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Design panel plans guidelines for future city projects

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The placement of the Mueller electric substation project, which spurred a large-scale dialogue between the city’s electric utility and the neighboring community, appears to have led to a longer-range strategy from Austin Energy on how it intends to design and place its infrastructure.


The substation’s placement, design and screening involved multiple community meetings, various stakeholder groups and finally a mediated process with an outside consultant that will produce new recommendations this week. Council, in its own response, also directed the Design Commission last month to start the process to create design guidelines for all city infrastructure projects.


Staff liaison Jorge Rousselin introduced the Council resolution at last night’s Design Commission meeting. It seems even more timely, given the recent dust-up over the wall-as-art-project surrounding the downsized Austin Energy substation at the Seaholm project.


Sonny Poole, who is in charge of Austin Energy’s real estate acquisitions, was on hand at last night’s commission meeting to relay the message that the utility had heard the call for better design standards. Austin Energy already had plans to incorporate further Design Commission input on the Mueller substation. A new 60-page consultant’s report is out this week on the project.


“Our intent was to provide that report to Design Commission, and to ask for your assistance and some direction and ideas as we move toward the next substation,” Poole said. “Our next couple of substations are in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, but we still want the input.”


Rousselin encouraged commissioners to begin thinking about issues such as design and placement of various types of city infrastructure. He said he would provide dates, timelines and progress reports in the near future.


In his testimony before the commission, Poole said the reality check for Austin Energy was that the city was in the process of getting dense, which meant future substations were going to get more complicated in terms of design.


“Our challenge for the future is that we want more people downtown, more density, and that’s a challenge we face as we move back into the city,” Poole told commissioners. “More growth is going to require more demand, and that’s going to require more substations.”


Inner-city substations are going to be tougher, more land-locked, and face bigger design challenges, Poole said. So Austin Energy wants to get plans in place now to consider design, anticipating that density. The next two substations will be in the city’s ETJ, but the third one is likely to be in the inner city, Poole said.


Long-time commissioner Juan Cotera had been through one round of public infrastructure planning. It’s a “difficult and painful process,” Cotera said, and he recommended that design standards be considered in a committee of the whole, rather than a task force or standing committee of the commission.


“The substation on Lamar was not brought forward to us in time, and we ended up with something that didn’t work on a major urban street,” Cotera said. “So I’m so very glad to see this happen. We’ll be able to control it in the future.”


Poole said the Mueller process would have public vetting, and frequent checkpoints, even through the bidding process. A new process for public participation is being written in the real estate acquisition manual, he said.


Asked whether he had a direct role in the design guidelines of the Seaholm substation, Poole said he had not. Instead, he had been focused on cutting the size of the substation in half and dealing with transmission line. The utility had relied on the city-driven master-planning process to drive design, a process the utility hopes to emulate in its future substation construction, Poole said.

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