It lay dormant for years, but a downtown Austin project on the grounds of a decommissioned power plant is beginning to come alive with retail and office locations operating and a residential tower starting to populate.
January saw fencing around the property come down at the Seaholm development nearly three years after shovels first hit the ground at the site.
Although mobility barriers and construction sites remain, the area is beginning to see an increase in pedestrian and vehicular traffic. A restaurant concept, Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, is slated to open in the former power plant by the end of May. By June, John Rosato, managing partner with developer Seaholm Power LLC, said he expects the remaining condominiums will be closed on and the rest of the spaces leased.
“It is really gratifying to see people coming through here,” Rosato said. “It’s all coming together.”
History and recent developments
The 7.8-acre Seaholm development, which bears the name of the former city of Austin power plant that was redeveloped as part of the project, is bounded by Cesar Chavez Street, West Avenue, Third Street and Walter Seaholm Drive. The broader Seaholm district encompasses an area roughly bounded by Lady Bird Lake, Fifth Street, Lamar Boulevard and San Antonio Street.
Initiated in 1996 with the Austin City Council authorization of the plant’s decommissioning, the redevelopment of Seaholm has seen starts and stops over the past decade.
Rosato’s Seaholm Power LLC came together in 2004 to compete for the city of Austin’s bid for a developer. Local development firms Central Development, State Street, Capital Project Management and Southwest Strategies Group teamed up for the effort as they competed against national firms.
The fact that Seaholm Power’s bid exclusively came from locally based organizations resonated with city leadership at the time, Rosato said. After it was awarded the contract for the project in 2005, Seaholm Power LLC worked with the city over the next three years to hash out a master development agreement. The economic downturn slowed the redevelopment process until April 2013, when construction began.
Construction on a bridge over Shoal Creek connecting Second Street to the Seaholm district is expected to be completed in September, a spokesperson for the city’s public works department said.
As of early May, 100 condos in the high-rise tower were occupied; 180 units remained vacant at that time. Rosato said of the 209,000 total square footage his firm developed, about 15,000 square feet are in play.
“We should be up and running and done in June,” Rosato said. “Activity will accelerate in the next few months.”
‘Catalyst’ for development
The redevelopment of Seaholm represents an opportunity to capture new tax revenue, and city officials said the project will stimulate growth in the southeastern corner of Austin’s downtown.
Greg Kiloh, redevelopment project manager with the city of Austin’s Economic Development Department, has worked on the Seaholm project for the past 15 years.
“To turn [the power plant] into a catalyst for the redevelopment district is very significant nationally,” Kiloh said.
The city invested more than $100 million in infrastructure improvements in the Seaholm district. An additional $120 million went toward funding the New Central Library, the Austin Public Library’s soon-to-be-completed “library for the future,” staff said.
Including private investment, Kiloh said he estimates the total amount of money poured into the district at $2 billion.
He said the city is talking to investors interested in purchasing the property rights. Any sale of the property would trigger a profit-sharing provision, Kiloh said.
“We still have an opportunity to have some of the investment returned when the property is sold,” Kiloh said. “We don’t know what that picture is yet, but that’s the way the master development agreement is set up.”
New Central Library
The New Central Library, which will replace the Faulk Central Library as the city’s main library, will be completed by the summer, Facilities Process Manager John Gillum said. The city is eyeing a grand opening celebration in November.
Gillum said the new library, located at 710 W. Cesar Chavez St., will have a collection of about 600,000 books and mobile checkout features for e-readers and other devices. It will feature amenities specifically geared toward entrepreneurs, teenagers and small children, such as 3-D printers and video games.
He said there has been a renaissance as of late in the development of central libraries worldwide since the mid-1990s. Modeling the new 198,000-square-foot, six-story building after recent projects in Seattle and Amsterdam, among others, the city has incorporated such eco-friendly features as natural daylight and rainwater harvesting. Gillum said the facility will serve the city for the next 100 years.
Gillum said a library futurist was consulted to envision a design for the project that could be adaptable to future trends in computing and electrical use. As a result, the electrical work was embedded into the floors of the building, he said, so that they could be removed or replaced without tearing down walls.
Not many predicted the proliferation of smartphones when $90 million in funding for the New Central Library was approved by voters in a 2006 bond election. However, the new facility has been designed to adapt to innovative technologies, Gillum said
“We will build for the future as far we can predict it and after that, we’ll leave our successors with a building they won’t curse us about; they can readily change as they need to,” he said.
Although it has taken longer than he imagined for the Seaholm development to be brought to life—factoring both the complexities of transforming an industrial property and the challenges of a slowing economy—Kiloh said “it is such a great feeling” being on the property now that is bustling with activity and features tall buildings that jut out overhead.
“It’s really a pretty dramatic change,” he said.