Can you tell we’re excited about the Seaholm Waterfront project? Our antsy coverage of the city’s plan to adapt the historic 1950s former intake building of the also-former Seaholm Power Plant into a new public space and venue on Lady Bird Lake has followed the project’s various stages of imagination since long before the appearance of a master plan for the space by famed design firm Studio Gang in 2018, and after a lot of waiting and one pandemic we’re happy to report the plan will hit a milestone toward realizing its first all-important phase at City Council’s meeting next week:
Seaholm Intake Building Phase 1 Rehabilitation: This project is seeking Council authorization on June 3 to negotiate and execute a Competitive Sealed Proposal Agreement with Balfour Beatty Construction Group, Inc. for construction services in an amount not to exceed $3,200,000.00.
— City of Austin Parks and Recreation Board, May 25 Director’s Report
The first phase of this Art Deco-inspired facility’s rehab involves locals like the Parks and Recreation Department, the Trail Foundation, the Austin Parks Foundation, and architecture firm Cotera + Reed. It’s perhaps the most critical stage of the plan, if not the sexiest on paper — in the city’s language, the goal of that $3.2 million is making the structure “…safe and inhabitable for small programs and events by restoring character defining features and updating the building for code-compliant occupancy.”
That requires updates like fire sprinklers, additional ventilation, lighting, railings around the intake’s various chasms, ADA and egress adaptations, a new roof, and so on. Preservation considerations of this phase include the removal of what must be at least thirty years of graffiti, plus a general scrubbing that respects the character-giving aspects of the place — “the gentlest means possible,” according to the plan.
The importance of this phase, which is funded by General Obligation bonds and the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax program, is in its ability to popularize the later stages of the facility’s master plan and motivate action toward their completion. These are fairly minor adaptations — $3.2 million is a lot of money to spend on a house, but actually a pretty reasonable price tag for public works — but once they’re complete, the various parties involved in the project can start hosting events and other activities that bring people inside the space, which is the fastest way to prove its historic character.
Let’s put it this way — as a reader of this site, you’re a very plugged-in urbanite, but I assure you that many people don’t think about this building at all, and it won’t be hard to change that once we get them inside to see how cool it really is.
There’s another reason we follow this plan so closely — we think it’s a good representation of the city’s slow philosophical shift on adaptive reuse in the public interest. Compare this project’s intense focus on public access to the public-private partnership that produced the Seaholm District itself more than five years ago, which inexplicably adapted the glorious turbine hall of the former Seaholm Power Plant into private office space rather than a public amenity despite being far and away the structure’s single largest source of interior architectural and historic character.
It’s a decision we know many city staff now regret, and this plan provides an opportunity to recoup some of that loss by opening a similarly fascinating piece of industrial architecture to a new generation of Austinites. We don’t expect Council to have any issues with approving this next step at next week’s meeting, since they’ve already signed off on the master plan itself — in other words, let’s make it happen.