Austin: City without Sustainability Limits

In this fourth installment of the Incubator success stories series, we’re visiting Austin, Texas’ Seaholm District, a former industrial area of the rapidly growing state capital that’s serving as a showcase for sustainable district-scale development across the city. Austin also joined us as a Target Cities project.

The Seaholm team came to the 2012 Incubator with a unique proposition. Even before arriving in Portland, the City of Austin had developed a master-plan for the 85-acre project that creates benefits across the entire triple bottom line; supports up to 5,000 jobs and integrates cultural facilities and significant art components; and complements the city’s policy and zoning efforts to bring more housing and commercial activity into the downtown area.

City leaders envisioned the development of the former industrial area around a singular piece of infrastructure — the Seaholm Power Plant. Built in the 1950s, the decommissioned steam power plant represents a strong civic presence in the cityscape of downtown Austin and showcases a unique period of American Art Deco municipal architecture and public works engineering.

A rendering of the new 200,000 square foot library.
A rendering of the new library.

Rather than demolish the historic piece of infrastructure, the city decided to apply adaptive reuse design to the landmark, which, when finished, will include retail stores, restaurants, offices and residential condominiums, and the surrounding district will include a new 200,000 square foot central library, 1,475 units of multi-family housing, complete streets, a Metro Rail stop, bus transit, bike sharing, car sharing, and hike-and-bike trail connections.

Infrastructure isn’t the only thing the City of Austin has planned to showcase. Shoal Creek is a significant urban waterway that runs through the city, culminating at Ladybird Lake on the edge of the Seaholm District. Stream bank restoration, habitat creation, native plantings and natural drainage are also included in the plan.

The benefit of the EcoDistricts Protocol, and guiding approach, is the ability to implement district governance, assessment, projects and management into existing neighborhood plans and goals. With a master plan already developed and green design and construction underway, the City of Austin turned to EcoDistricts to inform options for encouraging sustainable lifestyles, behavior choices, and overall management of the district going forward.

Seaholm Plaza Rendering
A rendering of the Seaholm Plaza

“The Seaholm plan featured sustainability strategies for individual parcels, but not overarching goals and strategies for the neighborhood as whole,” said Lucia Athens, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Austin. “We needed a galvanizing event to bring key players and parts together. The EcoDistricts Incubator helped us solidify and expand efforts and better articulate what Austin is trying to achieve at the neighborhood scale.”

And even though the Seaholm team arrived at the Incubator with an excellent plan in place, there was no shortage of breakthroughs throughout the event.

Among the big “aha” moments: Team members realized that they hadn’t developed a vision statement for the project, and needed one to articulate the project to residents and the public. Developers also had been trying to figure out how to engage residents. The EcoDistricts approach provided a platform for them to have ongoing programming and engage tenants on sustainability strategies. What’s more, developers had been scratching their heads on how to integrate a green retail store into site plans. The Incubator’s host location in Portland’s EcoTrust building offered a concrete example that inspired the developer, as well as the city’s economic development manager, to integrate a public gathering area in the form of a coffee shop into the redevelopment of the power plant building.

“Having that immersion experience in Portland gave our team members the inspiration and on-the-ground examples they had been looking for to solve multiple challenges,” said Athens.

At the end of the three days, the Seaholm team departed with a customized EcoDistricts Roadmap, including: engagement and project strategies that complemented their existing neighborhood plan.

Development progress being made in the Seaholm District

In two short years, Austin has been hard at work implementing the ideas they developed at the Incubator. At the time of the event, three development parcels were still in planning. Since then, all three parcels have progressed from planning to active construction phase. The 200,000 square-foot library will be complete in Fall of 2016, at which time the city plans to launch a public education campaign about the ecodistrict that will include public art, a mobile app, cultural and historical information.

Among the other sustainable district-scale development goals being implemented in Seaholm are solar-powered benches invented by a group of female MIT alums; local food production initiatives; electric vehicle charging infrastructure; an interactive sustainability dashboard at the power plant site; and health and fitness programs for residents.

The Seaholm Ecodistrict provides a beacon and testing ground for applying the best thinking we currently have to neighborhood redevelopment that fully addresses the triple bottom line of sustainability.

And we have a feeling Austin’s ecodistrict approach won’t stop at Seaholm – other partners are looking to scale up the EcoDistricts Protocol at several other neighborhoods in the city.