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Convention center expansion plan picks up steam

Council renews interest in $1.15 billion project

Interior glass and steel two-story convention center with escaltor
Austin Convention Center
Creative Commons

A plan to rebuild and expand the Austin Convention Center might be back on the table after gaining renewed City Council support, the Austin American-Statesman reported Monday.

Councilmember Kathie Tovo, who represents the district where the convention center is located, took a significant shift in position when she included a declaration that the council “desires to begin the process to expand the Austin Convention Center” in her proposal regarding the historic Palm School building.

The Palm School

Located a block from the convention center, the county-owned Palm School has been the subject of recent city discussion. It was an elementary school that served a primarily Latino community for 84 years prior to its closure in 1976. Historic preservationists and Latino groups have objected to sale of the property, which the county has considered.

Tovo’s proposal also instructs city staff to investigate a plan that would make the school a public space and incorporate it with the convention center and other nearby Downtown projects.

Plans to expand

Tovo notably refused to commit to an expansion plan during her campaign for re-election in November, drawing the ire of the Austin Hotel & Lodging Association. The councilmember said that a recent study by the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Texas School of Architecture convinced her to support the expansion—but only an option in the study called Scenario 5, the details of which the Statesman compiled from the initial report:

Phase 1

• Adds 545,000 square feet; costs the city $725 million; generates $30 million in private development.

• Existing convention center remains in operation during construction.

• Consolidation of western parcels into one large parcel.

• Pedestrian extension to Second and Third streets.

• Retail along principal streets.

• Below-grade service and parking.

• Semi-public park on roof.

Phase 2

• Adds an additional 515,000 square feet; costs the city $1.15 billion; generates $485 million in private development.

• New pedestrian promenade at Neches Street.

• Convention center has new orientation toward the Waller Creek Corridor.

• One block for new public event space.

• One block for public-private partnership opportunity.

• New public pavilion on the park.

• Below-grade service and parking.

Note: Details taken from report compiled for the city of Austin by the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Texas School of Architecture

Under Scenario 5, the existing convention center would be demolished and rebuilt in its current location. The plan includes improving its orientation to Waller Creek and the preservation of the Palm School.

Renewed momentum

While detractors question the economic benefits of the project, Tovo’s proposal gives new life to the idea of expanding the convention center, which the Statesman notes was a crucial part of the “Downtown Puzzle” plan Mayor Steve Adler introduced in 2017. While that plan stalled out in the City Council, the combination of the UT study, Tovo’s shift, and the election of two new councilmembers who took office in January (Natasha Harper-Madison and Paige Ellis) could coalesce in a way that reignites momentum for the project.