As a relatively recent Austin transplant, I remember the first time I drove by the Seaholm Power Plant. With its bold red neon and dramatic lightning bolt over the door, I thought it was too perfectly retro to be authentic. I was thrilled to find out that not only was the plant a perfectly preserved piece of public works architecture, it was also about to undergo a dramatic revitalization.
Over the last year, buzz has been building around the plans for this highly visible Austin landmark. But a revitalized Seaholm has actually been in the works since 1996, when the power plant was decommissioned as a source of energy for the city. At that time, the City Council made a formal commitment to find a creative way to reuse the building
The Seaholm Power Plant is one of the few remaining examples of Art Deco municipal architecture.
in order to preserve its unique architecture and recognize the power plant’s importance in Austin history.
Built in two phases in 1950 and 1955, the power plant was named to honor former city manager and utilities director Walter Seaholm after his death in 1960. Today, the Seaholm Power Plant is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places as one of the few remaining examples in the country of Art Deco municipal architecture.
While the renovation and repurposing of the Seaholm Plant is the centerpiece of the project, the revitalization plans encompass 85 acres surrounding it in what’s now being called the Seaholm District. Extending from Lady Bird Lake to Fifth Street and from San Antonio to Lamar, the Seaholm District will be a mix of commercial, residential and public use space in what has until recently been an underutilized area on the edges of downtown. Several of the Seaholm District’s major projects are already underway.
1. ENERGY CONTROL CENTER REDEVELOPMENT
The city’s former Energy Control Center has been replaced by the new System Control Center in Southeast Austin. Once the former control center site is cleaned, plans are in place to build twin condominium towers above retail space.
2. RETAIL AND OFFICE BUILDING
Construction has already started on a two-story retail and office building with 66,000 square feet of commercial space. Trader Joe’s was the first tenant to sign a lease in the new retail center, slated to open this year.
3. SEAHOLM RESIDENCES
Construction has begun on the 30-story residential tower that will house 280 luxury condominiums ranging in price from $300,000 to $1.4 million. There’s already a wait list for the units, which will be ready for occupancy in early 2015.
4. SEAHOLM SUBSTATION ARTWALL
Not to be confused with the Seaholm Power Plant, the Seaholm Electrical Substation is an active, electricity-producing substation owned by Austin Energy that supplies power to downtown. To screen off the less than aesthetically pleasing building, the city is investing $800,000 to build a 1,000-foot art wall that will limit the view of the substation from within the Seaholm District.
5. SEAHOLM POWER PLANT
Construction began on the plant in April 2013. The design team intends to preserve the industrial elements of the building (including the giant crane in the ceiling) as they refurbish the plant for office, retail and event space. The ground floor will include a courtyard and be open to the public.
6. CENTRAL LIBRARY
In May 2013, the Austin Public Library broke ground on its new central library branch, directly east of the power plant. The six-story library will include a 350-seat special events center, a rooftop garden and a 37-foot tall outdoor art installation.
7. GREEN WATER TREATMENT
The Green Water Treatment Plant was Austin’s first water treatment facility and was decommissioned and deconstructed in 2010. Developers plan to build a 38-story skyscraper on the site that will house more than 800 apartments and a 200-room hotel in addition to office space. There are rumors that the ground floor retail space will include an HEB.
8. SHOAL CREEK PENINSULA STABILIZATION
The Shoal Creek Peninsula is a man-made landmass that extends into Lady Bird Lake. Improvements are being made to reinforce the shore so that erosion no longer threatens the hike and bike trail. These improvements are the reason the portion of the hike and bike trail in front of Seaholm has been closed for the last few months.
9. SEAHOLM INTAKE BUILDINGS
After soliciting ideas from the public on creative ways to reuse the former intake buildings for the Seaholm Power Plant, the city is assembling the ideas into an RFP (Request for Proposal) for architects and designers to begin repurposing the site for public use and park land. Continue reading this piece for more information on the proposals and process.
One major element of the Seaholm District revitalization that has not yet been finalized is the reuse of the Seaholm Intake buildings. Located on the shore of Lady Bird Lake, the intake buildings were the pump houses for the Seaholm Power Plant when it was still in use.
One of the main project priorities for the city has always been developing more park land and public use areas. To that end, early in 2013 the city solicited ideas for how to repurpose the intake buildings and the surrounding shoreline in ways that would maintain and encourage public access of the shoreline while complementing the development within the rest of the Seaholm District.
The city received more than 75 ideas from 17 states and seven countries. From those ideas, 10 proposals were chosen and presented to the public for feedback. In August, the city announced that three proposals were advancing in the process. The images below showcase those 10 proposals. Look through each of them and see if you agree with the committee’s selection for the three finalists.
Which proposal is your favorite?
Local architecture firm Gumbully’s proposal was ultimately selected as one of the final three. The submission received high marks from the judges due to its minimal changes to the architecture of the intake buildings and for its commitment to core Austin values, including an appreciation of art, music, and a healthy lifestyle. Some of the unique aspects of the proposal include an underwater sculpture garden and a beach that could generate revenue for the city.
SEAHOLM ACTIVITY INTAKE
A key part of ksestudio’s proposal included a flexible floating platform that could be used for farmer’s markets, extended to create a space for lap swimming, or extended even further to create a pier for boat parking.
BOKA Powell + Design Workshop
Another local proposal that made it into the top three, the “Lakehouse” was chosen for its overall inviting atmosphere and well thought-out connectivity to the rest of the Seaholm District. BOKA Powell’s proposal also included ideas for zeroing out the intake buildings’ energy consumption.
The “Seaholm Spectrum” entry stood out for its innovative use of the water and shoreline. The Team CS proposal included artificial whitewater rapids for the enjoyment of the lake’s kayakers and an artificial reef to create a habitat for fish.
Gensler Team Luis
Team Luis’ proposal would have turned the Seaholm Intake buildings into a community area with a craft brewery and café as its centerpiece.
Gensler Team George
The submission from Team George made it into the top three with a proposal to open the existing ceiling of the intake buildings and replace it with a glass atrium. Throughout the building, windows and movable glass walls would allow the space to be used for a variety of purposes including farmers markets, art exhibitions, and musical performances. The judges praised this design for its simplicity and sophistication, as well its versatility.
Building on the intake structures’ history as a cooling facility for the power plant, 5250’s proposal would use the intake facility to provide chilled water for Austin’s downtown, making the city more energy-efficient. In addition to the functional changes, the building would also be used to create a beautiful lakeside waterfall.
INTAKES > OUTFALLS
Surroundings’ proposal was one of the most environmentally conscious, with significant resources being dedicated to creating wetlands that would preserve the shoreline, provide natural filtration for polluted runoff, and maintain habitats for wildlife.
SEAHOLM WATER INTAKE
Healthy Environment Collaborative
Healthy Environment Collaborative proposed to use the Water Intake buildings as a hub for runners, cyclists, and other athletes visiting the lakeshore for recreation or on their active commute. The plans also included storage space and showers as well as new infrastructure for cyclists to encourage alternative modes of transportation.
MAXIMIZING POTENTIAL THROUGH MINIMAL INTERVENTION
Inspired by grand public spaces like the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris, DBA MLA proposed to turn the building into a multi-event space with a great lawn and orchard adjoining the intake buildings.
What’s Next for Seaholm
These submissions will act as inspiration for the City of Austin’s request for proposals (RFP) for the design and construction of the new public facilities at the intake buildings. The RFP will outline the specific features to be built as well the space allocation, time frames, and specific guidelines architects and designers will need to meet in order to move forward with a contract for construction.
The Seaholm District is one of the city’s most ambitious redevelopment projects to date. Over the next few months, we’ll be examining different facets of the Seaholm revitalization and its impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole.
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Images Courtesy of City of Austin
This article originally published in The Renew Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [January 2014].
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Local Arts Columnist
Jamie Smith is a writer and content strategist based in Austin, TX.
She writes for and about people and organizations doing innovative work in the fields of arts and culture, design, social justice, travel, and technology.
If she’s not writing, she’s probably at a book club meeting, traveling through cities large and small, or trying to tackle Austin’s outsized hills on her bike.