from the day of a positive vote, is six years before you open your first starter line," said architect Jana McCann, who worked on the ATS study. "No sooner than that. Mixing rail and automobiles takes much longer to implement."

Councilmember Jackie Goodman says light rail is already way behind schedule. "It's long past time for a November election. For folks who voted in '85 for the creation of Capital Metro as an independent entity, it was with the expectation of mass transit. In a way, it's disappointing that we're going to have another vote on what we who voted back then thought we were voting on. Of course," she added, "we have a lot of new people since then."

According to Councilmember and Capital Metro board member Daryl Slusher, the most important groundwork for light rail is restoring the credibility of Capital Metro. "The first thing [Capital Metro will] have to do, before we can have serious mass transit, is turn that agency around. That has been done [to a large degree]."

Slusher also views Seaholm as the logical hub for mass transit. "That's a part of town that is really taking off and has a lot more potential with all those car lots moving out. I guess there's some symmetry to that.

Just for Feet and Bikes

As for immediate infrastructure improvements, pedestrians and bicyclists choked by fumes on the Lamar Street Bridge will finally get relief. The new "double curve" bridge, an idea which grew out of a city-sponsored public input process, was designed to be a destination in itself, as well as a vantage point from which to view the historic Lamar Street Bridge. But some potential bridge users think the area will be ill served by the project. Architect Jana McCann was one of many who lobbied the city for an attached addition to the Lamar Bridge, instead of the separate footbridge to be built 150 to 300 feet to the east, between Lamar and the Union Pacific rail bridge. McCann calls the footbridge "an absurd public expenditure which will end up detracting from the historic value of the Lamar Bridge ... I can't imagine inserting yet another bridge at the place on Town Lake where two bridges are closest together. And it deviates from the desired transit corridor it's trying to serve. Even lay people are going to say, 'what happened here?' "

Drawing of the new Lamar Bridge over town lake.

Construction on the "double curve" pedestrian bridge, east of the traffic-clogged Lamar Bridge, will begin late this year. The dotted lines in Town Lake illustrate routes of canoeists.

illustration by Girard Kinney

That wasn't the opinion of the Texas Historical Commission, which lobbied the city not to touch the 57-year-old structure, one of the last unaltered art deco bridges still in use, or forfeit up to $1 million in federal transportation dollars. McCann protests that the $1 million won't offset the cost of building a new bridge from scratch, which could be five times as expensive as doing an add-on.

In any case, construction on the bridge is scheduled to start late this year, with completion scheduled by the end of 2000. The City Council recently approved a contract for the engineering of the bridge for about $900,000, with HDR Engineering. Girard Kinney and Donna Carter are the joint architects on the project.

Gateway to Zilker

Just across the river, the main drag of near-South Austin is getting a makeover. The city is currently acquiring the right of way necessary to expand Barton Springs Road, and make it more eye-pleasing and pedestrian friendly. A heated debate among residents, property owners, business owners resulted in the decision to put a long, landscaped median along Barton Springs, with several breaks allowing U-turn access to restaurant row and other nearby businesses. While neighborhood representatives felt this was the safest and most appealing option, merchants were incensed that access to their already traffic-plagued businesses would be limited; they advocated maintaining the current, unbroken center "chicken lane" for convenient access to the many business driveways that line the road.

But that decision, as with the Lamar Bridge, has been made. Construction on the road is scheduled to begin in about three months, with completion in six months. City Public Works director Peter Reick said the work will be especially challenging because the businesses along Barton Springs keep long hours, from breakfast at the Juice Bar to late-night coffee and live music at Flipnotics. "We have to make sure people can do business," he said.

Some Austinites fear that all the changes afoot may change downtown in unintended ways. Concerned about how rising property values may affect longtime downtown businesses, Councilmember Slusher has suggested the city find ways -- perhaps through tax abatements -- to keep such people from getting squeezed out. "This council hasn't given any tax breaks to multinational corporations, but if in the past people were creative enough to figure out how to do that, then surely we can find ways to save our businesses so they don't get priced out of downtown," he said. "Maybe if some businesses have been downtown a certain number of years, they get a tax abatement on any future increase in value," he suggested.

The Phoenix School day-care center is among those who hope a solution -- ideally one that would also help renters -- can be found. The center lost its lease because landlord architectural firm Page Sutherland Page needed the space for its own expansion.

Day-care owner Carrie Casey doesn't blame her landlord. She understands why they need the space, but wishes she could stay downtown. "With the downtown market getting so tight, people want to lease to the most profitable lessee," she said. "I know the City of Austin has been very active in trying to support child care, but with the increased density downtown, all the support in the world won't help if we can't find a place to do our business." Ironically, the forces pricing her out of downtown may increase the demand for her services. Take the Computer Sciences Corp. proposal, she said of the public-private development planned on downtown's western edge. "Some of those 3,000 [additional] people might have infants."

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