The original Austin Convention Center was considered the edge of the city when it was built in 1992 on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Red River, according to a recently released UT report.
“The bulk of convention centers in this country are not very urban,” said Dean Almy, director of the urban design graduate program. “But that original convention center … now it’s the center of a really rapidly growing area.”
The Center for Sustainable Development, a department of the School of Architecture, presented several different ways to develop the Austin Convention Center to City Council at the Austin Central Library Tuesday morning. The group did not provide any specific recommendations for future expansion, only projections and possible scenarios.
Almy was the principal investigator in the study. He said he and a team of UT investigators conducted the study from scratch, which took over a year to research and develop.
“We wanted to do it with no preconceived agendas,” Almy said. “It took us a long time to determine what we were going to look at in terms of best practices … also in terms of convention centers across the country.”
A new CapMetro rail station broke ground last week on the northern border of the convention center. A new Marriott hotel, set to open in 2020 according to Marriott’s website, is under construction across the street to the west.
Research started last February and took around five months, Almy said. Almy and his team did walk-throughs of the convention center during large events to learn how the facility operated. His team also engaged with several public and private organizations associated with the Center. Almy said they discovered several fundamental problems, such as the facility’s loading bay being unable to accommodate larger trucks, as well as specific problems, like a lack of space to store chairs behind the scenes during banquets.
One of the primary concerns for council member Kathie Tovo was whether any expansions would create a dead zone — an area that lacks activity compared to its surroundings — around the convention center.
“We already have … (a dead zone) on one side,” Tovo said, referring to the east side of the convention center on Red River. “How can that be approached in a way that improves and really enhances downtown, rather than create distance?”
Tovo, who represents the areas containing and surrounding the Austin Convention Center, is also concerned with whether current attendance numbers warrant an expansion of the existing facility. The report includes projections on possible increased attendance after renovations due to trends in Austin’s economy and hotel market.
Andre Boudreaux, Downtown Austin Alliance urban design and planning coordinator, worked on the report last year while he was a graduate student. Boudreaux said while the report was like a full-time job, it was also a passion project.
“One of my goals was to … use architecture as a component in an overall urban design analysis,” Boudreaux said. “So in a way, this was a perfect segue into what I wanted to do as a career.”
The City commissioned the University to conduct the study in December 2017. Mayor Steve Adler said the City could and should consult the University with more projects going forward.
“The University is one of the anchor institutions in our city, and the things that we do to improve the quality of life in this city improve the quality of life for students,” Adler said. “Frankly, it’s falling on the city to invite and to make better use of the resources and the potential and the expertise of the University.”
With the study complete, the next steps fall on City Council. Boudreaux said he hopes the report and the years of research will allow City Council to go forward with confidence.
“I hope it’s informative,” Boudreaux said. “It’s definitely not written as a document that’s meant to be shelved.”