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Decision on Seaholm District wall art contractor delayed again

Friday, August 20, 2010 by Michael Kanin

After some debate about the extent to which it could intervene in the matter, the City Council voted Thursday to withdraw an item granting a $144,000 contract to design the wall that will surround the Austin Energy substation in the new Seaholm district to Palm Springs, Calif.-based artist Jim Isermann.


Earlier, a panel that included city staff members and several art and design professionals scored 24 applicants for the project. Isermann and six Austin-area artists (or sub-consultants) got the highest score.


The work would turn the wall around the 1930s-era Austin Energy substation into art that is both functional and practical.


The Council action came despite the best efforts of Council Member Laura Morrison, who argued that the Council should put its trust in the process and move forward.


Council Member Chris Riley has been the driving force behind the Council’s reconsideration of the Isermann selection. During the hearing, he was able to convince his colleagues that the delay that would result from their vote to withdraw the item would provide needed time to properly review the materials that were used in that process.


“One benefit of…withdrawing (this item) and re-posting it and taking action next time will be that we’ll all have the opportunity to review in further detail the two submissions that we’re talking about,” he said.


“I felt strongly, after having looked at them, that they would be very helpful in making a decision on this.”


Riley had first tried to simply eliminate Isermann as a candidate and award the Seaholm wall deal to the second-ranked respondent, Nader Tehrani. However, both legal staff and Acting City Attorney Karen Kennard informed him that the posting wasn’t structured in a way that would allow that sort of substitution.


At last week’s Council meeting, Riley pushed for a review of the wall design candidates by the Downtown Commission (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 13, 2010). There, commissioners eventually endorsed the selection process.


Still, Riley remained skeptical. “The commission did not have the opportunity to consider the respondents’ submissions in detail and was not allowed to review the images the artists provided to convey their approaches,” he said.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell told the chamber that his vote to support Riley’s motion to withdraw didn’t necessarily indicate his preference for any of the candidates. “I’m simply giving us the option of another week to look at this and then make my decision,” he said, “but (that) definitely, as I’ve said, does not indicate that I prefer one artist over the other.”


Architect Stan Haas, who serves on the Downtown Commission, showed up to tell the Council that he’d like to see the project move forward. “I fear that the process has been somewhat confusing in that a designation of what some concepts might be may have put off certain members of my Downtown Commission,” he said. “It personally did not upset me because I believe the process is just now about to begin and I would ask, very respectfully, (from) someone who has gone through this process, who has seen the objectivity of that scoring system and both won and lost it, I would recommend that you not consider Council member Riley’s motion.”


“I think that it speaks well to the numbers of professionals both within the city and without who participated in this evaluation process.”


Haas echoed those sentiments after the hearing. “I think the process that went through and the selection of this team to design this wall around the electric substation was a very, very objective one and a very thorough one,” he said. “It’s one that I, as an architect, have gone through on numerous occasions along with hundreds if not thousands of my peers.” 


He added that, though he voted against his commission’s resolution, it was simply because he disagreed with the restrictions that had been added. “I thought we should place no restrictions on the design,” he continued.


“I just believe that the recommended team is good, they ranked very, very high. Council should respect the process that’s been in place for years and years here in the city.”


A divided Downtown Commission voted Wednesday night to support the city’s selection process for the project. Haas and Commissioner Bruce Willenzik, who had worked with members of Isermann’s design team, praised the selection process, with Haas noting it was not the Downtown Commission’s job to be the “aesthetic police.” However, some members were highly critical of Isermann’s plans, with Commissioner Dustin Lanier saying the proposed metal work had the look of a “maximum security prison.”

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