I’m fascinated by civic infrastructure. Despite their importance, the underlying systems enabling our lives within the built environment, from sewers to streetlights, are often concealed from view to the point that we’re only consciously reminded of their existence when they fail.
But it’s not always possible — or financially reasonable, at least — to hide certain elements of these complex networks, and electrical substations are a good example. They’re generally large, visually unpleasant, and rendered inaccessible to the public by their very purpose, making them difficult to integrate smoothly into the urban landscape. This brings me to the point, which is that Austin Energy plans to construct a new substation downtown as part of its “Repowering Downtown” project, with a current targeted completion date of Summer 2020.
This substation, necessitated by Austin’s growth creating new challenges for the existing electrical grid, is slated for construction at 55 East Avenue, a 1.3-acre city-owned plot one block removed from the Rainey Street District near I-35.
If you take a look at my big map of upcoming Rainey / Lakeshore development below, you’ll see I’ve marked the new substation location with a big yellow plug:
As predicted by the buildings we already know are in various stages of planning around the region, along with plenty of empty lots waiting for more of the same, the patterns of this area’s growth seem to indicate that once everything’s built out, this substation will exist in the middle of a fairly developed corner of downtown — you might even call it “dense.” And that’s not even considering how the area might change if I-35 receives its long-overdue makeover.
Personally, I think substations are kind of cool to look at, but most people probably wouldn’t prefer a great big buzzing house for lightning plunked down in the middle of what’s poised to become one of downtown’s most interesting districts. It’s certainly not ideal for the area’s growth, but according to Austin Energy, it’s really the only good spot to build a substation — in fact, the city purchased the site explicitly for that purpose.
The need for a new substation was actually indicated all the way back in 2004, when the Rainey Street area was rezoned as part of the city’s Central Business District:
Needless to say, we probably shouldn’t expect this proposal to die in committee. Instead, it’s probably a good time to think about what we can do from a design perspective to make sure the new substation doesn’t suck the life out of the area.
This project certainly isn’t the first chunk of electrical infrastructure playing nice with downtown — the best example is probably the Seaholm Substation, surrounded by some of the densest vertical growth in the city and right next door to our new library. The city’s solution, both for preventing the public from frying themselves and jazzing up the place, was a multicolored “art wall” around the whole installation, named “Power Picket” by its designers:
And, of course, there’s the snazzy substation over in the Fiesta Mart parking lot at 38 1/2th Street, with its impressive swoosh design:
The Fiesta station is probably closer to what we can expect for the new project, in terms of its overall footprint. That’s at least the take from Kim Doyal, a community engagement liaison from Austin Energy, who gave me some additional info about the new substation’s design process. Take it away, Kim!
“The Fiesta Substation is a gas insulated substation (GIS) and the Seaholm Substation is more of a traditional open air substation. This means that the Fiesta Substation has a building included in the design because much of the substation functionality is enclosed in gas-insulated tubing inside of the building. This method allows for a smaller substation footprint. The new downtown substation will be a GIS substation so it will be smaller in scale and have a building as part of the design.”
— Kim Doyal, Austin Energy
So, despite the design of the station being up in the air at this time, we can at least expect a more compact structure than the large complex over at Seaholm — which is nice to hear, since the plot of land on East Avenue is pretty big and could host a variety of public uses, if Austin Energy were so inclined to design a space for that purpose. Here’s more from the Repowering Downtown project description:
Austin Energy is committed to constructing a substation that represents the values of our community, including innovation and sustainability. The substation could include solar, battery storage and smart devices that align with Austin’s vision for a Smart City and an emphasis on electrifying transportation. A new, innovative substation to power a Smart City into the future aligns with that vision.
Austin Energy also recognizes the historic significance of the Rainey Street area including the nearby Palm Park and Palm School and the economic, social, and physical barriers that were created with the construction of IH-35. The design of the substation will demonstrate sensitivity to this history and Austin Energy wants to be a partner in the larger issues involving connectivity, equity, and social justice in this part of downtown.
— Austin Energy, “Repowering Downtown” Plan
Judging by the intensely vague language on display here, there’s nothing set in stone yet regarding what this thing’s gonna look like. For one, how can a substation further the causes of equity and social justice? Perhaps in addition to its practical uses, we could construct some kind of outdoor art space at the site — I know some taggers who might need a new canvas in the downtown area pretty soon.
Austin Energy would do well to study the example of the Denny Substation project expected to deliver later this year in downtown Seattle, which integrates a significant amount of public space, including a dog park, into a large project that artfully hides the electrical systems within.
Of course, all this bold design comes with a price — when it’s complete, the total cost of the Denny project weighs in at a rather absurd $210 million, more than Austin paid for our entire new downtown library. Meanwhile, Austin Energy’s presentation names the budget for the East Avenue substation at $26 million.
Since a few other recent substations built by the city without all the artistic flair clock in at around $10 million, that extra budget might be enough to create something on East Avenue that isn’t a complete eyesore. We’ll probably get a better idea of the preliminary design relatively soon — here’s Kim Doyal again:
“We are in the very early stages of planning a series of three to four community meetings which will involve the surrounding neighborhood and other members of the community in the design process, including an opportunity to name the new substation. We are creating an engagement plan to reach these audiences so they may have a voice in the design, and we should be ready to announce the first community meetings within the coming weeks.”
— Kim Doyal, Austin Energy
Neat. Anyway, until these meetings take place and we learn more about what’s actually planned for the site, I leave you with this hilarious graphic from one of the Repowering Downtown presentations illustrating Austin Energy’s commitment to effective community engagement: