How Much Convention Center Is Too Much Convention Center?

How Much Convention Center Is Too Much Convention Center?

Block 8 sits in the southern shadow of the Four Seasons Residences, just west of the Austin Convention Center.  There are signals that the City of Austin is posturing for another Convention Center eminent domain battle (à la the Whittington Saga Part 1 & Part 2, which we wrote about in 2008).

City Staff recently recommended that the City acquire the southern tracts of what’s known as Block 8 to be part of an expansion of the Austin Convention Center, the first step in a larger proposed expansion.

block-8 2

The Convention Center currently sprawls over six city blocks, and hosts 881,400 square feet of space.  The City Memo states that there is “solid evidence” for expansion and is wanting up to 305,000 in additional square feet! No doubt the abundance of downtown hotel rooms recently built, and under-construction is part of that “evidence”.

You can view the memo in a recent report from the Austin Monitor, though talks about this have been going on behind closed doors for a while before this.

block-8-tcad-parcels

Plat map of the southern half of Block 8

Below is the breakdown of current ownership of the southern half of Block 8 that the city is intending to initially acquire:

101 E Cesar Chavez / 302 E Cesar Chavez – this is one of the most awkward buildings in downtown Austin. The tenant, Casa Chapala, recently closed its doors.  Public records show the lot to be owned by Bloctavo Holdings LLC / John Calhoun Miller, a real estate attorney in Texas. May be a registered agent.

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304 & 306 Cesar Chavez – downtown’s purveyor of Aprilias and Vespas, AF1 seems to hide in plain sight.  Owned by Bandy Real Estate LLC, a family operated LLC located in Kingsland, TX.

af1

AF1 Racing

316 & 316 1/2 Cesar Chavez  – A lovely surface parking lot (sarcasm), adjacent to the Christian Science Reading Room. Public records indicated this is owned by Bloctavo Holdings / John Calhoun Miller, a real estate attorney in Texas. May be a registered agent.

the view of the lot looking to the north

the view of the lot looking to the north

102 / 104 Trinity – The Christian Science Reading Room, owned by the First Church of Christian Science.

front exterior of the Christian Science Reading Room

front exterior of the Christian Science Reading Room

Southwest Strategies has been marketing the assemblage of the southern half of Block 8, hoping to get a developer to build with a long-term ground lease.

They describe Block 8 as follows:

The Block 8 Tracts are an assemblage of 4 smaller tracts. Currently, the western portion of the property along San Jacinto is improved with a two story building containing 6,103 sq. ft. currently leased to a restaurant on a short term basis. The central part of the assemblage is improved with a one story building containing 5,320 sq. ft. Tenant is on a month-to-month lease. The eastern portion of the assemblage consists of a paved parking lot utilized for contract parking and an owner occupied one story building consisting of 4,161 sq. ft.

It’s true that the block sits on a prime redevelopment location.  It’s near the convention center, has CBD zoning, and “is unencumbered by any Capitol View Corridors.”

block-8-capitol-view-corridor

Per the Austin Business Journal, “City officials invested about $110 million to expand the convention center in 2002 by several city blocks.”

In their memo, the City states that it has already sent what’s called a Letter of Intent to Acquire to the property owners, and is also already throwing around eminent domain references (though the memo does state that the City will make a good faith attempt to acquire the properties at market value).

The above lots are just the first part of the plan.  From the Austin Monitor: “Rizer suggests the city will need to acquire ‘the equivalent of three to four City blocks‘ to accumulate enough room for the additional space.”

As a resident of downtown, the prospect that an additional three to four blocks of CBD zoned downtown Austin land, currently occupied by thriving businesses, would be annexed by a sprawling Convention Center is alarming.  This would divide downtown Austin using brute force malaise-era design principals.  The City should instead be investing in sustainable design that enhances the preciously compact pedestrian experience our downtown currently affords to residents and visitors.

I call BS on the dogma that Convention Centers can only expand horizontally.  City leadership should invite world class designers to show us a better path to expand vertically on the already significant Convention Center footprint.

-Jude

About Jude Galligan

Jude Galligan, REALTOR, Principal of TOWERS Realty and publisher of Downtown Austin Blog (aka. "DAB"), spends his time matching remarkable people with remarkable properties in Austin’s urban core. A resident owner in downtown Austin, Jude has served on the Board of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) and the City of Austin Downtown Commission. Contact Jude.

Comments

  1. I always endorse building up over out. So I agree that they should exhaust all options of building up on what they have. I also think the capitol corridor other than congress set backs should be reformed and almost completely removed. There maybe an argument for keeping the capitol corridor that I’m not aware of but I think the need for density outweighs having a view of our capitol from traffic on I-35.

  2. They cant take away my Gus’s Fried Chicken!

  3. avatar Fred Schmidt says:

    There is also no reason why a convention center cannot incorporate similar “mixed use” principles to what is required of most CBD developments these days, ie: shallow-bay RETAIL to wrap all around the facility except the loading docks. Think what a difference it would be if there was engaging ground-level retail along Trinity, Cesar Chavez, 4th St and Red River today instead of a vast mass of concrete and glass nothingness? Such retail is basically the form of the Second Street District, where shallow depth retail interacts with the public along the sidewalks and masks giant parking garages housed on the inside of each block.

  4. I feel bad for the Brass House, Gus’s Fried chicken and all those businesses that have spent so much money on build outs…that will now have to move and start over. Some of them may not make it as a result. Moving a business can cost you serious numbers of customers for a variety of reasons.

    Has anyone heard how “high” the proposed convention center building would be?

    Frank.

  5. avatar Al & Patty says:

    Consideration should be given toward extending the convention center over Cesar Chavez to Lady Bird Lake, bordering Trinity St. on the west and Waller Creek on the east. The only consequential structure on this property is the aging low income housing building. These people could be located to a new site east of I-35. An advantage of this site is the southern views to Lady Bird Lake from the convention center.

    • Except that there is a planned 39 story 350 unit residential (apartment) building called Trinity Place (or 99 Trinity Tower) is slated for the 1/2 city block south of the convention center. Story about this project was posted on this web site back on Nov 12, 2013. If the city would want this property then they better hurry up.

  6. Several issues against going vertical. Convention centers are not like other vertical structures. They have large open floor spaces and high occupancy numbers. Structural issues would be daunting. You can’t just think of expanding the exhibit space but all the outer area – corridors, elevators, truck docks, and non-public spaces. The vertical expansion would require more vertical circulation. Elevators, escalators, and emergency stairs. The current 4th level has 68,112 square feet (occupancy of 7,215) in ballroom and meeting rooms. There are twelve emergency stairs at roughly 16′ x 32′. Five inside the structure, but seven are outside along Red River.

    On another topic, a huge opportunity missed was not including parking below the current structure. The building is large enough to have housed 1500 vehicles for each level of parking below grade. 1500, 3000, 4500, 6000, etc. Parking would have been easy in that corner of downtown. No foresight in the planning. But too late now.

  7. avatar John dawson says:

    My compromise plan. : ) If you really want to make the area a true neighborhood while allowing austin the benefit of world class convention center — sell off the current convention center parcels and take the money to build a super convention center area out by the F1 track and parley the benefits of proximity to the airport, 130, and cheap land with limitless expansion possibilities. While doing so they could invest in better feeder roads for benefit of both the track and new convention center and make a super district. Smaller conventions could then still be held downtown at the new convention hotels, while bigger ones can head out to the country.

  8. I am not in favor of this idea, but if they have to go forward with it, I hope they will consider something that offers amenities to Austinites and help to activate street life in this area. Maybe they could build some kind of mixed-used on the first floor and then convention center facilities on higher floors. A sky bridge could connect higher floors so that convention operations could go on uninterrupted, with the whole bevy of wheeled food carts and dollies that roll around those spaces non-stop. I don’t really like the sky bridge idea either, but again, I am talking about trying to find a healthy compromise if the City deems this necessary.

  9. I think the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio is a model of what we would like to avoid, “we” meaning those of us that live downtown. Personally, I don’t want to live in Orlando or Las Vegas or any other convention-oriented town.

    If you live in the burbs, you can afford to be indifferent. If you live in or commute through downtown, you’re probably opposed.

  10. Why don’t they build near the Domain–the NEW downtown? Austin, the Convention Center Capitol of the World. Ugh.

  11. Great article, Jude. Right on point as always. The reason the cannot go up is that they prefer space that is column free and therefore cannot bare the lode of several stories. Ok – fine. So build up where you CAN, not where you can’t.

    Additionally, the conundrum will always exist: More convention space needs more hotel room and then more hotel rooms beg for more convention space.

    It is a travesty that our convention center may soon be the the death of this area of downtown. There is another project that seems eminent allowing Capital Metro to close 4th street between Neches and Red River. Since the Convention Center has already killed 2nd and 3rd streets, how is anyone going to get in and out of the Hilton and 5 Fifty Five? And now they want to close Trinity? Oy vey.

    TMJ

  12. avatar austinandrewAndrew says:

    As I was reading your story, I kept thinking — why not build up? You hit it in the last paragraph. It seems like a waste of city space to have such short structures in downtown.

  13. avatar John Dawson says:

    Interesting. I have to say – however it happens – Austin needs more convention space to go along with the new hotels as Austin continues to rise as a desirable destination city. There are many major conventions that have to avoid Austin because of the small facilities we have here. We have friends that organize some of these big trade shows that would LOVE to bring the business to Austin but must go to Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, etc because of our TINY convention center and lack of hotels rooms. By the numbers on exhibition space by square feet: McCommick Chicago 2.5 million, Las Vegas Conv Center 2.1mil (not counting significant huge casino convention halls), Orlando 2.1 mil, IX Center Cleveland 1 mil, Javits NYC 800,000, just to name a few……Austin? 248,000. We are loosing Billions (…with a B) of potential convention dollars every year Austin does not get serious about scaling up our convention facilities.

    • Agreed that we can use more convention center space, just not at the expense of the neighborhood. There are better ways to do this, and the City should be investing in sustainable design instead of eminent domain lawsuits only to result in urban-sprawl within downtown’s borders.

      • avatar John dawson says:

        I appreciate your points, especially on eminent domain- I hate the use of it. However, as for the utility of the plan I would argue the convention center’s location already terminally effects and influences the immediate neighborhood in ways that are irreversible. The argument wether or not to have a convention center and convention center district was over since the 1999 expansion plan. Now with the opening of the JW Marriott, and
        eventually the Fairmont – to me this is just an inevitable de facto evolution of the area that will ultimately benefit Austin and its tax base. I would also argue their is not much neighborhood there anyway. We are not talking about carving out the old west end. This is an area, I would argue, has too little cultural or aesthetic significance to rally a fight. And as to building up….convention centers need many huge ground level truck bays and massive clear spanned spaces that would make building up very expensive if even technically possible. I do not support the method, but I do support the idea in general.

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