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Riley pushes for more input on Seaholm District art project

Friday, August 13, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The city has plans to turn a plain concrete wall surrounding the base of the Seaholm District into a work of art, but Council Member Chris Riley wants there to be more discussion before an artist or artists are allowed to put paint on the “canvas.” He convinced his fellow Council members last week to wait until August 19 to finalize plans for the project.


The work would turn the wall around the 1930s-era Austin Energy substation into art that is both functional and practical. At this point, however, the only city boards that only have weighed in on the project are the Art in Public Places panel and the Arts Commission, which was on the verge of picking an artist.


Design of the project would have a budget of $144,000. The wall itself is expected to cost about $939,000, with $750,000 coming from Austin Energy, $89,200 coming from AIPP, and $100,000 from Trammell Crow.


At this point, however, the only city boards that only have weighed in on the project are the Art in Public Places panel and the Arts Commission, which was on the verge of picking an artist.


Council entered into a master developer agreement to revitalize the site of the city’s decommissioned Seaholm Power Plant back in 2008. The development team, which describes its vision of the property as “a future urban oasis” consists of principals Southwest Strategies Group, Centro Partners and La Corsha Hospitality Group.


The site will be a mix of hotel, office and condo space that utilizes the decommissioned power plant. It also will be home to the city’s new Central Library site and the Austin Energy substation. The wall around that substation will be built as infrastructure also serving as art. Riley pulled the item off the consent agenda at last week’s Council meeting to make sure it received proper commission input.


Riley is pushing for more review and, specifically, a review by the Downtown Commission, which includes members of the Parks Board and Design Commission. The substation site, Riley said, is surrounded by four points of interest: the new Central Library on the south; the Seaholm project to the west; a new public space to the north; and the East Shoal Creek greenway to the east.


“This is a very significant project,” said Riley. “This is an emerging district that hasn’t established much of an identity to date. The character of this district and its identity within the entire community, how it develops, is taking shape.”


Megan Crigger, who coordinates the Art in Public Places program, described the wall surrounding the energy substation as “art as infrastructure.” Goals for the art project, with its total budget of $144,000, would be a functional wall that would enhance the district, be easily maintained and meet the safety and security specifications required by Austin Energy.


In her presentation, Crigger also outlined the process for the Request for Qualifications for the selection of an artist substation art project. An 11-member selection panel reviewed the work of two-dozen artists. After looking at the work and discussing concepts, the panel picked California artist Jim Isermann, whose work in aluminum has been featured in artwork and public art projects. Thursday’s action was to have been to execute a design agreement with Isermann.


Riley, who served on both the Planning and Downtown commissions, had particular concerns about how this new art would fit into the larger Seaholm District. He had to rephrase his particular question a couple of times: Would the Downtown Commission be reviewing the art project? And while Crigger insisted all the stakeholders surrounding the project had participated in the selection process, Riley had heard some wanted more input.


“Stakeholders would like additional input,” Riley said. “It’s been expressed to me that some feel like they have not had adequate input at this point.”


Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, whose department oversees the AIPP, said the project could make its way through selected boards and commissions as a courtesy. By ordinance, however, only the AIPP and Arts Commission get a vote on the project. With no design on paper yet, there simply wasn’t anything to present to the Downtown Commission.


Riley saw a stronger role for the Downtown Commission in the process. The Parks Board member might want input on how the project interacted with the Shoal Creek trail. The Design Commission member might have some thoughts about the wall’s context within the project. Riley proposed a delay of the approval of the design contract until the commission reviewed the plans.


Riley did get some pushback from Council Member Laura Morrison, who was satisfied the review of potential artists had been thorough and had included stakeholder input. Morrison wanted to make sure that a review by the Downtown Commission did not mean a review of the two-dozen artist candidates again, a process that had clearly been completed.


The role of the Downtown Commission would be within its expertise, Riley said. He proposed a two-week delay, which did win unanimous support of Council because it would not mean a significant delay of the project. The item will return next Thursday. The Downtown Commission is scheduled to take up the item Wednesday night.

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