Council authorized the adaptive reuse of Seaholm in 1996 to create "a unique and exceptional cultural facility in downtown Austin." Many cool cultural proposals were floated in a public conversation about Seaholm; meanwhile, once-discussed tenants like the Austin Children's Museum and the Austin Museum of Art still need permanent homes. When the economy tanked in 2001, however, Seaholm became something of a civic white elephant, weighted down with daunting costs for redevelopment, retrofitting, operations, and a projected $30 million in streetscape infrastructure improvements. Three years after hiring a development team, plans show a mix of retail, condos, hotel, and offices – hardly "unique and exceptional" in today's Downtown. But at this point, all involved simply want to get the project into construction – before the development cycle dolphins downward yet again.
One vocal project critic has been Andrew Clements, former chair of the Urban Transportation Commission. He believes the redevelopment plans will be "an unfortunate violation of the long-term public good, instead favoring the short-term financial benefit of the development team." Clements' focus is preserving mass-transit options, particularly existing Union Pacific rail track. The 2004 council resolution seeking a Seaholm redevelopment team specifically cited "mass transit use options" and "a possible passenger rail/transit link to central downtown and other points." Clements and others fear those options have been needlessly lost in accommodating the developer.
But Council Member Brewster McCracken said the debate amounts to a "philosophical disagreement" over which rail technology is best now for a Downtown circulator – heavy rail, ultralight rail, or a streetcar. A choice on the transit configuration was made after a study, jointly funded with Capitol Metro, which explored five different visions for how the Seaholm rail juncture could work. McCracken favors light rail, or a modern streetcar; he said the heavy rail line from San Antonio still could link up to it at Seaholm. Mayor Will Wynn has called for a passenger-rail referendum in November 2008, to provide short-hop transit around the central city. Now in planning is an inclusive city-led public forum on alternate technologies and routes, seeking (voter) input on whether the line should run all the way to Seaholm and/or the Long Center, across Lady Bird Lake.
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