You Call This a Plan?

Seaholm Public Project appears designed for a private 'master'

You Call This a Plan?
Photo By John Anderson

On Memorial Day, two women, longtime Austin residents well into their eighties, decided to take a drive downtown. They navigated their way up one street and down another, taking in a landscape vastly different from the one they knew 50 or so years ago, when they had the run of the place. The women proceeded west on Cesar Chavez along Town Lake; they cruised past the familiar, now-retired Seaholm Power Plant, and then turned off the road into a long driveway that used to end at the Cedar Door bar. Shudde Fath, the younger one behind the wheel, rolled her '84 Oldsmobile station wagon to a stop in the empty, overgrown field. Her passenger, Roberta Crenshaw, looked over the land, and reiterated her persistent determination to prevent this five-acre spread from going the way of commercial development.

"She just never will give up that fight," Fath boasted of her friend a few days after their holiday drive. Though Fath and Crenshaw are two of Austin's longest-running activists, Fath calls herself a Johnny-Come-Lately in this particular land-use battle. It was Crenshaw who first went to war over the Town Lake property -- known as the Sand Beach Reserve -- almost 20 years ago, along with Mary Arnold and Susan Toomey Frost. Though the legal dispute over the property is now presumably settled, the current owner's intent for the land is still a point of controversy: Lumbermen's Investment Corp. wants to build a residential-oriented, mixed-use development comprising about 500,000 square feet.

As it happens, the Lumbermen's property is prominently featured in the current master plan of the Seaholm district -- an ambitious, two-year undertaking of city planners and the respected ROMA Design Group of San Francisco. (ROMA also drafted the Mueller airport redevelopment plan, and was involved in the proposals to redevelop the Rainey Street neighborhood.)

The idea of turning the old Seaholm Power Plant into a cultural facility actually became an official city endeavor some 13 years ago, when Austin resident Ken Altes first pitched the idea and rallied enough community support to warrant its inclusion in the 1989 Town Lake Comprehensive Plan. But in the current grand scheme of things, the power plant barely rates a mention, and its future incarnation is no closer to being decided than it was a couple of years ago. While the project is still formally called the "Seaholm District Master Plan," in planning conversations it appears to be steadily morphing into the Everything-but-Seaholm Plan.

Understandably, community advocates are put off by Lumbermen's imposing imprint on a plan that was supposed to lay the groundwork for Seaholm's transformation into a museum or some other cultural enterprise. Now, some people can't help but wonder if the blueprint is the Seaholm reuse plan -- or instead, the Lumbermen's subsidy package. "It does seem that the Lumbermen's development has taken over the direction of the master plan," Tommy Eden of the city's Urban Transportation Commission observed the other day.

Bicycle advocate Eric Anderson says bicyclists are split on which option is best for finishing Pfluger Bridge: You have your hard-core cyclists who live in South Austin and want to get to their food source at Whole Foods, he says, and then you have those cyclists who wouldn't be caught dead on Lamar.
Bicycle advocate Eric Anderson says bicyclists are split on which option is best for finishing Pfluger Bridge: "You have your hard-core cyclists who live in South Austin and want to get to their food source at Whole Foods," he says, "and then you have those cyclists who wouldn't be caught dead on Lamar." (Photo By John Anderson)

Of course, given the argumentative nature of Austin politics, city officials fully expected negative feedback on some aspects of the Seaholm package, especially considering the overall amount of ground it covers: The area stretches from Town Lake to Fifth Street, and from San Antonio Street on the east to Orchard Street west of Lamar). Additionally, the plans call for the realigning of two important roadways: Cesar Chavez would shift about 160 feet to the north, and might even include HOV lanes, and Sandra Muraida Way, which provides the link between Lamar and Cesar Chavez, would be reconfigured, with traffic-calming measures that would ease entry into Seaholm and the Lumbermen's site. Critics of the street changes charge that they're being done in order to better serve Lumbermen's development needs. And some of the infrastructure requirements for the Lumbermen's project are, in fact, ranked higher (No. 3) on the master plan's Top 10 priority list of public improvements than is Seaholm itself -- which falls near the bottom, at No. 7.

A Bridge to Nowhere?

But the Lumbermen's angle is only part of the story. In fact, it was the Pfluger bike and pedestrian bridge that carried the day at a May 9 public hearing before City Council, and has since shifted into the No. 1 spot on the priority list. While the bridge was originally designed with a northwest "flyover," providing a more direct link between South Lamar and North Lamar, the illustrated plan that went to council last month features instead a northeast extension that tunnels under Cesar Chavez and continues north through the heart of the Seaholm district to another underpass at the Union Pacific rail line, delivering folks to the Third and Bowie street area. That plan doesn't sit well with a vocal segment of bridge users -- representing the interests of pedestrians, bicyclists, and the disabled -- who strongly favor the original northwest design. Representatives from A.D.A.P.T. of Texas, a disability rights group, have eloquently framed the debate around safety and access issues. As A.D.A.P.T. organizer Jennifer McPhail argued to council members, wheelchair users too often must follow circuitous, out-of-the-way routes to their destination points. "If you spend half of your life going around and around in a circle just to get to where everybody else is," McPhail said, "it's going to tick you off and keep you from being involved in the community." David Wittie, an access specialist with A.D.A.P.T., also questions the wisdom of building a northeastern extension through the Seaholm district when the overall plan is still years away from reality. "Right now it's a bridge to nowhere," he said. "They're moving people toward something that doesn't exist."

And at the rate things are going, the plan may take longer than anticipated to move off the council dais. Jana McCann, an architect and planner with the city's Transportation, Planning & Sustainability Department, estimates that it may be the end of summer before the plan returns to council for adoption. "We're kind of at a holding point right now," she said. Nevertheless, McCann stands firm in her belief that the northeast option (shown on the map) is the best route and the most cost-effective choice -- somewhere between $2.2 and $2.5 million. (Adding the tunnel beneath the rail lines at Third and Bowie would cost another $700,000.) She insists that not everyone -- and certainly not everyone in the bike community -- wants to cross a bridge and get "dumped" onto traffic-heavy Lamar, as called for by the flyover proposal. In any case, though, McCann agrees that the bridge plan "needs a little more work and a little more public input."

"We've apparently been successful in reframing the debate of the plan with an emphasis on finishing the bridge," said bicyclist Eric Anderson of the Friends of Lance Armstrong Bikeway, a group working with city planners on implementing an east-west bike thoroughfare downtown. While Anderson would prefer that the city stick with its original northwest design for the bridge, he acknowledges that bicyclists are split on which path to travel. "You have your hardcore cyclists who live in South Austin and want to get to their food source at Whole Foods," he said, "and then you have those cyclists who wouldn't be caught dead on Lamar."

While the bridge issue undergoes some retooling, there are other noteworthy rumblings afoot at the Lumbermen's tract. A germ of a proposal being floated -- apparently initiated by Lumbermen's -- would have the city entering into land-swap negotiations with the developer. "That's an idea being kicked around," City Manager Toby Futrell confirmed last week. "But the first question to be asked and answered is, is this council interested?" Futrell says she intends to discuss the notion with council members as they begin trickling back from their vacations. "We'll look at the inventory of city property and see what's out there, and see what property they might be interested in," she said. Futrell herself seems to like the idea. "You can almost see a number of campus-style possibilities on that property."

In the meantime, Jay Hailey, the attorney who represents Lumbermen's, is not saying anything, at least not publicly. "We're waiting to see what the city does with the master plan, and then we'll figure out where to go from there," Hailey said. If Lumbermen's stays put and presses ahead with its plans -- despite strong community opposition -- trying to win council favor on the deal will take some finagling that (from a developer's perspective) may not be as easy as it was when Kirk Watson was running the show. The council has already dealt the developer one setback, with its rejection of a proposed height variance that would have allowed for a 180-foot luxury condo.

Housing or Lakefront Condos

Mary Arnold, arguably Lumbermen's most effective opponent, expressed cautious optimism about the possibility of a land swap -- provided the city doesn't give away another chunk of potential parkland. "Certainly," she said of the swap talk, "it's a way of trying to get greenbelt land in city ownership for public purposes, and to have private development in a more suitable location other than the Town Lake greenbelt."

In the minds of Shudde Fath and others who make up a coalition of South Austin neighborhoods, Town Lake is no place for a private development like Lumbermen's. "I support downtown housing," Fath said, "but I think you have to live in South Austin to understand this: Lumbermen's is not downtown. It's in the Town Lake corridor, it's the waterfront, it's parkland. I'm a water baby," she added emphatically. "Always have been. And I say, leave the water alone -- get away from it."

Downtown resident and Planning Commission member Chris Riley says I haven't found a single downtown resident who is opposed to the Lumbermen's plan. … We need residents down there who would be watching the park.
Downtown resident and Planning Commission member Chris Riley says "I haven't found a single downtown resident who is opposed to the Lumbermen's plan. … We need residents down there who would be watching the park." (Photo By John Anderson)

Clearly, the master plan carries a lot of uncertainty, but as Futrell points out, there's no rule that says the council can't adopt the package and set its wheels in motion to start planning for the next bond package -- probably in 2005. "The plan itself is fluid. It helps us to identify and crystallize the issues." Additionally, the plan's adoption doesn't require the simultaneous approval of funding for the projects. The money will have to come from varied sources: $35.4 million in city, Capital Metro, and federal grant money, and a whopping $65 million from the private sector.

If a Lumbermen's land swap doesn't pan out, are there other options for the tract? With the city's estimated value of the property at $10 million, direct acquisition of the property seems implausible. The city first considered buying the land by way of including it in the 1998 bond package, but the council, apparently under Mayor Watson's urging, removed the item during some last-minute maneuvering. "If the city didn't have the money during the dot-com boom, they're not going to have it now," insists Leslie Pool, who serves on the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee, which got its start as a city-appointed group charged with coming up with an initial, miniature version of a Seaholm master plan. Once that task was accomplished, the group morphed into a community-based effort and Pool, along with fellow member and architect Sinclair Black, supports the current Seaholm plan. Pool is most concerned that the council will reject the proposal because of the city's current financial straits. But by taking action now, she says, the city could sooner begin implementing the plan once funding becomes available. "Government works best in incremental steps," she said. "For council not to take action is a missed opportunity, a lost opportunity."

Apart from the predictable endorsements from downtown booster groups, there are others out there who like the plan, too. Chris Riley, a longtime downtown resident, Planning Commission member, and past president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, thinks the package is one of the best things to hit downtown in years and says he's not alone in his enthusiasm.

"I haven't found a single downtown resident who is opposed to the Lumbermen's plan," he said. "There would be real advantages to having a district down there that has some life at the lake. The way [the Lumbermen's site] looks now ... it's not the kind of place you would take your kid. We need residents down there who would be watching the park."

And that's coming from someone who's not altogether in sync with other downtown boosters across the board. Unlike those who champion the notion of a swank hotel in the Warehouse District, for example, Riley bemoans the sheer number of bricks-and-mortar projects killing off the local flavor. "What troubles me more than anything else is the long-term trend of downtown being vacated by local businesses and residents," he says. "At one time we had many more residents downtown, we had a lot of single-family homes, and lots of rooming houses and apartments that just got bulldozed. I mean, we bulldozed 88 apartments at the Railyard when we expanded the Convention Center."

Unplanned Arguments

If there were a tragic tale emerging from the whole Seaholm affair, it would be the irony of how one man's "harebrained idea" of turning a power plant into a public facility grew to become a humongous, multi-million dollar undertaking. Ken Altes, who introduced the reuse notion more than a dozen years ago, and carried the torch for many years after that, is no longer a key player in the process -- and that's not by his choice. For whatever reasons -- be they political or personal, or both -- Altes was eased out of the picture in 1998. Some believe that it was Altes' overwhelming passion for the project that became his own undoing. In the early days, he and his old friend Sinclair Black used to spend hours together plotting Seaholm's future, but as time went on, their relationship grew strained. Today, Black supports the overall plan and Altes is one of its staunchest critics.

"For so long this was a project without any strong advocates," said Altes, "and then along came Lumbermen's, a multinational corporation with lawyers and money, and they became the center of gravity for this plan."

The Urban Transportation Commission's Eden, a pedestrian advocate, has his own ideas about what to do with the master plan. "It would be nice if we could just toss it out and start from scratch ... But," he added later on a more optimistic note, "even if we get a bad plan, we'll always have Seaholm."

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