For the majority of Beloit College’s 167-year existence, its view of the Rock River has been blocked by the Blackhawk Generating Station, whose 225-foot smokestack looms over the campus just across the road in Beloit, Wis. But following the power plant’s decommissioning in 2010, the college decided to turn this thorn in its side into an asset, arranging to purchase the plant and hiring architect Jeanne Gang, FAIA, in October to convert it into a student center and gym.
Diners in the Seasons restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Four Seasons hotel have long been treated to a view of a grimy brick wall, one towering facade of the vacant West Heating Plant that once warmed the State Department. So the hotel, in conjunction with local developer Richard Levy, joined forces with architect David Adjaye, won a bid to purchase the plant from the federal government, and unveiled plans this fall to redevelop it into the city’s most expensive condos.
Austin’s Seaholm district has historically been dominated by municipal utilities and disconnected from the rest of the city. Now, the city is in the midst of rejuvenating the neighborhood by converting the Seaholm Power Plant—an Art Deco relic as beloved by Austinites as it is disused—into restaurants, shops, a Trader Joe’s, and a 30-story luxury condo tower that was announced in September, near a new central library by Lake|Flato Architects that's under construction.
The adaptive reuse of old power plants and other utilities is nothing new. Chicago, Portland, and Baltimore now boast a school, a museum, and a Hard Rock Cafe, respectively, in buildings that once generated electricity, among many other examples. But with more and more old coal plants being decommissioned, the trend is only accelerating—and adding considerable architectural star power as cities seek to reclaim their waterfronts by finding new uses for old utilities.
“Post-industrial buildings and landscapes pose a great challenge to cities,” says Gang, a 2011 MacArthur Fellow best known for designing Chicago’s 82-story Aqua skyscraper, in an email. “But the idea that an iconic structure such as Beloit’s former power plant could be reinvented as a wellness center captured our imagination—actually, that's an understatement; it’s such an exciting challenge.”
That challenge is part of what is drawing architects to projects based around decaying old utilities. Adjaye, who’s worked on adaptive reuse projects in London (and designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture that’s now under construction on the National Mall), says 20th-century power plants have none of the grandeur of the 18th-century European buildings that lend themselves so well to conversion. In the course of a single conversation, he compares the shoddily constructed West Heating Plant in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood to “the set of a post-apocalyptic, nuclear fallout movie,” “a giant shed,” and a “car hood” that’s merely a “shell for an engine,” with “water pissing through it.” Levy says that without tearing most of it down and rebuilding it, there are really only three possible uses for the building: “a bordello or a casino or a combination of the two.”
Hardly sounds like an ultraluxury condo building. Which is why Adjaye spoke with such evident relish as he laid out his plans to demolish all but one facade and erect a mostly new structure that mimics the themes of the existing building without preserving its actual, crumbling elements. This raises the question, of course, of just how adaptive the project really is—and whether the city and federal preservation authorities will allow it.
The Beloit power plant can be better preserved because it’s more of a “building” than the “sheds” that were built later to house utilities, says Dan Schooff, Beloit College’s project manager for the power plant conversion. But the process is still a challenge. “It requires care at every step,” he says. “It’s much more complicated than building a new building. But we think the payoff is worth it.”
Part of the payoff is monetary: Schooff doesn’t anticipate paying the utility much for the plant—while the contract has yet to be finalized, he says the utility’s served the town for 100 years and will make the low-cost transfer out of a sense of “community spirit” to strengthen that relationship—and construction is expected to cost only about $30 million, less than the likely cost of building a new gym and student center from scratch. And part is sentimental, a tribute to Wisconsin’s industrial history. (Schooff expects to keep the smokestack as a “link to our industrial heritage.”) There’s a tradeoff, though: While the “very vertical” main portion of the building will allow for soaring gyms, Schooff says, the space won’t permit the 200-meter track or the competition pool with thousands of seats that the college had envisioned.
Fred Evins, the redevelopment manager in Austin’s economic development department, says the Seaholm project is “a bit of a money pit” due to all the environmental remediation and the need to add functions that had never been present, like air conditioning. But the industrial grittiness of the end product from STG Design—not to mention the valuable central location—will make the reuse worthwhile, he says, and will help advance the development of the surrounding area that already includes the unconventionally jagged, Antoine Predock–designed Austin City Hall, completed in 2004, just two blocks away. Construction on Austin's new central library, designed by Lake|Flato Architects for the Seaholm district, begins this month.
“Austin, like Portland, has a ‘Keep Austin Weird’ mantra,” says Evins. “So it does keep with the funky, unique aspect.”
The projects may have different goals—augmenting a campus in Beloit, creating a new neighborhood in Austin, serving the one-percent in already-tony Georgetown—but they all have central features in common that provide a boost to their cities. At a base level, they return vacant facilities to productive use, not only adding to the city’s housing or services capacity but also removing a forbidding compound. Because power plants tended to be built along waterways for purposes of cooling and coal transport, these projects also provide access to previously closed-off rivers and canals, again making the areas safer and more welcoming, and potentially among the most valuable real estate in the city. They also create jobs and put some extra revenue into city coffers, either just from construction or also from the property, income, and sales taxes that they generate.
But the challenges are considerable. Conversion of a power plant generally requires significant environmental remediation, including removal of asbestos and chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls that some studies have linked to cancer. The process can also take a long time: The Seaholm planning was already well underway when Evins came on board in 2004; the project won’t be finished until at least 2015.
Still, as America moves toward less-dirty energy sources and more old plants continue to be decommissioned, expect to see a broader array of adaptive uses around the country. Philadelphia, San Antonio, and another neighborhood of Austin all have former power plants that could soon be serving new functions. A 2011 report from the American Clean Skies Foundation lists 20 other plants that could be prime candidates for redevelopment.
“The opportunities for creative reuse are almost limitless,” Gang says. “I can imagine transforming a power plant into just about anything—a station for green power, museum, recreation center, hotel, or even a concert hall.”