Conventional Thinking

Supporters Say Prop. 1 Is Key to Downtown's Future



The proposed expansion of the convention center would extend north, replacing this warehouse.
photograph by John Anderson



Proposition 1 on the May ballot combines two longtime dreams of downtown boosters and partisans: A flood bypass tunnel for Waller Creek, and a major-league expansion of the currently bush-league Austin Convention Center. Since the convention center sits right alongside Waller Creek, the rationale for combining the two projects may be self-evident. More importantly, though, under the "stadium bill" passed last Legislative session - designed to allow Dallas to soak hotel/motel tax revenues to build a new sports arena - municipalities can ask voters to approve bed-tax rate hikes specifically for "revenue projects" and their associated infrastructure and amenities.

And a 2% hike in Austin's bed tax is what you're being asked to approve on May 2. This will, according to city estimates, produce $135 million in new revenue, of which $110 million will go to doubling the size of the convention center (which, you'll remember, only cost about $72 million to build in 1990-92). The remaining $25 million is targeted for the Waller Creek tunnel (which, less than two years ago, was priced out at $17 million), along with bank stabilization and other housekeeping along the creek between Waterloo Park and Town Lake.

This is pretty heady stuff for the City of Austin to rush onto a hastily called May ballot, within the endlessly flexible confines of the Smart Growth Initiative, in an era when any civic expenditure higher than a cab fare risks being labeled a boondoggle. At least in the case of Waller Creek, the idea is an old one. A flood bypass tunnel, diverting overflow from the creek channel at Waterloo Park during storms and bringing water back up from Town Lake during dry spells, was first proposed in 1987. The current trail-and-landscape system along the creek, which has since been rendered nearly worthless by the lack of flood control, was first created in 1976 as Austin's "Bicentennial gift to the nation."

Flood control, and the parallel improvements to public safety, water quality, parkland, transportation (along the creek's hike-and-bike trail), and expensive civic infrastructure, are all pretty compelling evidence supporting the Waller Creek tunnel, especially when you look at the creek's currently trashed-out state. (Mayor Kirk Watson, in a particularly graphic civic bon mot, likens today's Waller to "a running sore.")

But a tunnel would also allow for much more intense development along the creek's banks - a "creekwalk," à la the San Antonio Riverwalk. (Though not as intense; the current tunnel design would divert overflow, and reduce the size of Waller Creek's floodplain, but would not eliminate floodwaters within the creek channel itself. This precludes the sort of sidewalk-cafe action you see on the Paseo del Rio.) That's why the hospitality industry is willing to let a big chunk of its bed tax go into a Waller Creek tunnel, and why a lot of Austinites, who in other circumstances would have no problem with a flood-control project, are dubious about the tunnel.

Even though the tunnel has yet to be approved, the city is already working out the details of Waller Creek redevelopment. The first step toward a master plan for the Lower Waller Creek corridor was the community charrette held April 4-5 and attended by all and sundry - property owners, developers, bicycle advocates, homeless advocates, supporters of a Mexican-American Cultural Center, and more. Their input is now being processed and made to conform with the engineering realities of the tunnel project by the Genesis Group out of Florida, the same planners who oversaw the Barton Springs Road and Triangle charrettes. Their report will be presented to the citizens on April 24.

Which means that, when y'all go to the ballot box on May 2, you'll have at least some idea of what a Waller Creek tunnel will beget, which - whatever your taste for hospitality-driven development - will probably compare favorably with the open sewer most of Lower Waller Creek is now. The same can't be said for the larger chunk of the Prop. 1 package, the convention center expansion.

That is to say, while there is an ample cost estimate for the expansion project, there's no real plan for construction, and while there's the usual assortment of market studies and industry opinion explaining why an expansion is essential, many Austinites are pretty confused about how a facility that's not yet six years old is already obsolete.

All we really know is that the center will be expanded directly to the north, onto the two blocks between Third and Fourth, Trinity and Red River. The city has already bought up about a third of this property, most of it currently underused. But the eastern third of the Railyard apartment complex lies on this parcel and would have to be demolished to make way for the center (see "Council Watch," p.18), which does not make its owners or tenants very happy, and which - at least symbolically - does not inspire much confidence in the city council's loudly proclaimed desire for more downtown housing.

The expansion has to go northward in order to double the size of the center's current exhibit hall, which at 125,000 square feet is way too small to accommodate a lot of big conventions. Likewise, say expansionists, the center is deficient in meeting room and ballroom space, and from the get-go has been too small to service much of the convention traffic that would naturally want to come to Austin - primarily the big statewide associations.

This doesn't mean, however, that Austin will suddenly become a "first-tier" convention market. The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, which is already twice the size of the current Austin facility, is itself being expanded. The Dallas Convention Center is already more than three times the size of the San Antonio facility, and it too is slated for expansion. So Austin will never run with the big dogs where the convention center itself is concerned.

This fact, combined with Austin's famous lack of direct airplane flights (important to attract national convention business) and convenient hotel rooms (about 2,000 downtown beds, compared to San Antonio's 8,500-plus), and the difficulty in scheduling big meetings in a city that already hosts the Legislature and UT events, means that Austin needs to be very careful in making major investments in the tourist trade.



Waller Creek
photograph by John Anderson

But this is not the message the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau and the hospitality industry wish to convey, and even the city's official explanation of Prop. 1 is full of sure-thing language about new jobs and tax revenue. Ultimately, though, we need to realize that even with the expansion, it's quite possible that a lot of the supposedly ready-made state association traffic, let alone new business from beyond, will not come to Austin often enough, or in enough numbers, to make the investment productive.

But Prop. 1 would be paid for with other people's money, so its defeat would be at least a little surprising. If it fails, though, it might signal a premature end to the current Watson-inspired council enthusiasm for reinventing downtown in giant steps. This trend is itself a Plan B, replacing the shipwrecked shopping-mall strategies of the previous council. No word yet on what Plan C would be.

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