Delay of Game
Seaholm, Block 21 challenge the Downtown domino theory
Like trailers for long-awaited blockbusters that won't be released for a year and a half, the models and pretty pictures of possible future Seaholms and Block 21s (or should that be Blocks 21?) sit sparkling at City Hall, previewing Downtown attractions coming, um, soon. Probably not as soon as was expected when the three teams bidding for Block 21 and the four groups angling for the Seaholm project splashed their visions all over the City Council back in January. Other issues sucking up the oxygen, and a city election cycle in full throttle, have made the future of these two city-owned chunks of prime Downtown land not such a burn-baby-burning issue.
This may cause grumbles in the tummies of city watchers who've long declaimed City Hall's need for speed. But if we don't really know what we want, isn't it OK not to rush? As Mayor Wynn told the Chronicle the last time we wrote this story, "It would be short-sighted to move forward ... without a broader geographic plan and vision and some semblance of collaboration and synergy. The community deserves for us to do this right, once and for all. Shame on us if we don't." That conversation took place more than a year ago ("Downtown Dominoes," April 9, 2004), but the varied proposals for Seaholm and Block 21 themselves illustrate we have not arrived at a "plan and vision" for the southwest quadrant of Downtown that everyone agrees on.
Sure, many can agree, as many have for decades, that the erstwhile Warehouse District should be reinvented, revitalized, and reurbanized into a proper front parlor for a big city of tomorrow. But over the past 40 years, we have made not nearly as much progress as you might expect toward turning that vision into a buildable reality. (Think of that next time someone complains that the city "takes too long" to craft a neighborhood plan, or a Mueller master plan.) Moving forward with haste on Seaholm and B21 will not change this fact; even the Downtown dominoes already set on end the CSC complex, City Hall itself, the emerging Second Street District are not lined up to fall in a single direction.
And decisions yet to come about other Downtown sites and projects and initiatives like the Austin Museum of Art block, or the Green Water Treatment Plant, or the electric substation next to Seaholm, or an aggressive expansion of urban-core retail, or above all any future enhanced Downtown transportation systems probably won't be made until after Seaholm and Block 21 have entered the deal stage. Which only increases the chances that, as the Downtown dominoes do fall, they'll fall in a big, messy circle.
Thinking Inside the Block
Block 21 (the number comes from the city's original 1839 plat map) is putatively the easier call, because it is simply a vacant Downtown block, with none of the usual restrictions and impediments (like a midblock alley or a Capitol view corridor) that get in the way of Downtown development. We already know the de minimis level of density (and, um, urban design) the city is looking for that of the now-abandoned third CSC building, same as the other two, that was supposed to go on the site.
After the city in January 2002 abashedly bought back from CSC the rights to its own land, and then decided a new central library (the pre-CSC favorite for the site) would be better built elsewhere, "highest and best use" in the professional sense that is, the biggest bang possible for the city's buck became the evident goal for this block. The money thus accrued to the city's coffers could then go to help meet less self-financing civic needs. A few things have happened, though, to bring down this Super-Max vision of B21, and none of the three proposals offers such an alternative. "I was a little bit disappointed that they didn't propose more density than they did for B21," says Charlie Betts, director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. "But all the plans were interesting."
The economic cycle and Downtown market have twisted and turned, although with developers like Tom Stacy now pitching 'scrapers even taller and shinier than Frost Bank Tower, the downsizing of B21 can't entirely be pinned on the market. Indeed, MetLife, which owns 100 Congress, is pulling permits for its long-discussed (and now residential) companion tower on the Colorado Street side, right next to CSC East and a mere block from Block 21, planned to shoot up to 24 stories, dwarfing CSC and City Hall. (Remember that Block 21 is, or was, offered to developers on a hurry-up timeline the project must be completed by 2009 which makes it less worrisome that the newest wave of emerging Downtown projects will cut in line and soak up what market B21 might enjoy.)
There's also the city's add-on request that all B21 (and Seaholm) proposals include space for a nonprofit cultural institution, supposedly nipping into developers' profitability. But none of the three civic worthies called out by name by the City Council KLRU-TV, the nascent Texas Music Hall of Fame, and the Austin Children's Museum appear terribly eager or likely to go to Block 21. (The first two feature prominently in the Seaholm proposals; the last is likely headed to the Lumbermen's/Sand Beach tract to the west of the power plant.) None of the three B21 proposals is much dependent on, or has much of a commitment from, a nonprofit anchor, which would have seemed a deal killer a few months ago, when such an anchor was thought essential to drive feet and wallets into the emerging Second Street District and past its retail and restaurant delights.
But that was before Austin cut the ribbon on its brand-new and rather popular City Hall right across the street; all three B21 proposals "respond" to Ol' Copper Top and its pointy thing rather than overshadow it, and it now seems clear that City Hall is the real anchor of the 2SD. As a consequence, all three B21 teams deviate from one of the few sorta-hard-and-fast rules laid down by the city: that the block be built out to the street, creating a continuous retail corridor, of which Block 21's ground floor will provide the largest single chunk, at least 42,000 square feet. (The two flanking AMLI apartment buildings one built, the other planned along with the two CSC buildings and a tiny piece of City Hall itself, make up the rest of the 200,000-or-so square feet of the 2SD, currently expected to include up to 70 shops and restaurants.)
Instead, all three B21 proposals include some form of public open space on Second Street, ranging from a widened concave sidewalk-cum-paseo (AMLI and Endeavor Real Estate Group), to a corner pocket park with companion rooftop garden (Stratus Properties), to a full-on plaza reaching halfway back across the block (Zydeco Development). The last of these was presented to the City Council via renderings that also showed Second Street itself closed down with bollards, thus setting City Hall in the midst of several acres of hardscape. (See "Three for Block 21" for more details.)
While the city could, or may have to, live with this deviation, its vision for B21 is not that flexible. "For public plazas to work," says Betts, "you have to program and maintain them. You can't just create them and leave them there. It's not worthy of being a park unless people can enjoy and use it. And right now, I don't know that we need another one to program." ("We," in this case, is meant literally; the DAA has shouldered much of the responsibility for programming existing Downtown public spaces.)
Of the three, Stratus is the favorite at present, for many reasons. There are obvious attractions to getting another developer, and particularly this developer, into the 2SD mix. Moreover, Stratus' proposal includes the most balanced mix of residential, office, retail, and civic uses, thus giving some insurance to a city government in a turbulent Downtown real estate market. And, in the latest evidence of Stratus' concerted, and so far successful, effort to distance itself from its anti-environmental roots, its B21 project is conspicuously green, with a team including such principals as architect Arthur Andersson, sustainability expert Gail Vittori, and PR man Mike Blizzard.
And, oh yes, in a comical game played out at the City Council presentation, Stratus' Beau Armstrong offered to pay the city $15 million for B21 compared to the $9.2 million minimum asking price offered by the other two proposers while eschewing city development incentives. Not everyone has forgotten that B21 is supposed to be a cash cow, and more exactly one that can be milked to support a new central library, thus solving the dilemma created when that project got bumped off B21 to start with. The idea du jour is to earmark B21 proceeds for an endowment to support operating costs of the new library, wherever it goes.
Of course, that sale price may not come without strings; Stratus, as you may remember, owns a lot of land in the Barton Springs zone that many in City Hall, and many of Stratus' new friends, would rather the company not develop. Last month, the Save Our Springs Alliance, Save Barton Creek Association, and Sierra Club formally asked the city to consider a land swap with Stratus for a particularly choice tract at Barton Creek; other rumors have concerned Stratus' holdings at Lantana, which have been floated as a new corporate HQ site for Advanced Micro Devices. Stratus itself has yet to publicly broach a swap, and right now, the idea "isn't gaining any traction here," says one City Hall source. "They want the money."
Seaholm: Chicken vs. Egg
Stratus also has thrown down a proposal for Seaholm, making it the only team to go after both projects, and the historic lakeside power plant looks to many less like a cash cow than a money pit. While the city's B21 and Seaholm efforts were synchronized in an attempt to create the coherence Will Wynn was pining for last year, the two nuts come from entirely different trees.
While the city asked for proposals for actual projects for B21, it simply requested qualifications for prospective partners in what's expected to be a long-term effort to move along a community vision for Seaholm and environs. The city wants to sell B21 outright, but is more likely to gravitate toward a long-term lease for Seaholm. Unlike the rather minimal 2SD-related requirements for B21, Seaholm is the centerpiece of a very elaborate district master plan crafted for the city by ROMA Design Group, which in turn jumped off from decades of public planning for the adaptive reuse of the Art Deco building itself.
Though all concerned appear confident that prior cleanups have mitigated the risk of Seaholm becoming a brownfield nightmare, adaptive reuse of any old, almost-impossible-to-alter building with historic landmark status is far more complicated than throwing new sticks in the air. An additional factor is that any reuse of the Turbine Hall, or new construction in its vicinity, has to accommodate the neighboring electric substation which, at present, Austin Energy has no near-term plans to relocate, and which cuts Seaholm off from the 2SD. (Council muttered about this for a while during the Seaholm presentations, serving only to confirm the obstacle.)
On the other side, the on-again, off-again attempts to integrate the Lumbermen's tract, either formally (under city ownership) or informally, into a master-planned Seaholm district, are now inoperative. Gables Residential is steaming forward with its plans for a project incorporating a new home for the Children's Museum and a solution to the long-running headache of extending the Pfluger Bridge into Downtown and to the planned Lance Armstrong Bikeway.
Tying in that ped-bike element is just one part of what may be the biggest Seaholm design challenge making sure that whatever goes there can function as a Downtown-gateway multimodal transportation hub. Seaholm could end up being indeed, would have to be the junction of two commuter rail lines, a downtown streetcar system, a large chunk of Capital Metro's bus network, "managed lanes" coming into Downtown from MoPac, and the bikeway and city trail system.
Or it could be home to none of those things, all of which are in more-or-less-pronounced states of flux, and despite going into quite a bit of detail about their concepts, the four Seaholm teams all struggled with this rather large unknown. "It's clear that Seaholm is going to be our multimodal connection point, or station, or whatever you want to call it," says Betts, "but there hasn't been much said about how that function takes place on the proposals that I've seen. When we say 'transit hub,' what does that mean?"
It doesn't seem like this is a question that's going to be answered by Capital Metro, at least not before-rather-than-after the city begins its Seaholm dance. "Now that Capital Metro planners and consultants are working on getting our urban commuter rail designed and built, we can now take a much closer look at the transit circulation needs Downtown," says Capital Metro President/CEO Fred Gilliam. "It will be important to understand the best alternatives to connect key Downtown destinations to our line," including Seaholm. The authority's formal planning study for the Downtown "transit circulation area" in preparation for an anticipated 2006 referendum on extensions of the commuter rail line will include "gathering public input on possible options for a downtown transfer facility as well as possible alignments, extensions or new services," Gilliam notes.
"From a transit perspective, Seaholm could serve Amtrak and could be a connecting point for future Austin-San Antonio commuter rail service" along the MoPac/Union Pacific line, Gilliam adds. "But it is not a destination yet. We will be interested to see what the city and community have in mind for the area. If those uses make Seaholm a major activity center, we'll know more about how transit can serve it."
All This and Willie Too?
The uncertainty over Seaholm's transportation function is one reason why the city wasn't really looking for, or even interested in, specific concepts for Seaholmville, which already has attached to it that city-adopted master plan, years of prior reuse planning, and so forth. But this dictum was rather spectacularly ignored by the four teams in competition, who did everything but bring paint chips and carpet samples to show the City Council the wonders of concepts that were, if anything, more specific and more varied than those for Block 21 (see "Four for Seaholm" for more details).
Of the four, Stratus secure enough in its details to go ahead and get a model built of its new Seaholm got the most attention for deploying the holy name of Willie Nelson as a potential partner (along with the same players in its Block 21 proposal) in its envisioned music complex, anchored by a new large-scale concert venue. This concept detours a bit from the notion of mixed-use, 24/7, transit-oriented development (if said venue would be dark all days and many nights of the year, as venues typically are) that underlies most prior Seaholm and Downtown brainstorming. But it offers a certain sex appeal that may be enough to convince the City Council, which has of late been as preoccupied with the music industry as it once was with Downtown development, to shift its paradigms.
Other Seaholm proposals feature big, though not as big as Willie, names of their own; Simmons, Vedder and Co.'s vision of a media complex "like Rockefeller Center" (the name Emmis was also dropped, to the surprise of Emmis employees in the audience) is repped by none other than Kirk Watson his own self, under whose mayoral aegis the council's Downtown efforts really got rolling. Meanwhile, the "sage of Downtown," architect Sinclair Black a signal figure in the sagas of Seaholm and the Warehouse District is attached to not one but two proposals, those by FaulknerUSA (anchored by a hotel) and the Seaholm Power team led by Southwest Strategies Group (the folks behind Penn Field, which already is what Simmons Vedder seems to want Seaholm to become). The latter of these did an admittedly spectacular job of simply wishing away the Austin Energy substation next door.
Despite its star power, Stratus may be the least well-positioned, according to the prior conventions of Downtown politics, to pluck this plum, especially since all four Seaholm visions give pride of place to KLRU and Austin City Limits, thus eliminating one potential criterion for judgment. It would be even more novel if Stratus were to get both Seaholm and Block 21 from a City Council that really doesn't need any more aspersions cast on its wisdom with public money and development deals, thank you very much. But the pretty pictures and PowerPoints and models from all four teams have taken the Seaholm discussion in a direction the city didn't really want to go away from a sober evaluation of the teams' credentials, and into a public planning-and-design discussion that is, at this point, either too early or too late.
See, either we've already decided (with the Seaholm master plan and its antecedents), or we haven't yet decided (because a final Seaholm development deal is still in the misty future) that we're going to turn the power plant into the Weird Ol' Opry, with Willie straddling the grounds like Big Tex at the State Fair. Or into the visions proposed by the other three teams in their turn. So how, exactly, are we supposed to choose one team from another, if not based on pre-existing political and economic facts unrelated to the vaporware? As we reported last year, City Hall expected, and wanted, a few low-key Seaholm proposals that avoided brassy visions of future urban playgrounds, and many exciting, all-over-the-map ideas for Block 21. They got the reverse.
Former Chronicle City Editor Mike Clark-Madison, now an independent writer and consultant, has covered neighborhood development, urban planning and architecture, and Austin politics for many years. He previously wrote about the city's plans for Second Street in "Downtown Dominoes," April 9, 2004.