Throw the Switch

City Planners Consider Options on the Seaholm Power Plant

Seaholm Power Plant
Seaholm Power Plant (Photo By John Anderson)

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:

  • Central Library: While a new central library proposal failed to make it onto the ballot in a 1998 bond election, proponents can now point to a task force report released last September that shores up what many have been saying for years: Austin's central library has outgrown its building on Guadalupe. The task force, headed by Watson's longtime friend, attorney Jim Cousar, estimates that a new 200,000- to 300,000-square-foot facility will require at least $100 million in funding -- 20% from private donations and the remaining $80 million from a city bond election. One possible site is Union Pacific property located directly north and west of Seaholm, which the city would purchase from the railway company. (A portion of this is designated "Seaholm expansion" on the design plan.) "Austin has never turned down a library bond election," Cousar said, "and with a combination of public and private funding, we could quadruple the size of the library that could hold a wonderful collection with the most up-to-date technology." The Seaholm plant itself was never a candidate to house any part a proposed library, because retrofitting old structures to meet the high tech requirements of a library usually isn't feasible, Cousar said.

  • Austin Children's Museum: The popular hands-on museum is squeezed for space at its Colorado Street location, and Seaholm is its first choice for a new location. Advocates hope the museum's new executive director, Gwen Crider, who assumed her new post earlier this month, can navigate the move to the power plant. Crider is a former director of the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum, and also served as director of SciTrek, a science and technology museum in Atlanta that suffered a number of financial pitfalls that began before her tenure. Crider and Susan Engleking, who chairs the museum's strategic planning committee, are holding talks with library proponents and members of an informal coalition of sci-tech advocates.

  • Science and Technology Museum: This is a grassroots proposal driven by local science lovers and West Austin business and property owners. The group's leaders have traveled around the country to view sci-tech museums stationed in old power plants. One of the group's leaders, property owner and manager Cindy Debold, has laid out the group's proposal on her Web site at www.debold.com/sciencemuseum. Debold is joined in her efforts by Betty Otter-Nickerson of BMC Software, Clark Hancock of the Austin Nature Center, and West Austin business owner Melissa Gonzalez. The group commissioned a $38,000 feasibility study -- paid for with private donations -- that supports the concept that the old power plant would be an ideal setting for a sci-tech museum. The study estimated that the museum would draw 442,000 to 540,000 visitors per year, based on tourist and area school-children statistics.

    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." end story 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

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