The long-awaited rehabilitation of the Seaholm Power Plant’s former intake structure on the shores of Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin should complete its first phase early this summer, and if you’ve spent any time around the lake in the last few weeks you might have already noticed that this 1950s Art Deco landmark has received a heck of a good scrubbing — with decades of grime and a generation of competing graffiti tags blasted away from its concrete exterior, there’s a good chance the building hasn’t looked this fresh since long before the power plant stopped running back in 1989.
The project, which kicked off roughly six months ago in October 2021, plans to eventually adapt the building and its surrounding parkland over several phases into a signature indoor-outdoor park and public space we’re calling the Seaholm Waterfront, originally dreamed up in a 2018 vision plan by Chicago architecture firm Studio Gang after more than a few false starts and unused designs.
Overseen by major players including the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, the Trail Foundation, the Austin Parks Foundation, and local architecture studio Cotera + Reed, the final laundry list of nice things in store for the intake includes a cafe, lakefront dock extending from the structure to provide easy access to the water, extensive outdoor landscaping, trail upgrades, public art, and the actual intake building’s big main room spiffed up for use as an event venue, gallery space, or just plain hanging out. Think of it as a long-overdue mea culpa from the City of Austin for somehow bumbling its way into a publicly financed development agreement for the actual Seaholm Power Plant across the street that privatized its stunning turbine hall into office space instead of a public amenity everyone gets to enjoy.
Anyway, the first phase of the project now scheduled for completion this coming June is just the beginning, intended to simply get the intake building habitable and safe enough for small event programming — and that’s a tall order, since the structure’s original purpose was sucking water out of the lake with big deadly machines and pumping it across the street through a series of big deadly holes. Over the course of adding fire sprinklers, safety railings, modified windows, extra ventilation, more lighting, various ADA access accommodations, a new roof, and all the other minor features that make it harder for you to die, the folks at the project’s contractors Balfour Beatty Construction Group discovered unforeseen leaks in one of the 10 wells inside the core of the building providing pump access to the lake:
The nature of the intake facility allowed the entry of water from Lady Bird Lake to fill 10 interior wells and be pumped to the Seaholm Power Plant when it was in operation. Sealing of the intake gates was necessary in order to eliminate water from being continuously present within the building. Nine of the 10 wells have been successfully sealed off. While pumping the water out of the building, leaks were discovered in one of the wells which will require additional work by the underwater construction crew. Preventing the free-flowing entry of lake water into the building is central to the scope of this project improving the occupancy conditions by lowering humidity levels, eliminating odors and pests, and preserving the integrity of the building materials.
— Austin City Council, April 21, 2021
Sealing off the building’s interior infrastructure from water is both necessary to make the place comfortable and not a minor request considering the original purpose of the intake was to have water inside of it. Plugging this leak will require some extra work, so late last week City Council approved a $139,250 amendment to the project’s construction contract for these additional repairs, bringing the total cost of the project’s first phase to $3,401,250. With the extra cost approved, the public could get its first look inside the upgraded structure sometime this summer, which should get everyone excited to finish the other phases — it really does look impressive in there. Not that we’ve been peeking through the windows for over a decade or anything.
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