Naked City

Beside the point: Council ponders Seaholm

Taser International may be feeling the heat a bit, as last week Austin became yet another city having second thoughts about police use of the company's electronic "stun guns" as "non-lethal" substitutes for handguns. In the wake of widespread reports of serious injuries or death associated with Tasers (another death was reported in Houston over the weekend) – not to mention anecdotal reports that some Austin cops have gone Taser-happy on unarmed and subdued suspects – the council "indefinitely postponed" a decision to buy another 90 Tasers at a cost of $75,000 from the APD budget. The department is currently conducting a review of Taser procedure, presumably to clarify same, so the argument isn't over yet.

On zoning, the council was also in a postponing mood, granting a delay on the first discussion of the vexed Gables at Westlake zoning case (for proposed apartments near St. Stephen's School) to March 24, and voting another two-week delay on the even more vexed historic zoning decision for the dilapidated "Brown-Ledel-Silverman" House at 609 West Lynn (the Old West Austin neighbors want it, Historic Landmark Commission recommends it, the new homeowner objects – vociferously). Audibly divided on the decision, the council decided to wait a couple of weeks in the fond hope that a solution (i.e., sale) might eventuate in the meantime.

Council did, however, give final approval to a 300-home SMART housing development to be called "Shire's Court" on the near southeast side (Metcalfe Road at Burleson, near Mabel Davis Park), despite many misgivings over the developer's plan for restricted access (i.e., a SMART-but-Gated community). A compromise, to provide limited internal access for through traffic and pedestrians, salved the collective conscience enough to get the deal done – with the proviso that the council doesn't want to have to approve one of these again. Or so they said.

The headline subject of the day: Whither Seaholm? The long-mothballed power plant is targeted for a yet-to-be-determined combination of private redevelopment and public use, and the council heard from four redevelopment teams responding to the city's Request for Qualifications – that is, each of the four assembled groups of planners, developers, architects, designers, and businessmen is trying to convince the council that it is the most qualified team to take charge of transforming Seaholm from an empty shell into a bustling tourist, retail, and residential center. The teams came fully armed with PowerPoint presentations and dazzling visual concepts – although none of these blue-sky ideas are either as fully worked out or as solid as those proposed a week earlier for nearby Block 21. That's because the actual shape of any Seaholm plan will be worked out in detail only after the council has selected a team to carry it out. In addition to the private retail and residential uses, the city hopes to incorporate a local "nonprofit" institution – KLRU, the Texas Music Hall of Fame, and the Austin Children's Museum are all in the discussion (although the nearby presence of commuter rail is already causing engineering headaches for any sound studio options).

The presentations, entertaining as they are, were very much preliminary sketches rather than hard-wired proposals. The day's PR victory probably went to the Stratus Properties team (partnered with Trammell Crow), when it dropped the name of Willie Nelson as a potential musical partner through his partnership with nephew Freddy Fletcher in Pedernales Records. But everybody promises music, entertainment, shops, and transit-oriented development – although city staff and a couple of presenters also pointed out worriedly that fitting both a train station and a bus depot into the cramped Seaholm landscape will create special planning challenges that may reverberate along Second Street.

There is as yet no decision deadline, but council will be generating questions for the development teams and public discussion over the next several weeks – with the hope of making a choice on this project and Block 21 before being overwhelmed by spring election hubbub. Next meeting: March 3.

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