Throw the Switch
City Planners Consider Options on the Seaholm Power Plant
For a man who seems to ignite a new controversy with every project he approves, Mayor Kirk Watson sounded unusually chipper last week as he discussed the many reuse possibilities for the old Seaholm Power Plant. Perhaps the mayor was thinking that this was one project he could wrap his arms around without -- knock on wood -- stirring up any more dissent. But then again, he pointed out dryly, "Ya'll haven't written about it yet." The "it" in this case is the mayor's latest redevelopment push: This time, to build a new public library within strolling distance of the old power plant, a 1950s art-deco structure on West Cesar Chavez just a few blocks south of the increasingly faddish warehouse district.
As the ROMA Group's "Seaholm Urban Design Plan" slowly wends its way through various city boards and commissions, local officials and civic boosters are starting to toss around ideas that fit within the Seaholm plan's conceptual framework. The design plan, which builds on most of the earlier recommendations of a council-appointed reuse planning committee, focuses on the area between Town Lake and Fifth Street, and between San Antonio Street and Orchard Avenue. The conceptual design envisions a major reconstruction of Cesar Chavez, and paints a rosy picture of a mixed-used community of private and public projects that are friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, and commuter traffic.
ROMA steered clear of identifying specific uses for the area, but one certainty includes the private mixed-used development planned on property just west of Seaholm. Last November, the city settled a long-standing boundary dispute over the five-acre tract known as the Sand Beach Reserve. A previous landowner had sought to build a 20-story office tower on the site. Now, Lumbermen's Investment Corp. and the LBJ Holding Co. plan to build condos and shops on the property -- minus the one acre that went to the city as part of the settlement.
For now, the three most popular reuse proposals for Seaholm itself are:
Another proposal, which seems less appealing to city officials, would convert Seaholm into an aquarium, an idea posited by an organization called Capital of Texas Aquarium -- a private nonprofit Austin group formed two years ago when Seaholm reuse possibilities came under review.
Of the three leading proposals, it was the library idea that the mayor was most excited about last week. "My concept is, let us create a complex of lifetime learning where we embrace and enhance those things that we love, and we grow it into something bigger within walking distance of a children's museum and a science and technology museum. What I would suggest," the mayor added cautiously, "is that we brainstorm without judgment. If the community adopts this as a sacred cow -- which I think it can and it will -- in the appropriate economic times, we can make that happen." He then struck an oddly reminiscent note. "Before we called Austin 'Silicon Hills,'" he said, "we were, in fact, a city of ideas, of writers, of readers, and of books. Here's a chance for Austin to reclaim itself."
The ROMA plan adheres to the recommendations that the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee laid out in its report to the City Council two years ago. Committee chair Leslie Pool says that ROMA's latest report "affirms our vision for the reinvigoration of the Seaholm district. Clearly what becomes of the Seaholm Power Plant is the linchpin in energizing this area of town."
Jana McCann, the city's urban design officer overseeing the reuse plan, is equally enthusiastic about Seaholm's future. She feels strongly about maintaining and enhancing a local character: "I would like to see Austin, Texas, reflected in this district." As an architect, McCann is especially enchanted by the Seaholm structure itself. "There are lots of things I like about the building -- the monumental space of the turbines, the lighting quality, the art-deco interior. It's a very powerful building, in a phenomenal setting." Art Deco EchoSeaholm Power PlantMayor Kirk WatsonJim CousarCentral LibraryAustin Children's MuseumAustin sci-tech museumLumbermen's Investment Corp.Sand BeachJanna McCannGwen CriderCindy DeboldBetty Otter-NickersonBMC SoftwareClark HancockAustin Nature CenterMelissa GonzalezSusan EnglekingCapital of Texas AquariumOverviewLocalNoGovernmentThe Texas Documentary TourBusiness/InfrastructureTransportation