Previously, I have been skeptical of a convention center expansion. As a member of the Visitor Impact Task Force, I came around to a positive recommendation after the Task Force recommended ways to make expansion a positive for the city:
- Incorporating expansion as part of a larger tower to share costs and add activity when the convention center isn’t being used.
- Keeping the convention center expansion on the tax base.
- Keeping the street grid, the long-term source of value in the downtown district.
On August 29, city of Austin staff casually dropped a bombshell that gives the possibility of multiplying these benefits many times over: building a Convention Center expansion may open the possibility of redeveloping the existing Convention Center. The possibility seems remote but it would be an enormous development so let’s step through it.
What is there to gain from redeveloping the area?
The Frost Bank Tower paid $7.5M in property taxes in 2017. Expanding that out to the Convention Center’s six blocks, that’s about $45m in potential tax revenue from the Convention Center’s 6 blocks! That’s almost as much as the city spends on the repaying Convention Center construction loans and operations put together!
These taxes represent the real benefits to Austinites that onsite towers could provide: homes, workplaces, shops, restaurants, etc. Today, way more people wish they could live downtown than live there, as evidenced by the record prices people are paying for downtown condos and apartments. Building more offices and homes will allow more of the people who want to live and/or work downtown to do so. According to the staff presentation, there could be up to 4 million square feet of buildable space there. That could be enough housing for 4,000 households, enough office space for 20,000 jobs, or some combination thereof.
Lastly, the convention center doesn’t just occupy land that could be used for other purposes, but it also occupies the streets and sidewalks that people would otherwise use to get around. Returning that land to be used as streets would make it easier for people to get around, making all of the land around it more valuable. For example, the City of Austin and Waller Creek Conservancy are currently investing large resources in renovating Palm Park on 3rd Street, but few people downtown use that park in part because it’s hard to get to! It may even provide traffic relief by providing alternative means to get to destinations on opposite sides of the convention center.
Why does redeveloping the Convention Center depend on expansion?
Designing a vertical convention center is difficult; one of the most important aspects of convention center space is beam-free space ― enormous wide-open rooms without any vertical supports to obstruct views. Designing spaces to be beam-free is difficult as part of larger tower structures which require vertical supports. Convention centers are not generally built vertically for this reason and the Austin Convention Center was definitely not built with vertical expansion in mind.
Without expansion, redeveloping the convention center for more square footage in place would entail years of foregoing hosting large conventions in Austin. While Austin is a hot convention market today, taking such a dramatic step would risk crippling the future convention industry in Austin. Skills and connections would rust as convention bookers would lose touch with Austin, convention center staff find other jobs, and convention-oriented businesses like the JW Marriott or Fairmont Hotel would need to reorient.
The Convention Center redeveloping could therefore only be approached out of strength or serious weakness: with the strength of new modern facilities in place to accept conventions or the weakness of a rapid decline in Convention Center fortunes forcing a desperation move. We are nowhere near the latter―Austin has been moving up the ranks, not down the ranks, as a Convention destination.
What are the next steps?
The possibility of a redevelopment of the existing Convention Center changes the ideas for expansion dramatically. While the expansion has focused more on meeting space and ballrooms, if it is to serve as an interim or permanent replacement for some or all of the existing Convention Center, it would necessarily include more exhibit space and an area for trucks to unload into it. For the city, therefore, the next step would be to include information about potential for redevelopment of the existing Convention Center in any Request for Proposals it releases.
For the Austin urban design and architectural communities, the next step is to develop ideas and visions that can inspire stakeholders and the whole city to believe that a megaproject like this could make sense for the Convention Center, for other downtown business, for transportation, and for the city and its finances. So architects, designers, placemakers, enthusiasts: do you have thoughts about how this could happen? A phased approach to redeveloping the southeastern corner of downtown? Please send them to dan@firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know if I can share them with my readers!