In the 1990's Austin designated a defunct power plant to be revitalized and turned into a civic space similar in fashion, if not scale, to the Tate Modern in London. Twenty-five years later it finally came online — in the form of private offices and upscale retail. This is the story of how the city's ambitions were slowly eroded by bureaucratic inefficiency and an unrelenting bottom line. Was the City too ambitious? Was the project a success nonetheless, because an historic structure was preserved?
1. Civic Ambitions Wax and Wane:
By the late 1990s prospects for the redevelopment of Seaholm were palpable. What began over a decade earlier as the vision of a few concerned citizens, notably Sinclair Black, a prominent architect, urbanist and professor at UT Austin, and Ken Altes, an outspoken grassroots advocate in Austin’s community, had entered the civic stage of debate. In 1996 the City Council officially slated the defunct power plant for adaptive re-use as an “unique and exceptional cultural facility in downtown Austin” and in 1997 the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee (SRPC) was established as an official advisory board to the city. Community input was solicited, and hopes were high that the city would soon have a wonderful home for a new or existing cultural institution. It almost seemed inevitable.
The question was not if, or even when, but merely what it would become. Kayte Vanscoy captures the energy in 1998, writing in The Chronicle:
" Sunbeams stream through the clerestory windows, delineating the dust highways that hang in the cavernous quiet. This is Seaholm—a power plant that elicits poetry, a public trust to inspire a growing city. From its advantageous siting on the north bank of Town Lake, Seaholm has long been revered for the classy art deco design which has spurred countless a passersby to envision a less utilitarian future for the building. Dance club? Art museum? Restaurant? Even a city hall? Seaholm has been an empty palette upon which the dreams of Austin's growth have been painted."
In 2001, San Francisco based ROMA Design Group, who had been instrumental in Austin’s Müeller development, was hired to propose a master plan for the district which bore the name of the beloved power plant .... read the entire paper here.
Bike Taxi Garages, East Austin, © A. Henry Rose
In his detailed essay "Crossing Over: Sustainability, New Urbanism, and Gentrification in Austin Texas" Dr Andrew Busch (of Miami University of Ohio, PhD University of Texas, Austin) presents a social and political history that places East Austin at the local epicenter of continual injustice, beginning with deliberate, ostensibly unofficial segregation in the 1920s, through the effects of far more benign though no less significant "new urbanism" policies felt as the force of gentrification today.
This last point is worth emphasizing. Gentrification is complex, Dr Busch points out, particularly because the effect (the displacement of historic communities) is not the result of malevolence or even ignorance of the value of these communities (although this is sometimes the case), but rather the consequence of structural physical and economic realities. It is hard, for example, to understate the dilemma of density, which is both the primary vehicle of gentrifying displacement as well as arguably the only ecologically viable solution to sustain civilization on this planet. Similarly, the market incentives which drive development, both in the case of rent gaps that developers seek to exploit as well as the substantial increase in tax revenue that the city stands to enjoy, are impossible to ignore.
There are times, to me, when these displaced communities seem but one more instance in which the dispossessed and disadvantaged are fated to suffer further injustice, beatified in absentia. But I also want to believe that the political apparatus is not so callous; I want to believe that there is value to every station in life, in this life, and that the difficulty turns primarily on representing this value. How do we put it in economic terms? How can we insert the historical continuity of working class populations in urban cores into the equation? Since market capital and wealth generation drive the American machine, it will, unfortunately, not suffice to leverage an aesthetic or moral argument no matter how much we wish it to be the case.
Dr Busch, for the wealth of data he compiles, fails to account for this assumption. He concludes: "Austin's politicians, planners, and business elites must recognize that preserving and sustaining disadvantaged communities, and not just their buildings and spaces, needs to be central to any meaningful sustainability agenda." This begs the question. Nowhere does he address why displacement — sentimentality not forgotten but set aside — needs to be addressed, especially when there are so many obvious economic and ecological incentives for a municipality like Austin to promote density and development. This is a significant weakness in his argument.
To support this assumption, however, is not impossible. I am willing to venture that any society which assumes a hierarchy of wealth distribution (as opposed to a communist scheme) will function most efficiently when certain needs are met, specifically the psychological needs satisfied by a sense of community, in all quartiles of the distribution — and moreover, that the system functions most efficiently when a mixture of demographics is maintained to provide services and security (à la Jane Jacobs).
I suspect this issue will be the exigent crisis facing our generation of young architects, planners, politicians and anyone invested in building community. Whether we can resolve the simple fact that dense urban living is both ecologically imperative and inherently expensive will determine much of the fate of the planet. Will we find solutions where incentives are not perversely aligned? Or must we rely on benevolent policy to subsidize the market in support of moral positions that are unrelentingly threatened by the bottom line.