When it comes to Austin architecture, the Seaholm Power Plant is about as iconic as it gets.
But absent its art deco signage and smokestacks, there’s another component of Seaholm that’s less celebrated but even more unique: the intake structures perched directly over Lady Bird Lake, which used to deliver cooling water to the power plant and a since-demolished water plant nearby.
The Seaholm district is slated for big changes: apartments and mixed-use retail are coming to the power plant; the city’s breaking ground on a new central library nearby this year; even a Trader Joe’s is opening up. But the intake structures, sitting on city parkland, remain property of the Parks and Recreation Department, and the department is looking for ideas .
“It’s a landmark building, and its probably one of the most beautiful buildings in Austin,” says Michael Benedikt, director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at UT-Austin.
Benedikt went before the Parks and Recreation board this week to present student work conceptualizing uses for the buildings. A study prepared for the city last year by design firm Cotera + Reed noted that the building’s public zoning allows for “commercial uses that are accessory to or in support of the public use,” but notes “strong precedent for disallowing any commercial development in municipal parkland - even public private partnerships.”
That didn’t stop Benedikt’s students from running wild with the assignment, offering an expansive view of what the structures could turn into: cooling stations for the Hike & Bike trail (including a mini-boardwalk), a café, even a thermal bath house.
“It was a practical building,” Benedikt says. “But it was built with extraordinary sensitivity to proportion and design. There was a time when all civic buildings infrastructure buildings were designed with a kind of seriousness – today we just write them off, more or less. “
Benedikt says he looks forward to working further with PARD to “restore, preserve, and adapt the buildings.”