UT Releases Convention Center Study

Council to consider “alternative futures” for Southeast Downtown

On Tuesday morning at 9am, City Council will hold a special called meeting (at the Central Library) for the formal presentation of “Frameworks for Placemaking,” prepared by UT-Austin’s Center for Sustainable Development. The 295-page report, released March 29, is available here.

Convention Center “Scenario 03-B,” showing a potential expansion to the west, on Trinity Street (Illustration courtesy of “Frameworks for Placemaking: Alternative Futures for the Austin Convention District”)

The research team included faculty from the Architecture School and the McCombs School of Business, commissioned by Council in December of 2017 to review various possibilities for upgrading or replacing the Convention Center as well as redevelopment scenarios for the entire Convention Center district. City government has been considering proposals to expand or redesign the Convention Center as a central element of Mayor Steve Adler’s proposed “Downtown Puzzle,” which would leverage additional Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue to address a wide range of Downtown problems, beginning with homelessness (“Putting Together the Downtown Puzzle,” Sept. 22, 2017).

The UT report does not address the broader ambitions of the Adler plan, but it does consider various options for the Convention Center – from minimal upgrades to incremental expansion to complete replacement – and how such options might be integrated into neighboring land use, the transportation grid, the surrounding cityscape, and the built environment around the Center. The report offers these variations as options for Council consideration and eventual decision-making, but makes no direct recommendations for action.

In their introduction, the researchers emphasize that any decisions concerning the future of the Convention Center will be made by City Council, and they refrain from “put[ting] our thumbs on the scale of any particular outcome to this process.” However, they do argue that “major civic institutions like a convention center should not exist in isolation, but should serve the city in which they are embedded.” In that conceptual context, the fundamental questions the report considers are: “Can an expanded convention center be used as a vehicle to create a better functioning city? If so, how?”

Without recommending a particular outcome, the hefty report provides plenty for the Council members and Austinites to consider, as well as several variations on five future convention scenarios. The minimal approach would be to repair and upgrade the existing 27-year-old building, while various expansion options range from incremental additions to a complete replacement – with additional capacity most likely to the west of the current structure, constrained (with some exceptions) for various reasons in the other three directions.

While the authors argue that the city’s ultimate considerations should not be solely financial, the report does provide a range of economic projections and notes bluntly, “Even in the Upside [greatest revenue estimate] Case, the incremental tax increases would not be sufficient to cover the capital costs of such an expansion.” Beyond the strictly financial considerations, an expansion would represent an opportunity for “placemaking” in the entire Convention Center area, in theory for a more pedestrian-friendly, multimodal, and multipurpose district better connected to other Downtown neighborhoods. The report also notes: “An expanded convention center would place Austin roughly on par with recently expanded facilities in three of its peer cities, Denver, San Antonio, and Nashville.”

There is plenty more gristle in the full report, to be presented to Council (and any interested onlookers) Tuesday, April 2, 9am at the Central Library. The brief agenda is available here. Should you wish to prepare for the meeting, you can download the full report from UT-Austin’s Architecture School website, here.

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Convention Center, Downtown Puzzle, Center for Sustainable Development

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