Power to the People

Ken Altes

Ken Altes

photograph by John Anderson

Anyone who knows Kirk Watson knows his fondness for fast-tracking ideas. So when word spread that the mayor had voiced an idea about the future of the Seaholm Power Plant, Ken Altes sang like a canary.

Altes, who feels as protective of the old power plant as he does his own kid, says he was "hopping mad" when he learned the mayor's office had a hand in floating the idea of converting some 50,000 square feet of Seaholm into a workforce training center and high-tech incubator. Watson, in speeches before various civic and professional groups, has suggested that a portion of Seaholm would be suitable as a training center and home for start-up companies -- the idea being that the start-ups would eventually leave the Seaholm nest and settle downtown instead of in the suburbs.

As a founder of the 10-year-old Friends of Seaholm, and a member of the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee, Altes says Watson's idea irked him on two counts: that he and the Seaholm planning committee had been shut out of this particular thought process, and that the proposal seemed to have "private venture" written all over it.

"I've tried to keep this thing public and open all along; to have a public process about Seaholm's use as a public facility," Altes says. "While I am a great admirer of Kirk Watson, he is a man in a hurry, and that is not appropriate for Seaholm." Altes' concerns were fueled in part by the fact that the popular art deco-style building sits in downtown's west end, where Watson has jump-started other public-private deals, such as the Computer Sciences Corp./City Hall agreement, the Post Properties' Poleyard project, and the AMLI Residential project.

Watson aide Larry Warshaw hastened to put a lid on the rumor that the mayor has a hidden agenda working on Seaholm. "These are just ideas," Warshaw says. "It's nothing more than brainstorming and attempting to catalyze community interest. Given the success of the mayor in the last two years in getting projects approved and done," Warshaw adds, "it's understandable why Ken would think there's more to it than that." But Altes remains skeptical. "I'm not sure if I buy that," he says.

Still, the idea of a "community media and technology training center," as advocated by the Austin Telecommunications Commission, is somewhat in line with the results of a random survey taken during an open house at Seaholm last February. Of the 201 people polled, a plurality, 60, said they would prefer to see Seaholm converted to a science and technology venue. On the other hand, 59 favored devoting the space to the performing arts and art exhibitions. As Leslie Pool, chair of the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee, diplomatically points out, "The citizens of Austin want this building for public use."

Which raises the question of whether a training center constitutes a public or private use. Altes argues it would be "non-public," while advocates of the center prefer to define it as a civic or community venture.

Should the training center or incubator idea -- or both -- get off the ground, that would leave only half of the 110,000-square-foot building for what Altes considers truly public use. There are a number of interests chomping at the bit for a piece of Seaholm, including an aquarium organization called the Capital of Texas Aquarium (its slogan is, "Let's Put the Sea in Seaholm"), the Texas History Museum, the Texas Music Museum, and the Children's Museum, whose lease at Second and Colorado ends in nine years. There's also discussion of combining various museum interests with music, film, art and multimedia to form a single coalition, similar to the ARTS* Center Stage group that's working on the Palmer Auditorium makeover (see "Plotting a Park" ), and others want to see the building become a light rail/transit center.

While the proposal and selection process for Seaholm's use, or multiple uses, has yet to be decided, Pool offers this note of caution: "You can dilute the impact of the building by having too much going on, so we need to be very strategic in our choice."

Still in the works is Austin Energy's plan to decommission the place, which should be completed by the end of next year. And still another kink in the system is the question of where, exactly, the city will make room for an estimated 450 parking spaces. The tract west of Seaholm (where the Cedar Door is located) has been suggested, but that would require the city paying a high price to landowner Lumbermen's Investment Corp. And as it happens, multi-family developer Gables Corp. is planning to build a 200-300 unit apartment complex on the site, much to the Seaholmers' dismay. The Gables project has been long delayed and, for a while at least, looked as if it might fail the city's required time period in which to begin construction. But it looks like it may get off the ground yet. Last week, the city Planning Commission granted Gables a six-week extension on the project.

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