This past week, the Austin City Council essentially gave away the iconic, historic Seaholm Power Plant building to developers for the construction of commercial office space that will almost entirely be off limits to the public.
As Ken Altes, a founder of a group called the Friends of Seaholm, eloquently summarized at the City Council meeting: “If you allow it to become an office, it’s gone. You’ll be remembered as the council that lost Seaholm,” he said. “You have the potential to make it a world-class facility that the public wants. … The (power plant) should be the center of what happens at the Seaholm property and now it will just be an amenity, and not even that. It will be used for commercial gain and basically excluded from public use.”
And that is exactly what the council did, abandoning a 2008 deal that vowed to turn the spectacular interior into grand public spaces at the heart of a major new development. With the new City Council deal, just 7,000 square feet of the 117,000 square foot plant will be open to the public. According to the Statesman, the developer, “Seaholm Power LLC plans to restore the historical power plant and build two structures near it: a low-rise building with offices and retail, including Austin’s first Trader Joe’s, a specialty grocery store, and a 28-story tower with 294 apartments. It expects to break ground this summer. The development will also include a 1-acre public plaza and a half-acre terrace that overlooks the lake.”
In the case of Seaholm, the biggest problem with the development has been the lack of a clear commercially viable plan for the site. So many other Cities have turned similar abandoned sites — from the South Street Seaport in New York to the Tate Modern in London — into thriving commercial and cultural districts. For Seaholm, the first mistake was inking a deal with Trader Joe’s. While many people would like to see Trader Joe’s, a discount food retailer, in Austin, it is the wrong tenant for this historic downtown site.
Unfortunately for Austin, the deal is final and can’t be changed for 20 years. Even then, change seems unlikely. In retrospect, a much better plan might have been to split the 7.8 acre site into a normal street grid and develop around the plant, only leasing out the historic structure when the surrounding density made better use of the site commercially viable.