Austin at Large: Tear It Down and Start Again
Convention Center reboot gives us a second crack at change
The headline last week in the daily proclaimed, "City Council says yes to $1.2 billion convention center expansion." No knock on the Statesman – that is how City Hall and the press corps have framed this story as it's bubbled along – but that headline isn't quite accurate. What Council did in the resolution passed last week is say yes to replacing the existing Austin Convention Center with a brand-new and, we can all concede, probably much better civic landmark.
Yes, the end result will be larger, and this is likely the most financially and logistically viable way to upgrade the center – acquiring and tearing down the blocks that now face the center across Trinity Street, building a new center while the old one remains open, and then tearing down that 20-acre low-rise shed whose oldest parts date back to 1992. But let's not bury the lede here. We get to start over and rebuild a rather vexed part of Downtown Austin, knowing now what we didn't know back then. For those of us aging in place, it's the first of many chances to see the urban visions we had for Austin of yore, themselves revisited and reimagined.
Once There Were Warehouses ...
This is more than just marveling at the pace of Austin change, one of the many symptoms of Old-Timers Syndrome. Also, in the Statesman last week, my friend Michael Barnes assured readers that yes, there used to be warehouses in the Warehouse District. Young adults I've watched grow up here (my son's almost 23) don't remember when Mueller was the airport and Seaholm was a power plant, though built elements of those former uses survive in each place. It won't be long before some featureless fields from which the New Austin sprang will have no real history before being, say, the Domain or the Triangle or the Grove.
The Convention Center was a much more self-conscious intervention than were most of those projects, an effort conceived by the town's worthies (such as its namesake Neal Kocurek) from the outset as a mechanism for Downtown renewal, staking Austin's claim to Real City status, and getting back on track after the bitter bust years of the mid-Eighties. At the time, when there was very, very little vitality in Downtown's southeast quadrant, it made sense to build a low-rise complex that fronted Cesar Chavez, was geared to receive drop-off auto traffic, and dumped all its back-of-house service functions out on Red River.
But even by the time the first expansion was approved by voters (along with the Waller Creek flood-control tunnel) back in 1998, Downtown had started to get Weird in ways that harmonized poorly with what is a nicer-than-many but quite conventional convention hall. Today, even though the center is genuinely too small for the events that now want to be in Austin – that is, ones that draw visitors from around the globe – its older parts are underused, and its effective front door is now on the opposite side, at Fourth and Trinity, by the train station and Brush Square and the 24/7 action of Austin's entertainment hub.
Meanwhile, what was the ass end of Downtown is now right in the sweet spot between Rainey, Red River, Waller Creek, and Saltillo, and the flat gray walls of the Convention Center themselves create the deadness and blight that they were erected in 1992 to alleviate. Now, not all of that change is to everyone's liking, which is one reason why Palm School – which after it closed in 1976 was almost literally wasted space, cowering under I-35 – has risen to the top of the conversation, as a last remnant of a pre-gentrified Austin, more treasured now than it was back when the Convention Center was built next to it, on a patch of dirt that's now worth more than $20 million. It still merits a double-take that, within living memory, the highest and best use of the similarly situated parcel across the street was deemed to be an IHOP.
Before You Know It, It's the Future
So we can have a lot of fun from a placemaking perspective as we get another crack at these eight or 10 blocks that are now in the middle, not on the fringe, of a genuinely interesting city district. It remains to be seen if that fun will be impaired by the perceived need or desire to attend to the wishes and feelings of all the many, many folks claiming to hold stakes here – from the preservationists to the hotel managers to the real estate money men, to the neighborhood voices from the barrio and the high-rises and even from the unhoused on the street.
But that diversity of voices and motives, if we manage this right, can make the process of placemaking itself worthwhile and instructive, serving as a test of Austin's much-desired resilience in the face of constant stress. We want to make sure we stay true to our goals and values as we become a new and different city. What the Convention Center shows us in microcosm is that we will get to do that over and over, becoming a new and different city each time, learning as we go.