Wednesday, April 3, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Council hears convention center options, with work sessions on deck

City Council members heard many of the gritty details Tuesday on the question of whether or not to expand the Austin Convention Center.

The special meeting came after last week’s arrival of a long-awaited study from the University of Texas School of Architecture that examined how a westward expansion of the facility could reopen and possibly revitalize portions of the city that have become a “dead zone” since the center’s 1992 construction and 2002 expansion.

Price tags for the multiphase expansions range from around $400 million on the low end to more than $1 billion for multiyear construction campaigns that could see portions of the original convention center knocked down and rebuilt to open Second and Third streets to the public. A panel of UT professors spent more than an hour drilling into the thinking behind the various scenarios, pointing out several times that the convention center sits in the center of multiple larger urban landscape redevelopment efforts, including the coming Waller Creek park system and the east-west corridor of Second Street from Shoal Creek to Waller Creek.

A mix of Hotel Occupancy Tax funds and revenue from private development on the site – which would involve acquisition of the three blocks bounded by Trinity Street, San Jacinto Boulevard, Cesar Chavez Street and Fourth Street – are seen as the financial mechanisms to pay for the expansion. Council members generally appear not to support using property tax or other city revenues to pay for capital expenses.

For the next step in the decision-making process, City Manager Spencer Cronk will meet individually with each Council member, with multiple work sessions likely in the coming months to research and discuss the financial and planning issues involved.

Mayor Steve Adler, who enthusiastically backed the expansion beginning in summer 2017 as part of his “downtown puzzle” policy platform, said he and other Council members will move ahead with gathering financial and other data related to the different expansion options. He said that information will be key to inform the public going forward since those opposed to using HOT funds on the more convention-related expenses have started to make their case on social media and other platforms.

“We need to look at this in depth and detail because there is lots of information the community needs and there’s already videos and emails going around out there that aren’t accurate as to the costs and commitments involved,” Adler said. “What we saw today opens us up to what our potential options are, and I’m excited because I previously hadn’t thought about the exciting stuff that could be possible for this area, but we only get those by deciding to go ahead with an expansion.”

Council Member Leslie Pool said she would like the city to take action to create a “more welcoming presence” on Cesar Chavez, addressing the congestion points around Red River Street, Interstate 35 and Cesar Chavez by moving the center’s loading docks off of Red River and extending Second Street through the center site. She said she also wants to meet further with the UT staff to examine the financial commitments and revenue-generating possibilities in each of the scenarios to determine the city’s future debt commitments.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan was intrigued by the possibility of adding an office tower with more than a million square feet of office space on the expanded site as it could generate revenue for the city to buy office space elsewhere for future city use and allow it to end existing lease agreements for city office space. He said the high demand for downtown property makes it important for the city to decide and start taking action on any possible expansion by the end of the year, and possibly by the end of this summer.

“The politics on this aren’t as divisive as they might seem, and if at the end of this we get a district with a beautiful public plaza on Second Street, why would we want to skip out on that opportunity?” he said. “I often find myself pushing for things to go faster in the city, and I believe we need to make a decision this year, if not in the next three or four months.”

Photo by atmtx made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Convention Center: This city department operates the downtown convention center and associated events.

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