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Council OKs new direction on convention center reconstruction

Monday, June 21, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The city will move ahead with another attempt to remake the Austin Convention Center, following the decision in April to abandon a planned westward expansion and reconstruction that would have been completed in two phases.

Earlier this month City Council unanimously approved two largely procedural resolutions related to the convention center and plans now to remake the facility on its existing footprint.

The first resolution identified a construction manager-at-risk as the best method for the project, though it did not initiate the process for selecting that contractor. The second resolution asks the city manager to issue a request for qualifications for design teams interested in redesigning the convention center property, with the money for the solicitation coming from the convention center’s capital budget.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes the convention center, had initially drafted Item 96 to include a design competition among interested groups, but that process was found to be incompatible with the city’s purchasing requirements. In her amended resolution, Tovo specified place-making language and the need to fit in with the nearby Palm District and Red River Cultural District as important considerations for the new design.

“We really owe it to the Palm District planning effort and the growth and vitality of that quadrant of downtown to make sure that we get a design on that property that embraces the pedestrian activity we want to encourage,” she said, at the Council work session that preceded the approval of both resolutions.

“I don’t think the initial design that came forward was one that inspired our community, or that addressed the concerns about the interaction of the convention center and the way it embraced the need to be present and exciting for residents.”

In 2018 Council approved the plan to move ahead with a roughly $1.2 billion expansion of the facility that included acquiring three and a half blocks of property immediately to the west. Moving west would have enabled an eventual reconstruction and upward redevelopment of much of the original footprint, with a combination of private development and Hotel Occupancy Tax funds covering the construction costs.

A ballot proposal that would have required public approval of all significant convention center capital expenditures slowed the expansion effort some but was ultimately defeated. Difficulties acquiring the westward property – parts of which were owned by troubled real estate players World Class Capital Group – ultimately caused the city to abandon the expansion in favor of a gradual reconstruction of the site.

Another factor at play in the new effort is the changed economic climate for the events and convention industry following the Covid-19 pandemic. While local tourism and hotel stakeholders have for years pushed the expansion as a way to increase convention business that bolsters weekday hotel stays, there are concerns that the downturn in travel that began last spring could linger for up to five years.

Tovo acknowledged that concern before approving the construction manager resolution, and said city staffers will produce an updated study of the economic conditions related to convention center business later this summer, prior to any more significant approvals from Council.

“There’s a real question before our staff and city about whether the financial models that were done pre-pandemic continue to hold true when it comes to the convention center and that industry,” she said. “Several people have written to say, what kind of financial studies are being done? Have you updated those assumptions? We’re not going to take a next step until we really fully understand what the financial assumptions are and whether they’ve changed, and we can proceed forward in a way that makes good sense.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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