The Austin Chronicle

City Council Considers the Convention Center

Plans big and small for the city center

By Michael King, April 5, 2019, News

There's no regular City Council meeting this week – the next is April 11 – and the main occupation this week was Tuesday's special called meeting (held at the Central Library) to ponder the ever-fascinating Austin Convention Center. The occasion was the official presentation of "Frameworks for Placemaking," the report prepared by UT-Austin's Center for Sustain­able Development, a division of the School of Architecture (with help from the McCombs School of Business). A panel of researchers, led by CSD's Dean Almy, delivered a slide-heavy version of the just-released report, commissioned by Council in December of 2017. Emphasizing its role as "analysts, not advocates," the team presented a range of options for the 27-year-old Convention Center, from minimal repairs and upgrades to complete replacement, with a range of intermediate possibilities.

The subtitle of the report is "Alternative Futures for the Austin Convention District," and the report intriguingly considers the Center as the nexus of four "vectors" crossing that district from north to south (along Waller Creek to Lady Bird Lake) and east and west (from Shoal Creek to Waller Creek and East Austin beyond). When it was built in 1992, the Center was at the southeast corner of Downtown – in the years since, it has become the center of a rapidly developing "Southeast Quadrant" extending to Rainey and E. Cesar Chavez. Any redesign or reconfiguration, the team emphasized, should consider the building as embedded in, and ideally integrated with, a lively larger neighborhood.

While the CSD team was careful to make no direct recommendations (and punted on Council requests to choose a "preferred" scenario), it does argue that "major civic institutions like a convention center should not exist in isolation, but should serve the city in which they are embedded." 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?"

The 295-page report – barely summarized in Tuesday's presentation – offers several variations on five future convention center scenarios. If the decision were made to expand, the options range from incremental additions to a complete replacement, with additional capacity most likely to the west of the current structure, where there are fewer constraints than in the other three directions. But Almy enthusiastically noted the possibilities of re-orienting the complex to integrate a revitalized Waller Creek, and even the admittedly "optimistic" potential of Reconnect Austin's campaign to lower I-35 below ground level and connect Waller Creek parkland with the Second Street corridor. (On Wednesday, the Congress for the New Urbanism identified I-35 through Downtown as one of 10 "freeways without futures" across the nation that deserve to be torn down.)

The thinnest aspect of the presentation concerned potential financing, with the CSD researchers briefly summarizing for Council what it already knows – that any project depends on adding 2% to the existing Hotel Occupancy Tax to underwrite Con­vention Center expansion (a limited use restriction codified in state law). That's a defining piece of Mayor Steve Adler's "Downtown Puzzle" – leveraging HOT funding for expansion and other tourism-related expenses – though Council as a whole has not signed on to that broader project.

Council members asked a few clarifying questions, but the detail work (and more consultation with the research team) now belongs to City Manager Spencer Cronk and his staff. With two new Council members, the politics of Center expansion are uncertain – but support was expressed for the Convention Center's being fully integrated into Downtown life, rather than a tucked-away big-box tourist venue. The long wait for the report has slowed any decisions – even as Almy warned Council that development on property surrounding the Center may begin to foreclose some options.

Other business:

CodeCronk: Last week's work session featured Cronk's presentation of his CodeNEXT memo, returning serve to Council, for more precise policy direction on land use code revision.

Success Succeeds: At its March 28 meeting, Council approved the "Pay for Success" plan that encourages investors (mainly philanthropies) to create funds to address homelessness, with returns based on successful outcomes.

UnBirthday Presents: Adler endured a belated birthday serenade Thursday, then lamented the looming municipal property tax cap still advancing at the Lege. The mayor warned that the contemplated 2.5% cap would not even keep pace with cost drivers like health insurance or contractual raises, and would impose a "profound and significantly prejudicial and horrible impact on our city." Nothing but good times ahead.

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