Remember Austin Energy’s plans for a new downtown substation at 55 East Avenue? The project’s still a couple of years out from breaking ground — dig the timeline below, champ — but the city’s utility provider is already hard at work on preliminary concepts for the station, and held the first of several community engagement meetings last night.
If this type of project seems like an odd fit for a site so adjacent to one of downtown’s most upwardly-mobile entertainment districts, remember the story of the psychiatric crisis center just across the street from the substation site at 56 East Avenue — when Austin Energy purchased the dirt at 55 East Avenue back in 1999, this depressed neighborhood was precisely where you wanted to dump a piece of infrastructure you knew probably wouldn’t be very pleasant to look at.
Nearly twenty years later, things have changed a little. The 2004 rezoning and subsequent transformation of the Rainey Street District practically next door to this address has effectively painted Austin Energy into a corner. Despite its geographically perfect location — both close to central downtown and directly adjacent to existing electrical transmission infrastructure — this site sits in the center of a promising development pattern that could eventually create a walkable, connected district of mixed-use buildings and parks from Rainey Street all the way to Lakeshore Boulevard on the south side of the river.
When we covered these plans a few months ago, I asked if the substation had to suck — substations, being what they are, tend to render their sites off-limits to anyone not wearing an arc flash suit, and that seems like an unfortunate destiny for a location smack in the middle of an emerging district — but Austin Energy would like to reduce the chances of this station sucking as much as possible, and that starts with you. As part of this early community engagement process, it’s your job to fill out the survey at the bottom of this article with your expectations for how the substation’s design might best help it integrate with the neighborhood.
And yes, that might actually be possible — if you take a look at the map above, with the footprint of the facility outlined, you’ll see that even after TxDOT potentially bites a big stripe of right-of-way out of the east end of the property for future I-35/Frontage Road improvements, there’s still a decent amount of space on the north and southeast ends of the site outside of the actual substation’s boundaries that could be used for a variety of purposes.
Outdoor sculpture gallery? Community garden? Very small food truck space? The possibilities, though not endless, are still possibilities. For now, just fill out the above survey with your thoughts, but stay tuned for the next stage this fall — when Austin Energy should give us some actual design concepts to look at. Won’t that be fun?