Is Austin's favorite little downtown utility, the Green Water Treatment Plant, about to go the way of Liberty Lunch? The legendary music club lost its life two years ago when the city booted the Lunch off its property to make room for Computer Sciences Corporation. Since then, developers and city officials have become fascinated with the economic potential of prime city land ("Vignette wants to build on our humble shoreline? Let's move that public housing complex for the elderly out of the way!"). Now, Green, which occupies two blocks at the confluence of Shoal Creek and Town Lake, is also in the way of some big dreams. Developers see a hotel, a mall, maybe a sports arena. Others picture a new central library. The city suspects it will have to either close Green or renovate it by 2006, and in recent weeks, developers have been down at City Hall offices trying to hurry the decision along.
In its present condition, Green is not expected to pass new federal drinking-water standards, but closing down the plant could be a messy affair. Environmentalists consider Green, which contributes about 15% of the city's drinking water, an important symbol of Austin's commitment to water quality, since it draws almost directly from Barton Creek. Like a farmer eating his own corn, Green ensures that Austin drinks its own runoff. Recently, however, City Council members have been hearing a new pitch from the development community: Gordon Dunaway, who's currently building the Monarch luxury condos on South Congress, has offered to pay for a study to determine whether Green could be reduced to a fraction of its size using membrane technology, a filtering process that requires no settling tanks or sand filtration. Environmentalists would still have their plant, and developers would have a block and a half of prime waterfront real estate to bid on.
Dunaway is competing for the city's attention with a tentative partnership consisting of downtown landholding mogul Perry Lorenz, CKNR Architects, and born-again New Urbanist Tom Terkel. Dunaway stresses that he doesn't intend to influence the city's decision on Green, but he would like to speed up the process. "It's up to the city. There's not some behind-the-scenes negotiations," says Dunaway. "What we offered were the resources to do (a study) cheaper and faster than the city would get it done." The developers might get a shot at Green's acres regardless of which route the city takes, because unlike the neighboring Seaholm Power Plant, the tract's re-use potential is not great. But what Dunaway and the others undoubtedly hope for is a shortcut through a political briar patch that could take a decade to navigate. Could a postage-stamp-size Green appease the utility's supporters and still get the developers their lease?
Sure, but two major obstacles stand in the way of peace and harmony. The first is that even a refurbished Green could not meet Austin's growing demand for drinking water, which is expected to increase by about 50 million gallons a day within the next 15 years. A new treatment plant already planned by the city could deliver six times more water than a refurbished Green for about the same amount of money -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $130 million -- and, unlike Green, easily take care of the city water supply well into the coming century. So far, miniaturizing Green doesn't look too good for the bottom line.
The second problem is, a lot of people have their eye on the Green land as a site for a badly needed new central library. The Seaholm District Master Plan, commissioned by the city last year to guide development on the city blocks immediately west of Green, suggests either the library or a mixed-use development on the site. Lorenz' group argues that the abandoned Austin Energy substation across Shoal Creek from Green would make the better library site, and that the Green block should be used to enhance the "critical mass" of activity that will power the promised Second Street retail corridor. But there are those who obviously don't feel comfortable with the city buying a new Green just to swing a deal with developers.
Longtime SOS Alliance board member Mary Arnold says she doesn't want to lose Green, since that could mean the loss of federal grants to clean up Barton Creek. But if Green is modernized, Arnold says, the city's land is too valuable to hand over for private development. "If they want to put the central library there, fine, but I don't see any reason to let publicly owned land in such an important area be used for private purposes," says Arnold.
In other business, the City Council finally approved a lease for AMLI Residential to build apartment towers on the block that fronts Second between San Antonio and Guadalupe Streets, immediately adjacent to the CSC development. But Council Member Will Wynn had to do some last-minute negotiating to prevent the city from taking another knot on the head over the 1998 deal that brought both AMLI and CSC downtown.
Preservation of the Schneider beer vaults, an underground cellar dating from the Civil War discovered when AMLI excavated on the site last year, promised to cost a lot more than the $250,000 the city had allowed. Furthermore, the city discovered that it couldn't force AMLI to make the vaults accessible to the public, and that AMLI planned to put fewer units on the site, which would mean less lease revenue for the city. But under language Wynn included in the AMLI lease approved Thursday, the company is now required to study the feasibility of moving the vaults, stone by stone, to the Schneider store, which CSC has preserved on one of its blocks. AMLI will pay for the move, if the company decides it can be done cheaply enough. If not, the vaults will be cased where they are, this generation will never see them again, and the city will still pay AMLI $250,000, on top of the $250,000 the city already has to pay them under the CSC deal to compensate for moving the apartment site from one of the blocks CSC now occupies to its present location.