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Water tower for Mueller raises question of design, costs

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Council members may soon have to decide between aesthetics and costs, as they hear a presentation this week on an Austin Water Utility request to construct a new water tower at the Mueller Airport Redevelopment site. The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition has been pushing for a tower designed to fit in with area and not be an eyesore, but city staff says what they want is just too expensive.


Almost two years ago, Council members asked AWU staff to gather information on the cost and specifications to build the water tower, pricing various designs, and return with a report. AWU’s Dan Pederson said two different tower designs went out for bid back in September.


“The Council had directed us to get better cost estimates on the towers,” he said. “For just a little more money, we could bid both and the Council could make a decision with real numbers, rather than just ‘best guesses.’ We worked with the neighborhood groups out there. We had a preferred tank style and they had a preferred tank style. We put out similar specifications for each and put out for bids.”


The city’s preferred style came back at $7.9 million while the neighborhood’s preference came in at $15.9 million.


“The neighborhood’s tank, which is called the ‘lattice-style’ tank, came in at just under $16 million, which I think shocked everybody that it would be that much,” Pederson said. “That particular bid has been disqualified because it did not meet the (bid) requirements.”


The leaves the city’s more modest $7.9 million tank as the only option to be put before the Council. That item was voted on by the Water and Wastewater Commission last week, but could not be approved because after several members recused themselves from the discussion, the commission no longer had a quorum. The remaining commissioners approved the project, but the vote was not valid.


Jim Walker with the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition said the utility ultimately bid two designs: one made of steel lattice and the other a concrete composite.


“We always knew there would be a cost difference,” he said. “The steel lattice would be more expensive than the composition. The thing we were all waiting for was, ‘What’s the scale of that cost difference and can it be bridged?’ It’s not as if there’s a unified aesthetic, because aesthetics are so subjective. But the lattice design adds character. You think of a landmark before you think of a water tower.”


Walker said his group intends to pressure the Council to consider aesthetics on this water tower, and other future infrastructure projects. 


“There is a bigger precedent issue,” he said. “We have to build five more reclaimed water tanks or towers elsewhere in the city. And as the city continues to pursue more density, we’re going to have to build more big infrastructure. We have to get our heads around the fact that these aren’t just utilities, these are landmarks. And whether we want them to be landmarks or not, they are big and they become landmarks. The city has to turn this corner on viewing major infrastructure as landmark design, not just a piece of the utility system.”


AWU staff is scheduled to brief the Council on the towers at 10:30am at this Thursday’s meeting.

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