We’ve followed the civic saga of East Austin’s so-called Holly Shores region for years now, but the master plan for this enormous tract of parkland on the shores of Lady Bird Lake actually dates back all the way to 2009, when City Council first tasked the Parks and Recreation Department with forming a vision for the improvement of the city-owned shoreline in this area containing Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach, Fiesta Gardens, and the site of the former Holly Street Power Plant.
The Holly Plant, an industrial site enabled by the era’s segregated land use policies encouraging the placement of polluting infrastructure east of I-35 to lessen its impact on the city’s white residents, was a source of anger in nearby neighborhoods for decades until the facility’s demolition in 2011, with the decommissioning process continuing for several years until approximately nine acres of the site came under the control of PARD in 2017 — the rest is occupied by an active Austin Energy substation.
The question of what to do with the site, now sitting essentially vacant beyond the substation, was a piece of the Holly Shores Master Plan’s puzzle — due to its location by other parkland, turning the land into more park space was inevitable, but how that might look has stayed up in the air for the better part of a decade. That’s why we’re glad to see even the smallest evidence of progress at the former plant, thanks to an item submitted by PARD and approved on consent last night by the city’s Planning Commission, describing a project to add 3,000 feet of trail to the site along the shoreline of the lake as part of the area’s existing Hike-and-Bike Trail.
This plan would remove roughly 1.7 acres of asphalt from a former utility access road on the plant grounds and replace the pathway with a 12-foot-wide concrete trail running from the pedestrian bridge at Edward Rendon Sr. Park to the intersection of Pedernales and Holly Streets at the northeast end of the plant site across from Metz Park — as you can imagine, this would provide additional connectivity to other expected improvements in the area, including the Trail Foundation’s Holly Project and the city’s “wishbone” pedestrian bridge planned near Longhorn Dam.
According to D’Anne Williams, a project manager at PARD for the Holly Shores area, the improvements will include benches along the trail and a concrete wall around the active substation on the site for safety purposes — this wall will also likely eventually feature a mural, and though details are up in the air, it’s an opportunity to join other efforts in the area to commemorate the Chicano heritage of the neighborhood.
Due to the requirements of city code, this first step of the project will require significant plantings between the trail and the lake for erosion control and restoration of the native riparian environment. Two warehouse buildings still standing on the plant site near the path of the new trail will be closed off until PARD can conduct an engagement process to determine their possible adaptation for public use.
The Vision Plan for the Holly Shores / Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach outlined uses for the Holly Warehouses consistent with benefiting the surrounding neighborhoods. Potential uses of the warehouse buildings included fitness classes, performing arts space, community events and a black box theater. PARD recognizes the value of the adjacency of the current structures to Lady Bird Lake as an exceptional opportunity for the community.
— City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department
Alongside this potential, Williams says one of the plant’s concrete intake structures on the shore of the lake will be converted to a “scenic overlook” of some kind — far less grand in scale, but an interesting adaptation of infrastructure not unlike plans for the former power plant intake at the Seaholm Waterfront.
The former plant’s shoreline intake seen at the center of this Street View could be adapted as a scenic overlook adjacent to the site’s new trail.
Per Williams, last night’s approval from the Planning Commission was one of the final steps before getting this project moving — PARD still needs to undergo a quality review from the Public Works Department before opening the plan’s construction to public bidding. If that process goes smoothly, we could see the start of work before the end of the year. It’s only an early step toward realizing the grand designs of the area’s full master plan, but after years of uncertainty we think any sign of life at this site is something to celebrate.