Two months after nixing plans for a westward expansion of the Austin Convention Center, city leaders are considering an option that would take it upward, within the convention center’s existing footprint.
The decision could be made Thursday when the Austin City Council is scheduled to consider two items related to the convention center expansion during the council’s final meeting together until late July.
If approved, a plan presented by convention center staff would get things rolling by authorizing a request for qualifications for a designer and a proposal request for a general contractor. The council would later have to vote to execute those contracts.
Despite the change in direction, the proposal calls for a similar long-term outcome for the convention center: doubling the size of the facility to more than 360,000 square feet of exhibit space, 180,000 square feet of meeting space and 184,000 feet of ballroom/flex hall space.
The cost of the expansion was estimated at $1.3 billion, according to city staff, a bump up from the $1.2 billion figure that had been floated.
A related item from Council Member Kathie Tovo lays out conditions for the project, making clear that it should be designed with the purpose of fitting in with development plans for the Palm District, which is a section of downtown near the Austin Convention Center that includes Waller Creek, the Red River Cultural District, Palm School, Rainey Street and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.
Tovo said the redesigned convention center should like the Austin Central Library, which is to say “a landmark of great distinction, a bustling and vital public gathering place, and a point of pride for the community.”
In the proposal, Tovo directs the city manager to use a portion of the convention center’s capital budget to pick a design firm with the best vision for the project.
The two actions, if approved, would revive hopes of enlarging the downtown facility, which consultants hired by the city said last year is necessary for Austin to continue to compete for large events — but only if conventions remain popular and return to in-person sessions after the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, the American-Statesman reported the westward expansion was off the table after convention center officials reported that the asking price was too steep for the nearby properties they’d need to acquire to create the new footprint for the facility.
The plan had called for the city to purchase two city blocks between Second and Fourth streets and San Jacinto Boulevard and Trinity Street, as well as half a city block south of Second Street.
At the time, Katy Zamesnik, acting chief administrative officer of the Austin Convention Center Department, said additional options could include expanding the center vertically within its current footprint — which will be a strong possibility unless a designer can figure out a way to expand without going upward.
The item from Tovo would place restrictions on the construction manager the city eventually chooses. Under her preferred method for the project, the construction manager would be on the hook financially if the project comes in over the maximum budget both parties agree to.