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Council Response Tepid To Austin Convention Center Expansion

Council Response Tepid To Austin Convention Center Expansion
Austin Convention Center lobby

Austin City Council’s response to an expansion of the Austin Convention Center appeared to be tepid, at best, at a work session Tuesday morning.

Final decisions on controversial issues such as the convention center expansion likely will be pushed off past next fall’s council election. During the work session, Mayor Steve Adler discussed engaging a team of University of Texas researchers, led by the Center for Sustainable Development, to evaluate options.

First, council members wanted to clarify the funding would come out of the Austin Convention Center budget. Then, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo wanted it expressly stated the study would start from a no-build baseline, a preference of a number of council members.

“It’s important to me that this work proceed without assuming that we are looking toward expanding the convention center,” Tovo said. “And it strikes me the language, though it is broad, does not capture that possibility.”

Opponents of the proposed $600M convention center expansion, as outlined in last year’s proposed master plan, can be divided into a number of camps: those who think too much of the hotel occupancy tax has gone to the convention center for too long; those who fear a three-block expansion west, without almost no Capitol View Corridor restrictions, would result in an unaccountable monstrosity; and those who think the convention center should be self-contained and self-supporting at its current location, without local tax dollars.

Skeptics like Tovo tend to quote Heywood Sanders, an urban policy professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who has published the book “Convention Center Follies.” Sanders points to economic projections for prior center expansions that have tended to be inflated.

“The overall convention marketplace is declining in a manner that suggests that a recovery or turnaround is unlikely to yield much increased business for any given community, contrary to repeated industry projections,” Sanders wrote in a white paper for the Brookings Institution a decade ago. “Moreover, this decline began prior to the disruptions of 9-11 and is exacerbated by advances in communications technology. Currently, overall attendance at the 200 largest tradeshow events languishes at 1993 levels.”

Council Response Tepid To Austin Convention Center Expansion
Red River at Cesar Chavez, Downtown Austin

What makes the University of Texas study attractive to Adler is a promise of a holistic approach that will assess the convention space for multiple uses. Professor Allan Shearer, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Development, describes this as space-making exercise done in tandem with the Downtown Austin Alliance’s ongoing strategic plan.

A convention center is no longer a great box with a single purpose with lots of people in and lots of people out, Shearer said. Instead, a convention center can be transformed into “placemaking for a downtown core,” a term Shearer intentionally left undefined.     

Regardless of the Austin Convention Center outcome, downtown neighbors are feeling the pinch of increased traffic off Red River Street through downtown Austin. At Bisnow’s Future of Downtown Austin Forum last week, developers asked Molly Alexander of the Downtown Austin Alliance how to improve traffic flow past the Fairmont Austin and other impending projects.

Traffic has become a bottleneck at Red River and Cesar Chavez Boulevard ahead of the opening of the 1,000-room Fairmont Austin. And even more multifamily residential is planned on Red River north of the intersection.

Austin has no way to expand Red River, Alexander said. The area is landlocked. But visionary cities have found ways to work around limitations, either through transit or other modes of transportation into downtown.