All That Glitters
So it's likely the blocks around Seventh and Red River -- that is, right in the middle of the Waller Creek Corridor -- will be the hub of street-level social services in Austin. "It's a disaster, it's horrible, but it's a given," says outspoken Waller Creek owner/developer Perry Lorenz, who on this score can actually be counted as a moderate. "I hope and believe that it will work, but other property owners will never be convinced."
Why is this not a totally stupid idea? Because Waller Creek -- abandoned yet accessible, rarely used by Decent Working Folk, hidden from effective surveillance -- is itself one of the main reasons we have an entrenched street community on downtown's east side. And it's the creek, not the Salvation Army or Caritas, that harbors that community's truly bad element. You may think the street scene at Seventh and Red River is intense and ugly now, but development along the corridor will, literally, bring to the surface a heaping helping of social need and woe.
And beaming the homeless to a distant planet is not an option. "In any city, downtown is where the people we serve are," says Caritas executive director Eileen Oldag. "You need to offer coordinated, centralized services where people can use them. We can't simply bemoan the problem. And in Austin, with the Salvation Army and our facilities already here, this is a logical extension of our services."
Yet Oldag notes that "many in the downtown community understand both the need for and process of our services. Many merchants are supportive and very, very astute. And those of us who offer services are called upon to be cognizant of our neighbors and the community. We need to create a service structure that fits in with the businesses around us, not one that creates additional problems."
Downtown Austin Alliance chair Will Wynn -- owner of property right at Seventh and Red River -- says "nobody likes the idea of expanded services downtown, but we all accept that something has to happen. We're not tickled, but we want to be a part of it. There's no question that the [service] providers have learned some things from the property owners, and we've learned a lot more ourselves, seen and heard the real case studies, see the problems that the providers face in trying to do their work. It's admirable work."
Much of the sanguine reaction of property owners like Wynn, or Lorenz and his partner Robert Knight, depends on the city's promise to combine expanded services with more aggressive law enforcement. "You can be empathetic with the truly unemployable and mentally ill," says Knight, "but you need a zero-tolerance policy against criminals and predators. Allocate more cops, or hire private security, and don't put up with it."
Meanwhile, three blocks south of the homeless nexus, we have expansion of quite another kind -- the doubled-in-size Convention Center, which in urban-design terms is the anti-Salvation Army. By the time you read this, demolition should already have begun on the expansion site between Third and Fourth, Trinity and Red River. The addition should be open by January 2002, according to center director Bob Hodge. We should be seeing more design specifics on the expansion in upcoming weeks.
We trust that at least some of you graybeards remember when the Convention Center was a topic of white-hot debate and discord. What a difference a boom makes. Now, nobody seems to care about spending double what the center cost to double its size, though many aging warriors will never be convinced that the center is a worthwhile bit of civic infastructure. "The Convention Center has had the worst PR in Austin," says Knight. "They've done everything right, they've exceeded all expectations, and they're still perceived as a boondoggle."
Well, the center exceeded all expectations save one, as Knight well knows; his office is in an old house about 200 feet from the center on Second Street, and that whole area was supposed to be lousy with tourists and conventioneers and the throngs of merchants to sate and amuse them. Instead, as Lorenz notes, "it looks like Beirut, and if I were an outsider I'd think, 'Why would anyone want to hold their convention here?' But the feedback ACVB gets is overwhelmingly positive, because Austin is so popular. So the potential for development around here is incredible."
Securing a Hotel
The current line on this issue is that a larger center will be able to host two events at once, and thus be operating twenty-four-seven, which will make a Convention Center District feasible and meaningful. We could argue about this all day, but let's just assume that Austin is, and wants to be, that attractive to the tourist-and-meeting trade. "Having the expansion approved has made a difference already," says Hodge, "in both the number and size of groups to whom we've made commitments."
The more important question is whether the center can, or should, or even needs to be an engine that drives renewal, or even dictates land use, around it. Having San Antonio as a neighbor probably distorts our perspective. In most cities, including Houston and Dallas (one of the biggest meeting towns in America), the convention center is in a relative wasteland -- even in Manhattan, where what little wasteland there is can be found in the area surrounding the Javits Center. The meeting trade's boon to those cities is rendered in tax collections, not interesting neighborhoods.
Down Alamo way, though, the important tourist generator is the Riverwalk itself, which points to Waller Creek as an amenity to our Center -- or at least to the proposed Convention Center hotel -- not the other way around. "People are put off by the notion that this big hotel might stand empty 100 days a year, because convention hotels aren't really attractive to other kinds of travelers," says Knight. "Having development along the creek becomes a marketing opportunity for them."
Another all-day argument can be had over whether a new convention hotel is vital to the center's success, or just a nice thing to have. Naturally, since we don't have such a hotel, it's hard to judge based on the center's current traffic. "We've added a lot of hotel rooms to the Austin market, though most have been outside of downtown," says Hodge. "Our groups would prefer a more consolidated hotel package, but until we've committed to an operator we can't really plan for that. It's certainly a key to optimum performance."
Seven developers have expressed their interest in the Austin gig, though none is clearly connected to an actual hotel operator. (These days, operators like Hilton, Westin, Doubletree, etc., seldom build, or even own, their own properties.) The city has already missed its deadline to respond to these seven bidders and solicit actual proposals. Until those come in, we know nothing except the size -- 800 rooms. Since the city has, once again, omitted parking from its Convention Center plans, the hotel developer will also be asked to build a 1,000-space parking garage.
It's probably too late to integrate the hotel into the center expansion itself -- and doing so might conflict with a Capitol view corridor -- though it is sorta maddening that a three-story building covering six downtown blocks would have to use up yet more land for its parking garage. So the most likely sites would be on the creek itself, either across Red River or across Cesar Chavez from the Center (where Lorenz and Knight own property), although some downtown types want the hotel to be west of the center, closer to Congress and Sixth Street. If it does go south of Cesar Chavez, it will be yet another project boxing off the Rainey Street neighborhood, a fate to which its 40 or so property owners seem resigned. Again, what a difference a boom makes; for years, Rainey Street was a rallying point for neighborhood preservation, but now, talk of a coordinated sellout, managed to maximize returns for the longtime (mostly Hispanic) residents, has broken out into the open.
The city is being very coy about how, if at all, it would participate in a hotel project. Most cities that want big convention hotels offer up some sort of subsidy -- paying for the land, or the parking, or the infrastructure, or whatever. Austin has agreed to do no such thing, lest the Boondoggle Police come with guns blazing. "Our role in the hotel project may only be that of a neighbor with a common interest in this business," says Hodge. "We hope someone will come in and ask us to do very little."
Hodge is, of course, reflecting opinion at all levels of city government, including on the council, but this attitude strikes many observers as both parochial and self-defeating. "There are umpteen candidates to build a hotel," says Knight, "but they'll build it wherever they'll get the best return, whether that's Austin or Kuala Lampur or Johannesburg. People want to invest in Austin right now, but they have shareholders, and they aren't going to wade through Austin's business-as-usual inertia and love of process for its own sake."