Convention Center Rebuild Is A Do-Or-Die Test For Downtown Dallas
Dallasites have given the go-ahead on a $3B redo of the downtown convention center. Elected officials and developers in the area are now tasked with making sure the project delivers on its promises to revive the area or watch it potentially "sink under its own weight."
Originally built in 1957 and last expanded in 2002, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center has consistently fallen behind its counterparts in peer cities. Annual events declined 15% between 2013 and 2019, with the center generating about 330,000 room nights per year — less than half of the ideal metric, per the project’s master plan.
“We have the worst convention center in North America, bar none,” Visit Dallas President and CEO Craig Davis said at a June 15 Bisnow event at The Statler. “There's nothing uglier, there’s nothing less usable than our convention center. We have the opportunity to wipe it off the face of the earth and rethink it.”
The rebuild aims to restore Dallas’ competitive edge. Once complete, the project will include 800K SF of interconnected exhibit space, 170K SF of ballrooms and a 2,000-car parking garage, per WFAA. A deck park over Interstate 30 that will connect downtown to the Cedars neighborhood is also included in the plans.
A state-of-the-art convention center is expected to have a catalytic effect on the city’s economy, Davis said. The redo has the potential to double the annual convention attendance and hotel room stays, and generate up to 100,000 temporary construction jobs, 5,000 long-term jobs and up to $2.5B in property taxes, according to the master plan.
His company purchased land downtown more than 10 years ago to build Newpark Dallas, a 20-acre education- and tech-focused development planned to go up next to the convention center. The project will include a 38-story office tower, 245 apartments, a 245-key hotel and a new Dallas ISD school.
“We have to spend this $3B the right way, the wise way, because it will affect people who aren’t even born,” he said. “The decisions we make today will affect generations to come, so we as leaders got lucky that voters gave us this opportunity, we need to hire people with a proven track record.”
The city hasn’t always made the smartest planning decisions, which makes ensuring visitors are greeted by attractive, enticing amenities when they leave the convention center all the more critical, said Ray Washburne, president and CEO of Charter Holdings.
“The city has failed so many times, over and over again,” he said. “The front door of our city is a frickin’ prison. I don’t know who was thinking that one through.”
Demolition will free up 40 acres of developable land around the center. Already, Washburne has begun assembling land and acquiring properties with plans to create a walkable district akin to The Pearl in San Antonio. The idea is to bring in businesses that will help fund the project, he said.
“We’ve got to get this thing paid for, and the only thing that pays for it are people staying in the hotels and paying sales taxes on drinks and dinner,” he said. “We’ve got to draw a ring around [the convention center] and densify that with the taxes that are going to pay for this stuff.”
What happens outside the convention center will determine the project’s success, Davis said. Community meetings that led up to the approval of the master plan revealed a strong desire for walkable hotel rooms, restaurants, bars and entertainment.
“If we don’t get that right, this will fail,” Davis said. “If you can’t build the hotels and the adjacent entertainment attraction space, don’t build it at all, it will just sink under its own weight.”
Today, top-ranked convention center locations have five times the number of walkable restaurant locations than Dallas and up to 10 times the number of bars and retailers. For Dallas to even reach the average of the top 10, it needs 41 new restaurants, 25 new bars and 17 new retailers, the master plan found.
“if you're in Miami, you are drinking mojitos, you’re listening to music,” Downtown Dallas Inc. President and CEO Jennifer Scripps said. “In Dallas, you are in an office, government area and you spill out into a cemetery. We can do better than that.”
There is a strong desire to make this project work and to correct urban planning mistakes of the past, panelists said. That ambition and collective will should drive success.
“There is a sincere and collective vision for tomorrow,” Merriman Anderson Architects President Milton Anderson said. “This will take us to a whole new place. The energy for the next 20 years that a lot of people here will see happen will be greater than anything we’ve seen in the last 20.”
Construction on the new convention center is set to begin in the fourth quarter of next year, with completion slated by 2028. The deck park is set to be finished by 2030.