Page Two

Page Two
This past Thursday, a contingent of city officials - including Mayor Kirk Watson, Councilmember Daryl Slusher, and City Manager Jesus Garza - came by the Chronicle to explain to our editorial board the reasoning behind each of the three bond proposals on the ballot in the upcoming May 2 city bond election. In a cordial, hour-long meeting, we learned a lot, and got straight answers to a lot of questions.

But through nobody's fault, really, we got to the end of the hour without really getting around to Prop. 1, the Convention Center expansion and Waller Creek beautification. Now, in my capacity as a director of SXSW, I've had occasion to spend a good deal of time in the Convention Center (ACC), and I had some thoughts, questions, and doubts on this matter. But with time running down, I did, frankly, a lousy job of expressing them, and left our visitors with little room to explain themselves. Almost as soon as the meeting was over, I began composing the note below - half a request for more info, half an apology for not covering this ground while they were here.

Originally intended as an e-mail letter to Watson, Slusher, and the others, my little note got highjacked into this "Page Two" space when Louis Black and the Politics staff convinced me that the issues were important enough, that this would be better handled as an open letter to the powers that be.

I wanted to thank you again for coming by last week to share your views with us. The presentation on aquifer-area land acquisition was an extremely helpful explanation of a complicated issue.

As for the Convention Center part, I've been kicking myself mentally ever since then, because I neither expressed my concerns well, nor gave you any real chance to answer them. My only excuse is, by the time we got past Prop.2, I knew we were all anxious to get out of there, and I was trying to rush things along. But as probably the only one sitting there who'd spent weeks virtually living in that building, as a user of it, I do have concerns about the expansion plan. My mistake was in expressing them as complaints, rather than questions. I'm sure you guys get enough whining all day from enough different directions that you don't need mine as well.

Actually, though, I do have several questions. Most basically, about the ACC expansion plan:

1. What, exactly, is the plan for the Convention Center? How far along is it? How firm is it?

2. What are the perceived needs/shortcomings in the existing facility that the expansion addresses? (Undersized loading dock? Shortage of ballroom-sized function rooms? What else?)

3. Was there any survey of users regarding such needs?

4. Is there a transit component to the plan? Specifically, how does it accommodate future light rail in the area?

And, regarding the convention hotel issue:

5. Can this facility work without more nearby hotel rooms?

6. Do we have any idea what the prospects are for someone building a convention hotel (either with or without this expansion)?

7. Is there any other potential convention hotel site that's contiguous to the ACC?

8. Was consideration given to doing a public/private Convention/Hotel venture? (i.e., let some hotelier pay for our Convention Center expansion in exchange for putting their hotel on top of it). Or, to ask the same question from a land-use perspective, once you build this big ACC complex, why would you not want to stick 10-20 floors of hotel rooms on top of it, on the same footprint?

Or, again, from a facilities perspective: Assuming that a convention hotel is to be desired and encouraged, wouldn't it be better to have it on-site, with meeting spaces integrated into the ACC, rather than just barely off-site, with separate and redundant function spaces, which will compete with the ACC for business during non-peak times, and sit largely empty during peak times, when the room guests are all across the street at the ACC?

8. If such a facility was considered, what were considered to be the drawbacks?

9. Does the ACC area fall within a Capitol view corridor? If so, what limits does that impose?

Lastly, I may have left you with the impression that my reservations about this expansion have to do with its effect on SXSW. Actually, our experience with the ACC has always been great, and I don't think this expansion would have any effect on us at all. But as a taxpayer who is also a long-time user of the ACC, I do have something of an inside perspective on this. And as such, I have three basic concerns:

  • I haven't, myself, seen any pressing need for this expansion, and I'd like to know more about what exactly the planners have in mind.
  • I don't believe the Convention & Visitors Bureau pronouncements on this matter, or their projections for what it will produce, especially without massive improvements in other areas that aren't in our direct control (hotels and airline flights, most notably).
  • I worry that this expansion, if done wrong, could preclude, forever, a more reasonable, less expensive, and more farsighted solution. We could be not only putting the cart before the horse, we could be putting it directly in the horse's path.

The bond proposals, by the way, are:

  • Prop. 1 would authorize a hike in the bed tax to fund a $110 million expansion to the Austin Convention Center, and another $25 million in improvements to Waller Creek.
  • Prop. 2 would authorize $65 million in utility revenue bonds, to purchase land in the Barton Springs contributing and recharge zones.
  • Prop. 3 would authorize $10 million in certificates of obligation, to fund flood and erosion control improvements along Walnut Creek in East Austin.

We'll cover each of these in some depth next week, and in following issues - including, no doubt, answers to many of the questions posed above.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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