The saga of the Seaholm intake goes way back. After work began on a mixed-use project adapting the decommissioned historic Seaholm Power Plant in 2013, the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department announced a competition soliciting designs from local architects for a remodel of the power plant’s intake building, located on the shores of Lady Bird Lake across Cesar Chavez Street from the Seaholm redevelopment.
At the time, the parks department explained that features from the top three entries would “inspire subsequent design phases of the project,” but in 2016, the department decided to start over, citing concerns about the previous design concepts for the facility harming its historic character. By 2017, the department, along with the Austin Parks Foundation and Trail Foundation, announced it had chosen to fund an all-new concept study for the intake building’s adaptation, to be conducted by international architecture and urban design firm Studio Gang.
After many public engagement events, focus groups, discussions with local design professionals, and online surveys meant to solicit opinions from residents about how the intake and surrounding area could best be transformed to serve the community, the study finally appears to be complete — barring any agenda changes, its results and subsequent initial design recommendations will be presented at the following meetings of city boards and commissions this summer:
Design Commission – Monday, June 25
Downtown Commission – Wednesday, July 18
Historic Landmark Commission – Monday, July 23
Parks and Recreation Board – Tuesday, July 24
City Council – Tuesday, August 9
That’s great and all, but don’t you want to see the designs Studio Gang came up with before then? Well, aren’t you lucky — since the study’s presentation files are public city documents, we’re able to get an early look at the results, with more than a few glimpses of what a redevelopment of what’s being called the Seaholm Waterfront could look like.
Keeping that in mind, I think a particularly large disclaimer is necessary: Though the material seen here is substantial, we have no clue whether any of these concepts are truly the future of development at the intake building and its waterfront. Several options are presented, and recommendations by the various boards and commissions considering the project could transmogrify these designs to the point of being unrecognizable from anything seen here.
Not only that, but since all we’ve got to work with are these presentation documents, rather than the actual presentation as delivered by people who know what the hell they’re talking about, we’ve got to try and make sense of these designs ourselves — which means you ought to take everything here with a grain of salt. This is a detailed study, and there’s no way we can cover every detail, so you ought to check out Studio Gang’s presentations at the upcoming meetings this summer, which will inevitably feature a lot more explanation.
Let’s start with the study’s six design principles for reinventing the intake facility and surrounding waterfront. This graphic from the study spells them out in detail:
Studio Gang explains it pretty well themselves:
“In 2017, The Trail Foundation, Austin Parks Foundation, and the Austin Parks and Recreation Department engaged Studio Gang to propose how to revitalize the Seaholm Waterfront. The result is this Conceptual Design Study that embraces the character of the buildings and site; promotes restoration of the landscape and waterscape; builds on local knowledge and experience; amplifies sustainability; and joins the city and its waterfront at a new confluence of inclusive community infrastructure.
The Study does not focus on one design solution; rather, it provides several options that respond to the ambitions expressed by Austinites and the latent opportunities inherent in the buildings, grounds, and trail in the hope of awakening the Seaholm Waterfront to a new and celebrated civic life.”
— Studio Gang
Of particular importance is the habitability of the intake building’s interior. Since it was built for pumps, not people, the structure isn’t super welcoming at the moment — it’s not properly cooled or ventilated, not to mention that its 5,500-square-foot main floor is full of holes, which previously allowed an overhead gantry crane access to the machinery below. The study recommends “creatively covering” these openings, but also suggests reinstalling a gantry crane as a “unique artifact of the building’s past.” Plus, you can use it to move furniture and stuff around!
We’ll see the potential of that crane in some renderings below, but first, the issue of air conditioning. It turns out that since the intake was designed to let water in, this system can be adapted to use the water as a heat sink — creating a passive cooling system that will, according to the architects, help keep the building’s upper level habitable year-round. Studio Gang describes this concept as a natural extension of the structure’s original purpose: a machine for cooling.
Once the interior is rendered habitable, work can begin to make it a public space. But due to the historic preservation concerns that kneecapped the previous concepts back in 2013, Studio Gang’s vision for the inside of the building takes a light touch, creating an open space that can be used for a variety of event programming, but also serves the needs of the public day-to-day:
The study includes renderings of the interior demonstrating each of the above “possibilities” — its daily appearance as a gathering place and coffee shop, its further usage as a flexible space for small events or exhibitions, and its potential as a venue for occasional large events, such as concerts. You can see that new gantry crane in action in a couple of these:
Moving on, the study presents three options for the “front yard” of the facility, a roughly three-acre space between the intake building and Cesar Chavez Street. Each option comes with its own distinctive features, and since most of the renderings are captioned, they kinda speak for themselves. There are also maps and models included for each design — let’s check them out:
Option 1: The Porch Yard
“Service and amenity programs are placed in a porch that wraps the north face of the Intake Building. The Porch looks out onto the Porch Yard, which is protected from Cesar Chavez by a lushly planted Forest Veil. The Porch Yard can be used for large gatherings or smaller day-to-day group meetings.”
— Studio Gang
Option 2: The Court Yard
“To take pressure off the Intake Building, all amenity and service programs are placed in the Shed. A safe and open Court Yard is created between the Shed and the Intake Building.”
— Studio Gang
Option 3: The Garden Yard
“The service and amenity programs are located in the Pavilion, which can also be used as a stage for large events that spill out into the Garden Yard. A movable Earth Wall helps reduce noise from Cesar Chavez. The Earth Wall can be used as a public message and art board.”
— Studio Gang
I’m not gonna spend much time critiquing these three concepts, since we’re at such an early stage — still, I think it’s pretty clear that first “Porch Yard” design is the best, since it doesn’t cut off the original building from the street the way the other two might. Trees are better than walls or sheds, that’s this guy’s take. I’m also wild about that art feature that repurposes the high-tension power pylon on the northeastern end of the site. That’s just plain neat.
But the study’s got more up its sleeve, laying out plans for routing and/or rerouting the hike-and-bike trail through the site, along with landscape improvements for the areas beyond the “front yard.” Since numbers were already taken, the three trail options presented here are titled A, B, and C:
In addition to these trail options, the presentation includes renderings of various landscape architecture features that appear to be shared between the varying designs:
Together, this all represents a fairly large undertaking, so Studio Gang has broken down the process of transforming the Seaholm Waterfront into phases, as described in the report starting with the main intake building:
As you can see from the steps listed above, one of the next stages after presenting the study to City Council and various boards and commissions this summer is to “select elements from each design based on public input to create a final recommendation,” which means we may receive an additional opportunity to sound off on which of these design options and features we’d prefer to see take shape.