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Commission voices concerns over details of Seaholm redevelopment

Monday, July 30, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

An update on the redevelopment of the Seaholm Power Plant last week underlined the importance of context and connectivity on Austin’s waterfront.


Construction to transform the decommissioned power plant into a mixed-use development is expected to begin in September. Southwest Strategy’s team, led by project manager John Rosato and architect Jim Susman of STG Design, presented the Design Commission with an update of the project, which incorporates a two-story low-rise building with retail and office, including a Trader Joe’s grocery store, alongside a 28-story residential apartment tower. Both sit on top of a multi-level garage.


The project site on Cesar Chavez has to accommodate a number of city needs: the ability to route both the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and the commuter rail along one side; preservation of some of the elements of the iconic Seaholm smokestacks and existing rail tracks; and proper interface with the new central library and electric substation.


As a project that stretches to cover eight acres in four different directions, the Seaholm project literally has no “back door,” Susman said. That means the project had to create a place for service uses, which the developer has shifted to West Avenue. West eventually will be extended through the project.


Commissioners, however, were disappointed that the West Avenue corridor would not be activated for pedestrian use. Chair James Shieh described it as “blankness” to the edge of the project. Commissioner Juan Cotera said it would be a “serious mistake” not to have first-floor retail uses on the street.


Susman, addressing those concerns, said the Seaholm project must have an area for service-oriented uses. The West Avenue edge was logical because it is located across the street from an electric substation.


If retail were to be located on the ground floor on the west side of West Avenue, the only view to the east would not be pedestrian friendly, Susman said.


“It’s a very difficult retail experience, given there’s no other retail and you’re effectively facing a substation,” Susman said.


Commissioner Bart Whatley acknowledged the challenge of the placement of amenities like loading docks, but he noted that West Avenue would soon serve as a significant potential bypass for Lamar Boulevard, and that the entire area needed to have context when it came to how projects fit together.


Just because a substation exists on site now doesn’t mean it will be there decades into the future, Cotera pointed out.


“I think it’s a serious mistake not to have an active pedestrian address on the first floor,” Cotera said. “There’s also this concentration of interior courtyard space, so this ends up being a complex that turns its back on the streets.”


Commissioner Hope Hasbrouck, like Whatley, had concerns about the overall flow of the entire string of projects and the incorporation of existing and future items such as hike-and-bike trails.


“Where I think I would like to see it again is to see a section all the way through the site,” Hasbrouck said. “I’d like to see an elevation that demonstrates what it looks like in terms of plant materials and building heights.”


A number of elements of Seaholm will remain on the project site, such as keeping a couple of smokestacks and using the footprint of other smokestacks as glass eyes into the lower levels of the project. Portions of the existing railroad tracks also will be preserved as the tracks enter and exit the project.


Fred Evins, the manager for Redevelopment Services, told the commission that the context and connectivity of the projects along Cesar Chavez were important. A joint meeting of the Downtown Commission, Library Commission and Design Commission will be scheduled for August to walk through public space issues.


An animation created for the meeting will provide perspective on the relationships of the project from San Antonio Street across the new bridge, through the plaza between the art wall and the library, along West Avenue and back along Cesar Chavez. That should give commissioners a better sense of relationship, Evins said.

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