Council updated on Convention Center expansion plans


Community forum set for Feb. 25.

Public to city: “Do not build another big box,” convention official says.

Austin Convention Center officials briefed the Austin City Council on Tuesday on the proposed expansion of the facility downtown, which could cost between $400 million to $600 million.

At the work session, Mark Tester, director of the Austin Convention Center Department, reiterated what the City Council has been told before: that the existing convention center is losing larger conventions because of its size.

“We are the smallest and oldest of our competitive set,” Tester said, adding that at 65 percent occupancy “we are as busy as we can be.”

A community forum will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 25 to solicit feedback from the public about the project. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo will host the event, which an aide said likely will be held at the Austin Convention Center.

A city-commissioned master plan for the convention center by Gensler, an architecture, design and consulting firm, recommends a multiblock expansion.

The convention center currently has just about 367,000 square feet of event space, which includes exhibit hall, ballroom, and meeting space, said Carla Steffen, the convention center’s deputy director and chief financial officer.

The recommended expansion would add just over 321,000 square feet of event space, for a total of just over 688,000 square feet of combined exhibit hall, ballroom and meeting space, she said. That includes 369,132 square feet of exhibit and meeting space. The proposed expansion calls for adding 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, 65,000 square feet of meeting space and 56,700 square feet of ballroom space.

“Today’s lost business would fill the expanded space,” Steffen told City Council members.

Various financing options exist for the proposed expansion, Steffen said.

One of those would be to raise the city’s hotel occupancy tax by up to an additional 2 cents — potentially generating about $600 million, Steffen said. That tax increase, which would require City Council approval, would allow the city to not only pay for the expansion but also to fund other improvements to make the area “more viable and vibrant,” she said.

Those enhancements could include a rooftop park or event space atop the convention center, improvements to the neighboring Waller Creek and Brush Square areas, preservation of nearby historic homes or additional money for cultural arts and tourism, Steffen said.

Other city department needs, such as a new downtown fire station and a second Austin Energy chiller, also have been identified as possible additions to the expansion footprint, Steffen said.

Another option would require voter approval and would involve refinancing the existing convention center debt. This could potentially generate about $400 million for the expansion, but would not provide the additional annual funding for the other activities — arts, tourism, historic preservation, etc. — like the other financing option would, Steffen said.

Steffen said that, based on feedback so far, one aspect of the proposed expansion the community already has made clear is that it does not want the city “to build another big box.” Instead, she said, those who have weighed in want plenty of “open, walkable space,” as well as restaurant and retail space.

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