If you hop the fence for a closer look at the Seaholm Intake Building, you’ll find little bits of graffiti nestled behind the giant tags Austinites know all too well. In the armpit of a concrete fin, an inscription small enough to fit in your hand reads simply, “USE THIS SPACE.”
“And, that’s the charge here: How do we ‘use this space?’” says Gia Biagi, an architect and principal of urbanism at Studio Gang. After being selected to develop the Seaholm Waterfront in 2017, Studio Gang came to Austin to conduct research for a concept study. In a presentation that is now publicly available, Biagi shows an image of the prophetic tag and asks the small audience, “How can we make [Seaholm Intake] fulfilling for the people who use it, and for Austinites at large?”
Pedestrians on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, kayakers on Lady Bird Lake, and commuters crossing the several bridges that span the Colorado River pass the Seaholm Intake every day. Dipping below the water’s edge, the brutalist concrete shell functions as a canvas for graffiti more than anything else. Aside from possessing an architectural character similar to the powerplant across West Cesar Chavez Street, the structure doesn’t reflect its original function: pumping water through the boiler room and turbine hall to keep the power plant’s electrical generation equipment cool. After operating for 34 years, it was determined to be too contaminated for reuse and shut down in 1989. Now program-less, it sits sealed up tight and fenced off, a mysterious and aloof presence on Austin’s frenetic waterfront.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to revitalize the intake building and the companion power plant. In 1996, City Council authorized its reuse and approved significant investment for cleanup of the site. In 2005, City Council chose a developer to make a master development plan for the power plant building and site, which has since been transformed into a corporate headquarters for a medical records company, surrounded by a mixed-use development. Eight years later, the city finally put together a competition for reuse proposals for the intake. But after reviewing dozens of submissions, city officials decided to approach developers for proposals emphasizing historical preservation instead. Three more years passed before the city recommended a proposal from Stratus Properties, a Central Texas developer responsible for Block 21 of Austin’s Second Street District, which is home to the W Hotel. Local practice Minguell-McQuary Architecture + Design produced the scheme, which removed one central bay of the concrete structure and added several quirky features, like a swooping green roof and a spiral stair. But historical preservation advocates pushed back, saying the proposal would alter the existing building fabric too much.
Finally, in May 2016, Austin Parks Foundation, the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department, and The Trail Foundation announced the funding of the collaborative planning study led by Studio Gang. The study began with research and public input. The architects documented the site’s “desire lines,” where the grass has been worn down from active use, suggesting these pathways for possible connections to the Seaholm development and Austin Central Library across the street. They entered the building and discovered a curiously open and bright quality. They held ice cream socials, stopped trail-goers, hosted open houses, and formed focus groups to reach communities previously unconsidered for further feedback.
The concept study Studio Gang eventually released outlines three options: the Porch Yard, Court Yard, and Garden Yard. Each of the options keeps the existing structure largely intact, while adding new program spaces in various configurations around the site.
In the Porch Yard, services are housed in a porch wrapping around the north side of the building. The grassy yard behind the building is protected from Cesar Chavez by a veil of vegetation.
The Court Yard option adds services in the “Shed,” a gabled structure sited parallel to the street, effectively making the grassy area behind the building a courtyard. A boardwalk lines the intake’s southern edge at water level, while the “Perch” overlook allows views from the level above.
In the Garden Yard, service and amenity programs are housed in the “Pavilion,” a small building on the east that can also be used as a stage for events. Moveable earth walls partition the yard and protect it from street noise. The pavilion has bathrooms facing the trail and amenities facing the yard.
According to Elizabeth Krasner, who directs communications for Studio Gang, the final design will feature the “amenity porch and forest veil from the Porch Yard; boardwalk and lake overlook from the Court Yard; open-air pavilion from the Garden Yard, and a central, civic lawn that was included in all three options.”
The final design will be implemented in three phases. The goal of the first phase is to make the intake building “safe and habitable.” Egress requirements will be met, lighting fixtures updated, windows replaced, plants tamed, the facade cleaned, and the holes in the floor covered. Parks and Recreation selected Cotera+Reed Architects and Ten Eyck Landscape Architects to carry out Studio Gang’s vision for Phase One. According to Kevin Johnson from Parks and Recreation, the full design and permitting phases are expected to go through the early part of 2020, and they anticipate releasing the project for bid in the spring.
“Within the next two years,” adds the Austin Parks Foundations (APF) team, a trail with water-accessible points, and potentially an amphitheater, will be added if funding can be secured. Last summer, $450,000 was raised by Austin Park Foundation and The Trail Foundation for the visioning of the project, $600,000 was allocated from the hotel occupancy tax, and $2 million was approved in a bond election last November. The city is seeking more funding for the intake’s future phases.
“We hope to see this longtime underutilized space — both inside the buildings and the parkland surrounding it — become a real community asset,” said the APF team. “It’s going to take careful planning, thoughtful partnerships, and significant funding to make this project a reality.”
Hannah K. George is a student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and College of Liberal Arts.